By David Bauder
NEW YORK (AP)—Regis Philbin, the genial host who shared his life with television viewers over morning coffee for decades and helped himself and some fans strike it rich with the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” has died at 88.
Philbin died of natural causes Friday night, just over a month before his 89th birthday, according to a statement from his family provided by spokesman Lewis Kay.
Celebrities routinely stopped by Philbin's eponymous syndicated morning show, but its heart was in the first 15 minutes, when he and co-host Kathie Lee Gifford—on “Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee” from 1985-2000—or Kelly Ripa—on “Live! with Regis and Kelly” from 2001 until his 2011 retirement—bantered about the events of the day. Viewers laughed at Philbin's mock indignation over not getting the best seat at a restaurant the night before, or being henpecked by his partner.
“Even I have a little trepidation,” he told The Associated Press in 2008, 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 added.
“One of the greats in the history of television, Regis Philbin has passed on to even greater airwaves,” President Donald Trump said in a tweet. “He was a fantastic person, and my friend.”
Ripa and her current partner, Ryan Seacrest, called Philbin “the ultimate class act, bringing his laughter and joy into our homes every day.”
“There are no words to fully express the love I have for my precious friend, Regis,” Gifford said Saturday on Instagram. “I simply adored him and every day with him was a gift.”
The tributes flooding in over social media read like blurbs for a movie Philbin would promote: “Always made me laugh”—Tony Bennett. “One of a kind”—Henry Winkler. “A lovely man”—Rosie O'Donnell. “His wit was only surpassed by his huge heart”—Meredith Vieira. “As wonderful a man as he was talented”—Paul Reubens, also known as Pee-Wee Herman. “You were the best”—LeVar Burton.
After hustling into an entertainment career by parking cars at a Los Angeles TV station, Philbin logged more than 15,000 hours on the air, earning him recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most broadcast hours logged by a TV personality, a record previously held by Hugh Downs.
“Every day, you see the record shattered, pal!” Philbin would tell viewers. “One more hour!”
He was host of the prime-time game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” briefly television's most popular show at the turn of the century. ABC aired the family-friendly program as often as five times a week. It generated around $1 billion in revenue in its first two years—ABC had said it was the more profitable show in TV history—and helped make Philbin himself a millionaire many times over.
Philbin's question to contestants, “Is that your final answer?” became a national catchphrase. Philbin was even a fashion trendsetter; he put out a line of monochramactic shirts and ties to match what he wore on the set.
“You wait a lifetime for something like that and sometimes it never happens,” Philbin told the AP in 1999.
In 2008, he returned briefly to the quiz show format with “Million Dollar Password.” He also picked up the Lifetime Achievement Award from the daytime Emmys.
He was the type of TV personality easy to make fun of, and easy to love.
When his son Danny first met his future wife, “we were talking about our families,” Danny told USA Today. “I said, ‘You know that show Regis and Kathie Lee?' And she said, ‘I hate that show.' And I said, ‘That's my dad.”'
Yet Philbin was a favorite of a younger generation's ironic icon, David Letterman. When Letterman announced that he had to undergo heart surgery, it was on the air to Philbin, who was also there for Letterman's first day back after his recovery.
Letterman returned the favor, appearing on Philbin's show when he went back on the air in April 2007 after undergoing heart bypass surgery.
“In the same category as (Johnny) Carson. Superlative,” Letterman said. “He was on our show a million times, always the best guest we ever had, charming, lovable and could take a punch. When he retired I lost interest in television. I love him.”
In the 2008 AP interview, Philbin said he saw “getting the best out of your guests” as “a specialty. ... 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 gave his desktop a decisive rap.
“And make it all conversational.”