Over almost 89 years, which came to a close on July 24, 2020, Regis Francis Xavier Philbin lived an epic life.
Born in Manhattan in 1935, the man most of us know simply as Regis went from his home in New York City to college at the University of Notre Dame, to a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy to broadcast work in California and St. Louis, before heading back to the Big Apple. There he attained fame and became a household name.
While Wikipedia is careful to note that he was once called “the hardest working man in show business,” that title actually belongs to James Brown. Yet it’s also an apt description for an individual who was born during the Great Depression and lived through World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, social strife, and the 1968 flu pandemic, all without missing a beat and usually without a script, much like the show that would make him famous.
Endless Energy and Infectious Enthusiasm
All along the way he hustled to get in front of the cameras and improve his craft. Known for his endless enthusiasm and energy and brash and often egotistical delivery, Regis connected with viewers as his reach and ratings grew. Writing about him in 2000, Good Housekeeping described Regis as “the little guy protesting the injustices of life, from crime waves to paper cuts.”
He achieved national syndication with “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee” in 1988. The show, a rollicking unscripted affair in which Kathie Lee and Regis interviewed guests, bantered with one another (often with the good-natured acrimony of an old married couple), and offered health, fashion, and cooking tips, continues to this day. In its present iteration, hosts Kelly Ripa, Regis’s second and final co-host for the show, and Ryan Seacrest, with whom Regis worked while hosting “America’s Got Talent,” are at the helm.
Regis also hosted “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and made the question “Is that your final answer?” so recognizable that it appeared on the list of TV Land’s 100 greatest catchphrases. He was a regular guest co-host on Rachael Ray’s show. He showed up as a guest and occasional guest co-host on “Today” with Kathie Lee and Hoda. He appeared on a variety of TV shows, including being a regular on the late-night circuit, particularly on Dave Letterman’s show.
Record-Setting TV Career
In addition to all of that, Regis wrote three books and released three albums, the last of which, a Christmas album, featured a duet with Donald Trump, among others. You can watch the pair performing “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” on “The Letterman Show” here.
Speaking of President Trump, while not offering a reprisal of the performance, he did take to Twitter to offer praise for Regis, saying, “One of the greats in the history of television, Regis Philbin has passed on to even greater airwaves, at 88. He was a fantastic person, and my friend. He kept telling me to run for President. Holds the record for ‘most live television’, and he did it well. Regis, we love you….”
As to the record for most hours on television, that is 100 percent correct. We’ve barely scratched the surface of Philbin’s resume, although to cover it in full would take at least as long as the number of hours he spent on TV. Nevertheless, on September 15, 2011, Regis earned the Guinness World Record for most hours on U.S. television with 17,746.50, an average of almost one hour per day.
A Man of Faith, Few Feuds, and Love for Everyday People
He was also a devout Catholic, donating to his Catholic alma mater in the Bronx and freely acknowledging his faith in an industry not known for its religiosity, saying, “There is a wide chasm between the media and religion, especially the Catholic religion I think, but that’s just the way it is.”
There are also stories of his friendship with former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, with Regis being selected as the Lou Holtz/Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame “Distinguished American” in 2001. There was a minor feud with Jerry Seinfeld over Seinfeld’s insistence that Regis say, “That guy is bonkos” about Kramer’s appearance on “Live!” (Regis was right, that line was a dud.)
That minor feud seems to be the beginning and end of negative stories about Regis. Googling “Regis Philbin controversy” and “Regis Philbin rumors” produces basically nothing. For a man who spent so many decades in the public eye, particularly given the horror stories we regularly hear today, that’s quite a feat and only adds to the example Regis set for us.
In his final appearance as host of “Live!” in 2011, Regis said, “I think I’m going out a pretty proud and happy guy. I wanted this show to be a show where people would feel better about themselves, would look at life in, maybe, a different way, a funnier way, and I think that’s what we accomplished and I’m very happy about that aspect.”
If the question were not just about “Live!,” but also about whether Regis’s full life could be described with those words, the final answer is “yes.”