Here’s the image of Regis Philbin that I’ll always carry with me: It was sometime in the mid-1990s, and I happened to be sitting in the audience of Live with Regis and Kathy Lee in New York City. They went to the first commercial break, and two things happened: Almost instantaneously, a curtain of people surrounded Kathy Lee Gifford, shielding her from the audience’s view, seeming to pepper her with questions and suggestions while she studied cards bearing information, I could only guess, about the next guest. At that same moment, almost like a thoroughbred at the Kentucky Derby’s starting bell, Regis burst from his chair and dashed into the audience, beaming broadly, shaking hands, asking where folks were from and invariably responding with 10-second anecdotes about the time he visited there. “Buffalo? I love Niagara Falls!”…”Atlanta? I tell ya, I love it when folks down there say Co-Cola!”
I sat there marveling at not only the energy of the man, but also at the unbridled enthusiasm with which he seemed to attack his work. And make no mistake—what Regis did for 50-some years on TV was indeed good, honest work.
Do you really think Regis was as thrilled to be on the job as he seemed to be every day? Don’t you think he sometimes woke up in the morning, looked over at his wife Joy, and grumbled something like, “Could you call in for me this morning? Just make any excuse you can come up with…”? I’m sure he did, but off he went to his spotlit salt mine year after year, cheerfully exuding a work ethic that resonated with everyone from his pal David Letterman to the guy who ran a hot dog cart off Times Square.
We have, in these present months, witnessed the passing from the scene of two very different curmudgeons, each with his own particular brand of genius. One was the late, great Andy Rooney, whose grumpy, disheveled attitude sometimes put the “mean” in demeanor. Now we wave goodbye to Regis, every bit as grumpy as Andy, but never mean-spirited, always expressing his distraction with a broad smile and outstretched arms, inviting us to share in his head-shaking sense of a world gone mad.
Most of us first met Regis when he uttered the words “And now… It’s time for Joey!” on Joey Bishop’s 1960s late-night talk show (the fact is, we all watched Joey at least once before heading back over to the comfort of Johnny Carson’s couch). Revisit some of those old tapes, and in young Regis you’ll see that same energy and enthusiasm—qualities that at the time were mistaken by many as symptoms of cocky, unearned egotism. Eventually, Regis won over just about everybody not because he kicked back and waited for us to recognize how very cool he actually was, but because he grabbed us by the collar, got in our face, and convinced us, by sheer will, that he was precisely the guy he professed to be.
I’d say we’ll miss Regis Philbin. But that would be a lie—because in our hearts we know some day soon we’ll turn around and there he’ll be, chin jutting, eyes sparkling, eternally, delightfully exasperated.