By Frazier Moore
The talk-show host has logged more than 15,662 hours on television.
NEW YORK — Most mornings on “Live,” Regis Philbin and his co-host, Kelly Ripa, have something to say about the weather outside.
That kind of talk gives the show immediacy. And establishes Regis as the center of the universe, at least for an hour from his Upper West Side Manhattan studio. (Note: He doesn’t make a habit of mentioning the weather in your town.)
Regis Philbin is masterful at framing a particular vision of New York, then setting the scene for his audience. (Check local listings for “Live” airtime.)
It’s the good life: During one recent off-the-cuff “host chat,” he shared details of a night out with wife Joy at a super-exclusive Greenwich Village bistro to which you could never gain entry.
His is also a life full of sundry frustrations, with which any of his viewers can identify. By way of paying homage to the Oreo cookie, Regis will sound off about newfangled Oreos made in different colors and flavors.
One moment, the world is his oyster. The next, he’s the little guy against the world.
New York cafe society embraces him, while he keeps the common touch.
This is Regis Philbin, 76, with 20 years flourishing on “Live.”
That’s not all. For six weeks, he is hosting “Million Dollar Password,” which returns him to the quiz-show genre he knocked for a loop with “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” a decade ago. It premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. EDT on CBS.
And as he approaches a half-century on TV, he will get the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Daytime Entertainment Emmy Awards broadcast June 20.
With each TV appearance, he adds to his record for most hours logged (15,662, as certified by Guinness World Records in 2006).
“EV-ry DAY, you see the RECord SHATtered, pal!” says Regis, his rhythmic rant in full gear. “One more hour!”
It’s shortly after 10 a.m., and, with one more edition of “Live” history, he’s upstairs in his curio-jammed office. Dean Martin is crooning on the boom box.
“Even I have a little trepidation,” he acknowledges 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 connects with Ripa. He connects with his guests, too.
“It’s a specialty, getting the best out of your guests, you know? 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 gives his desktop a decisive rap.
“And make it all conversational.”
Philbin didn’t start out to be a talker, but a singer. Growing up in the Bronx, he loved hearing Bing Crosby on the radio.
“As a little boy I knew all of his songs — every word!”
Which reminds him: He rummages through his attache case and retrieves a CD.
It contains the audio from a big night in 1967, when Regis was playing sidekick to Joey Bishop on his late-night ABC talk show. Crosby was the guest that night.
“He’s sitting between me and Bishop,” says Regis, fidgeting with his boom box, “and I just couldn’t believe it. Now let’s see if I can get this to work. Why can’t I get this to work? One of the HIGHLIGHTS of my LIFE, and I CAN’T GET IT TO WORK!”
The next minute it’s working, and Joey Bishop is heard saying, “I’m about to reveal Regis’ dream.”
“Wait a minute,” says Regis, startled by this unexpected invitation to sing. “I don’t even know what key!”
“You can rest assured,” says Crosby. “If [the band] found my key, they can find yours, Regis.”
With that, Regis croons “Pennies from Heaven” for an audience of millions — and his hero.
“... Don’t you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven? ...”
As he relives that distant impromptu performance, Philbin shuts his eyes, channeling pleasure, and a trace of anxiety, as if a sour note might still intrude.
His 21‚Ñ2 years as Bishop’s second banana were part of an uncertain, often rocky road in the 1960s and ’70s. Regis was based on the West Coast and mostly appearing on local TV.
Then he returned to New York, where, by chance, he landed a local morning show in 1983. The ratings grew. Two years later, Kathie Lee Johnson joined him as co-host.
In 1988, he and Kathie Lee (who by then was married to sportscaster Frank Gifford) went national.
Now one of TV’s most enduring hits, “Live with Regis and Kelly” airs in more than 200 markets across the country, averaging 4 million viewers each day.