By FRAZIER MOORE
NEW YORK — Regis Philbin wades into the studio audience to chat during a commercial break.
“Thanks, everybody, for coming,” he says sincerely, then, with a dash of comic bluster, cracks: “Anybody want to pay me a tribute?”
“Don’t leave!” a woman cries out from the back row.
She might as well save her breath.
After ruling morning television for 28 years as New York’s Everyman-about-town, the co-host who made performance art of TV gab, and the broadcast veteran who likens being on TV to “washing my face or having lunch – as normal as can be,” the 80-year-old Philbin is exiting what for a decade has been known as “Live! With Regis and Kelly,” where, never at a loss for words, he has presided alongside co-host Kelly Ripa. But his last day is Nov. 18. There’s no turning back now.
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As everyone remembers, Philbin made his announcement on the show last January: “I don’t want to alarm anybody,” he began before dropping the bomb.
This fall, during the long goodbye, “Live!” has been full of valedictories and retrospectives befitting Philbin’s marathon run. His final week will be given over to special guests on the order of David Letterman, Donald Trump, Don Rickles and former co-host Kathie Lee Gifford, as well as Tony Bennett, Josh Groban and Bret Michaels performing.
The final show will be “a moving hourlong tribute to Regis,” according to the show, “with many surprises for Regis and the audience.”
And that will be that. The following week, the show will drop back to temporary solo billing – “Live! With Kelly” – while the search begins for the person who will permanently claim Philbin’s chair.
But with all this transition in the offing, it’s worth keeping two things in mind.
“Everybody says to me, `Oh, you’re retiring,’” notes Philbin, who then erupts: “I’m NOT retiiiiring! I’m MOVING ON!”
The other thing: Despite the irrevocability of Philbin’s decision to “move on,” he harbors misgivings, understandable mixed feelings. No wonder. The longer you do something and drink in its success, the harder it can be to judge when enough is enough.
During an interview after a recent morning’s broadcast at his Manhattan studio, Philbin engages in little of his signature Regis-riffing. Looking back and looking ahead, he is reflective, earnest, a bit wistful.
For a while, he explains, “every time a new contract came up, I would say to myself, `Maybe it’s time to get out.’ Then I would say, ‘what am I going to do? I might as well continue.’
“Within the 28-year span there were times when I doubted that what I was doing was the right thing, was interesting, was funny,” he goes on. “Maybe one day we were a bust, and you would say to yourself, `Maybe this is over, and I can’t do it anymore.’ You have those doubts. But then it becomes 10 years, then it was 15, 20, 25.”
Now, truly, it seems enough’s enough.
“This time, I said, `I really would like to do something else before I quit (the TV business).’ And frankly I’d like to have a little time off. I started in 1955 as (an NBC) page over at 30 Rock, so it’s been a long time.”
His wife, Joy, is supporting his decision, he says, “But I think she’s kind of worried: `He’s going to be home all day – what’s he going to do?’ Frankly, I think she’s a little concerned about it, to be honest with you, and I don’t blame her.
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“So what do you think?” he abruptly asks his interviewer, switching on his Regis bombast. “AM I making a mis-TAKE here? IS it time for Regis to MOVE ON?”
But it doesn’t matter what others think. Philbin is already separating himself from the show, and his office bears that out. Seated at his desk, even with a life-size cutout of Dean Martin still standing beside him and the cushion in his chair displaying the logo of his beloved Notre Dame, Philbin is surrounded by growing disarray.
“We’re in the process of tearing this room apart,” he notes. “You collect 28 years’ worth of stuff, and you hate to suddenly put it in there” – he indicates the trash can – “so we’re putting it over there,” and he points to boxes filling up with souvenirs and curios.
“I feel almost relieved that I have made a decision,” he says. “And frankly, I’m enjoying the last few shows more than I had the last 20 years. I guess there’s a sense that, `Hey, enjoy it now, because this is coming to an end.’ But I’m not sure how I’m going to feel, not the next day, but the next month, just in case I really don’t move on to something else. And I might not: Who wants an old man, you know what I’m saying?”
Weeks ago, he had spoken of starring in some sort of reality show, but now dismisses that notion.
“It wasn’t for me,” he says. “There are a couple of other things I’m thinking about, but I don’t want to make a decision until all of this is over. Then I can think clearly.”
Meanwhile, he looks forward to easing the pace of his social life.
The host chat segment of “Live!” – the hosts’ impromptu give-and-take that precedes each day’s interviews with celebrity guests – “is what made the show,” Philbin notes, and it was often fueled by the respective on-the-town social whirl of Regis and his co-host.
“But I sometimes would have to force myself to go out and see a play or go to a party that I really didn’t care about,” he says, “to have something that I could talk about the next day.”
The host chat solidified his persona as the little guy against the world sounding off about familiar frustrations, even as he lived a life rubbing elbows with fellow celebrities. He was the toast of the town with the common touch.
“It all would come together,” he acknowledges. “But I would worry about it. That was a lot of pressure.”
As a kid, Philbin was a talker and a joker with his pals back on Morris Park and Holland avenues in the Bronx. But beyond that corner of the world, he was painfully shy.
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“When it came to getting laughs in front of a microphone or a television camera or on stage, I couldn’t do it,” he recalls, not even as he harbored ill-defined dreams of a show business career. “I had to overcome the lack of confidence, the shyness, the thoughts that I never would be able to do what I saw other people doing on camera or heard on the radio.”
As an NBC page, he would watch, up close and personal, the multitalented Steve Allen hosting “The Tonight Show” and ask himself, “What am I doing here? What is MY talent?”
And then, a few years later, he discovered Jack Paar, Allen’s late-night successor. Paar’s monologue style was a revelation – that of a breezy raconteur.
“He would just talk about where he had been that day,” Philbin says. “It wasn’t one joke after another. It was stuff that he had experienced, stuff you could relate to. I thought, `That’s what I used to do on the corner in the Bronx.’”
In San Diego, where in the late 1950s he landed a job as a TV reporter, he expanded his duties to include a late-night Saturday talk show. Infused with the example of Jack Paar, “I got in front of an audience and, man that was it!”
That was in Fall 1961. Exactly a half-century ago, Regis became Regis.
Later, he gained national exposure as the announcer and sidekick on comic Joey Bishop’s ABC late-night show. More local TV followed on the West Coast, notably as a co-host of a morning show in Los Angeles.
Then he came home to New York, where 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 (by then wed to sportscaster Frank Gifford) went national.
She left the show in 2000. After a tryout period for a replacement, “All My Children” star Ripa won the job as his female foil.
“We’ve had so much fun,” said Ripa, and, with no need to specify what “it” means, she added, “I don’t want to deal with it until the actual 18th. I’m not thinking about it. I don’t want to get emotional.”
After Nov. 18, the show Philbin built will be left in her custody, as well as executive producer Michael Gelman.
“I always felt like, there’s no way Regis is ever going to stop,” said Gelman, who, at age 50, has been running “Live!” since his 20s. He said he had expected Philbin to stick around another year or two – until he learned otherwise that morning last January.
“I understand it,” he said. “Regis deserves a break after all this time and I’m getting used to the idea that he isn’t going to be here. But it’s still going to be really strange.”
Now it falls to Gelman to navigate a smooth transition to a new host after a few weeks or months of substitutes (such as Jerry Seinfeld, Nov. 21-23) and, of course, on-the-air tryouts. A process he aptly calls “dating,” it worked spectacularly well in bringing Ripa into the fold.
“I don’t want to drag it out for too long,” Gelman said, “but we also want to make the right decision. We want to make sure this isn’t a quickie Vegas wedding that ends in divorce.”
“I’m curious who they will finally get,” says Philbin. “It’s a big decision for them, and especially for Kelly. I think it should be about who she really wants.”
Once he’s out the door, he plans to sample the show.
“If I wake up in time, I’ll take a look,” he promises. “If I don’t, they’re on their own.”
Chances are, Philbin will be awake at that hour – but otherwise occupied. He and wife Joy will continue playing the occasional musical date around the country. And the day after saying farewell to “Live!” he will embark on a publicity tour for his new memoir, “How I Got This Way.” First stop: a book signing at Notre Dame.
In recent years, Philbin has had a triple coronary bypass and a hip replacement, “but I’m back in shape and I feel good about it,” he declares, to which Gelman echoed, “He is ageless and has a young soul.”
Even so, the prospect of death crosses Philbin’s mind, “especially when I see somebody else in the Obits. You realize it’s totally unavoidable. And it’s kind of scary. But so far,” he adds after theatrically clearing his throat, “I’ve been OK – unless YOU’VE heard something! YOU’RE The Associated Press, after all!”
With that in mind, his interviewer asks him, when the time comes at last, what his epitaph might be.
Unfazed by the question, Philbin smiles indulgently and thinks for a moment.
“How about: `I’m not dead, I’m just moving on.’” He chuckles, pleased with that one. “There it is!”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.