Friday morning at 9 a.m., Regis Philbin takes his final bow on Live! with Regis and Kelly. It has been a week-long love-in for Reege with salutes from his favourite guest, Don Rickles, former co-host Katie Lee Gifford, vice president Joe Biden and his No. 1 fan David Letterman.
Letterman stopped by the Live! set Wednesday and Regis guested on Dave’s show Thursday night. Those two should get a room.
I think the first time I met Philbin was around 20 years ago, in Florida at Walt Disney World. I interviewed him for one of those silly “Celebrity Chef” pages that used to run in TV Guide. You would talk to a celebrity until they said something like “Irish stew” and then later concoct a whole story around that dish with somebody at the Canadian Living test kitchen later coming up with a recipe.
This was probably about 20 years ago. Philbin was more peppery then although very professional, serving up whatever you needed and sneaking in some sort of shout out to Canada. He was quick and curious and always seemed to be pretty much the same guy you saw on TV.
I had the pleasure of interviewing him several times over the years. He kept making trips up to perform at Casino Rama, or had some book or CD to promote. A couple of times the show traveled across the border, to Niagara or P.E.I., and that also sparked a story. The whole Who Wants to be a Millionaire deal was also a trip.
A year or so ago I caught a Live! taping in Manhattan and it was very cool to see him work. Had to marvel at how he really did quarterback that show, even as he approached 80. The guy knew where the cameras were and always hit his mark. They are going to miss him like crazy.
Then again, he has had some practice. Philbin is TV’s Iron Man. He began his long TV career in the ’50s, as he told Letterman Thursday, as an NBC page, working on Steve Allen’s original Tonight Show. Later, he watched Jack Paar sit behind a desk and just riff off the top of his head and hold audiences spellbound. Philbin watched and said, “I can do that.”
He has logged over 17,000 hours on network television. Nobody else comes close. Hugh Downs (20/20, Concentration, Jack Paar’s Tonight Show) held the old record of around 12,000. Johnny Carson was up there. Lloyd Robertson must have the record in Canada.
So I was startled a couple of years ago, at a TCA press tour in Los Angeles, to see Philbin out of gas. He was there to promote America’s Got Talent, a hosting gig that forced him to fly coast-to-coast each week to service the two shows. It was too much even for Philbin, who bowed out after one season.
I was standing with veteran TV columnist Tom Jicha when Philbin leaned up against a wall and confessed he needed to cut back on his schedule. The guy has survived heart surgery and also had at least one hip replaced. To see him jump out of his chair on Thursday night’s Letterman show is both heartening and amazing.
He has a book to promote, which will include another promotional stop in Toronto, and that’s a good thing. Philbin won’t know how to stop.
Letterman keeps saying take one last long good look Friday because, after Philbin goes, there will be no true broadcasters left on television. He’s being modest, but with Larry King, Andy Rooney, Robertson and Oprah gone and Barbara Walters retired from those Oscar and other specials it is an end of an era. Soon some punk will be kicking Dave out of the Ed Sullivan Theater. Tempus fugit, as my 96-year-old dad still says.