“We are deeply saddened to share that our beloved Regis Philbin passed away last night of natural causes, one month shy of his 89th birthday,” his family said.
“His family and friends are forever grateful for the time we got to spend with him — for his warmth, his legendary sense of humor, and his singular ability to make every day into something worth talking about. We thank his fans and admirers for their incredible support over his 60-year career and ask for privacy as we mourn his loss.”
A New York native, Regis Francis Xavier Philbin was born on August 25, 1993. He was named after his father’s alma mater, Manhattan’s Regis High School. Philbin graduated from Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx before going on to Notre Dame, where he majored in sociology.
After college, Philbin joined the U.S. Navy. He then embarked on his decades-long career in television as a stagehand and a delivery boy for a station in Los Angeles, Calif. Quickly after, he became a news writer and was offered a job as a sportscaster.
Philbin went on to San Diego as a news anchor for KOGO-TV. His first shot at national exposure came a few years later as the sidekick to Joey Bishop on ABC’s “The Joey Bishop Show.” Philbin then moved on to KHJ-TV in Los Angeles where he hosted “That Regis Philbin Show.” The show was canceled due to ratings powerhouse Johnny Carson but it brought Philbin to the midwest for “Regis Philbin’s Saturday Night in St. Louis.”
After three years of commuting to St. Louis each week for a local Saturday night show, Philbin became a star in local morning television — first in Los Angeles, then in New York. In 1985, he teamed with Kathie Lee Johnson, a year before she married former football star Frank Gifford, and the show went national in 1988.
Celebrities routinely stopped by Philbin’s eponymous syndicated morning show, but its heart was in the first 15 minutes, when he and co-host Kathie Lee Gifford — on “Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee” from 1985-2000 — or Kelly Ripa — on “Live! with Regis and Kelly” from 2001 until his 2011 retirement — bantered about the events of the day. Viewers laughed at Philbin’s mock indignation over not getting the best seat at a restaurant the night before, or being henpecked by his partner.
“Even I have a little trepidation,” he told The Associated Press in 2008, when asked how he does a show every day. “You wake up in the morning and you say, ‘What did I do last night that I can talk about? What’s new in the paper? How are we gonna fill that 20 minutes?’”“I’m not gonna say it always works out brilliantly, but somehow we connect more often than we don’t,” he added.
He was host of the prime-time game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” briefly television’s most popular show at the turn of the century. ABC aired the family-friendly program as often as five times a week. It generated around $1 billion in revenue in its first two years — ABC had said it was the more profitable show in TV history — and helped make Philbin himself a millionaire many times over.
Philbin’s question to contestants, “Is that your final answer?” became a national catchphrase. He was even a fashion trendsetter; he put out a line of monochramactic shirts and ties to match what he wore on the set.
“You wait a lifetime for something like that and sometimes it never happens,” Philbin told the AP in 1999.
After hustling into an entertainment career, Philbin logged more than 15,000 hours on the air, earning him recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most broadcast hours logged by a TV personality, a record previously held by Hugh Downs.
“Every day, you see the record shattered, pal!” Philbin would tell viewers. “One more hour!”
In 2008, he returned briefly to the quiz show format with “Million Dollar Password.” He also picked up the Lifetime Achievement Award from the daytime Emmys.
He was the type of TV personality easy to make fun of, and easy to love.
When his son Danny first met his future wife, “we were talking about our families,” Danny told USA Today. “I said, ‘You know that show Regis and Kathie Lee?’ And she said, ‘I hate that show.’ And I said, ‘That’s my dad.’”
Yet Philbin was a favorite of a younger generation’s ironic icon, David Letterman. When Letterman announced that he had to undergo heart surgery, it was on the air to Philbin, who was also there for Letterman’s first day back after his recovery.
Letterman returned the favor, appearing on Philbin’s show when he went back on the air in April 2007 after undergoing heart bypass surgery.
In a 2008 interview with the Associated Press, Philbin said he saw “getting the best out of your guests” as “a specialty.”
“The time constraints mean you’ve got to get right to the point, you’ve got to make it pay off, go to commercial, start again. Play that clip. Say goodbye,” he said.
Philbin’s second wife, Joy, was Bishop’s assistant.
“He’s the little guy protesting the injustices of life, from crime waves to paper cuts,” the magazine wrote. “The ranting is punctuated with Kathie Lee’s familiar cry of ‘Oh, Reege,’ uttered sometimes in sisterly sympathy and sometimes in teacherly admonishment.”
The gentle bickering and eye-rolling exasperation in Philbin and Gifford’s onscreen relationship was familiar to anyone in a long-lasting relationship.
“No arguments, no harsh words in all this time,” Philbin told a theater audience in 2000. “Well, there was the time I didn’t talk to her for two weeks. Didn’t want to interrupt her.”
Gifford left the show in 2000. After a tryout period for a replacement, soap star Ripa, then best known for “All My Children,” filled the slot.
The same hustler who parked cars in Hollywood worked just as hard to land the job on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
“I begged my way on,” he told People magazine. “There was a short list, and I wasn’t on it. I called my agent, and we made a full assault on ABC in L.A.”
The audience responded to Philbin’s warm, comic touch in the role. He later jokingly referred to himself as the man who saved ABC. It wasn’t complete hyperbole: ABC was suffering in the ratings before the game became a smash success. Forbes reported that two-thirds of ABC’s operating profit in 2000 was due to “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
“It’s better to be hot,” he told the AP. “It’s fun. I know this business. I was perfectly content with my morning show. People would ask me, ‘What’s next?’ There is nothing next. There are no more mountains for me to climb. Believe me when I tell you, all I wanted when I started this show in 1961 was to be a success nationally.”
The prime-time game burned out quickly because of overuse and ended in 2002.
Philbin enjoyed a side career as a singer that began when he sang “Pennies from Heaven” to Bing Crosby on Bishop’s show. He said a record company called him the next day, and he made an album.
Even though the series “Regis Philbin’s Health Styles,” on Lifetime in the 1980s, was part of his lengthy resume, Philbin had health issues. Doctors performed an angioplasty to relieve a blocked artery in 1993. He underwent bypass surgery in 2007 at age 75.
He’s survived by his wife, Joy, and their daughters J.J. and Joanna Philbin, as well as his daughter Amy Philbin with his first wife, Catherine Faylen, according to People.
Fox News‘ Melissa Leon and the Associated Press contributed to this report.