What is a host? A person to welcome you in, to make you comfortable, to show you around and tell you what you need to know. To introduce you to other people you might find interesting. To take any space and make it a home.
Regis Philbin, who died July 24, a month before his 89th birthday, was a host. Maybe the greatest of all hosts, if only for the number and variety of shows he hosted: talk shows, game shows, parades, pageants. As has been widely noted, he holds the Guinness World Record for most hours spent on television, a record that will likely stand until the end of television itself.
But he was great too for his capacity to enjoy people — contrasting his ongoing struggle with things, gadgets and gizmos — at least as they came before him on a television stage. (As to “people,” in the collective, he might wonder, “What the hell is wrong with them?”) He could work himself into a lather in an instant and an instant later be laughing at himself and everything. As his life in media transitioned from daily presence to delightful surprise, he was finally just Regis, a magnet for love.
Philbin in his early days was energetic, enthusiastic and personable. (Although he was a New Yorker to the core, he was for many years a West Coast broadcaster, including his first national notice as the sidekick on Joey Bishop’s late 1960s talk show, and also as the co-host for many years of “A.M. Los Angeles.”) But once he claimed a space and made it his, as he did with “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee,” it was clear he could stick around until he decided to go. He could let his character fill the space, let his freak flag fly, as it were, within the bounds of old-school professionalism. His job was to be himself, which America agreed was a good thing, and that gave him room to grow even more cantankerous with age.
There is a somnolent gentleness to the big network morning shows, as if they want to ease you out of slumber into the day, before your eyes are fully open. Philbin was something else again — energetic, extroverted, irritable, relishing tales of mishap. (He began the nationally syndicated version of “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee” recounting the morning’s disasters — oversleeping, locking his keys in the car.) His success at that hour seems almost counterintuitive.
Overflowing with vitality, he was the person you’d look at and say, “I hope I’m that lively when I’m his age,” when in truth you aren’t now, won’t be and never were.
So extensive are his credits that merely to read them is exhausting. That his career flowered from a bed of early failures suggests that the problem was less Philbin’s than television’s, and the arrival of the right vehicle. He was in his mid-50s — not that you could tell — when in 1985 he first paired with Kathie Lee Gifford, then Johnson, on the New York-based “The Morning Show,” which became the juggernaut known as “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee” in 1988. Gifford left in 2000, eventually to be replaced by Kelly Ripa, who now cohosts with Ryan Seacrest, to continuing success.
Indeed, the sheer number of TV series and films in which he appears as himself — including, but not limited to, “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Mad About You,” “All My Children,” “Seinfeld,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “The Simpsons,” “Caroline in the City,” “Spin City,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Damages,” “Ugly Betty,” “30 Rock” and “Fresh Off the Boat” on the smaller screen and “Night and the City,” “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “The Breakup Artist” on the bigger — attests to his cultural eminence.
And, of course, there was “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which he hosted in its original and some subsequent iterations, the first season of “America’s Got Talent,” “Million Dollar Password” and so forth and so on.
Philbin left “Live!” in 2011, but it was not nearly the end of his presence on television. But wherever he went, it was always his show.