Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Only A Man

By Susan Ellis

MARCH 29, 1999:  Regis Philbin’s 1995 autobiography/year-in-the-life is titled I’m Only One Man! It’s a little misleading. Sure, Philbin is only one man, but he’s a man who has had enough twists and turns in his 40-year career for two men, if not three. But the real sticking point is the word “only.” It seems an awfully weak modifier to describe Philbin, when his trademark hair-trigger impishness suggests that he’s not made up of tissue and bone like any other ordinary joe but of monkeys and rubberbands.

The real truth of the title lies in that exclamation point. It’s that screaming zeal with which he attacks the patter with his co-host Kathie Lee Gifford on his talk show LIVE with Regis and Kathie Lee that has hooked his regular viewers (and packs them in to his nightclub act, which he’s bringing to the Grand Casino on March 27th), and the joy with which he carries it off. And where does all that zest come from? “I guess I’m enthusiastic about what I do and I guess it shows,” he says. “And I take my vitamins and I eat a balanced diet, and get eight hours sleep, and all of the sudden I’ve got ENERGY!”

Bronx-bred and a graduate of Notre Dame, Philbin took his first step into show business shortly after he left the Navy, when he delivered his two-line resume to a TV station in Los Angeles. As he tells it in his book, there was no job, but the station’s program manager said he’d keep him in mind. Something about the wise-cracking kid must’ve struck him because the program manager kept his word and offered Philbin a job. At the time, Philbin was working as a page at NBC in New York. To help make up his mind, Philbin plopped down a dollar at a fortune teller’s parlor and was told he was taking a trip.

After a number of gigs, from cue-card holder to radio news reporter, Philbin went on to a variety of broadcast jobs – as news anchor, feature reporter, and talk-show host. His first national exposure came when he replaced Steve Allen as host of a late-night talk show. In 1966, he became Joey Bishop’s sidekick, and, famously walked out on-air during the first year and then returned two weeks later.

Through the years, Philbin worked around the country and went through bouts of unemployment. He had one failed marriage and a son (he has four children) who was born with a serious medical condition. He had one talk show that lasted a mere 13 weeks, another lasting for 5 months. In 1983, he returned to New York to host the local The Morning Show, a predecessor to LIVE, and was joined by Kathie Lee in 1985. In 1988, the show changed its name, was syndicated, and an industry was born – from exercise videos and cookbooks to concerts and a job hosting the Miss America pageant. Philbin has an avenue named after him in New York.

The secret of Philbin’s success is his ability to dish it out (he once bitch-slapped wrestler Hulk Hogan) as well as take it (he is happily the punchline of a running joke on Late Night with David Letterman). He is a loudmouth with panache, easily handling this smarty-pants reporter:

SE: You and Kathie Lee, you have a nice, friendly combative relationship.

RP: Yeah?

SE: Have you ever taken it too far?

RP: No!

SE: Never?

RP: She has, I haven’t.

You know, I don’t want [our show] to be one of those sickeningly sweet co-host situations that you see every now and then. I just want it to be for real, and that’s what it is. It’s not really combative. If we have an argument, I think that’s human nature. You’re saying you never argue with anyone? Is that what you’re saying, Susan? Huh? Huh?

SE: I’m not saying that.

RP: Well, all right. What you’re seeing is the real thing.

SE: Have you ever made her tear up?

RP: I’ve never had a fight with her, nothing.

SE: She ever make you tear up?

RP: Tear up? No, she’s never made me cry. Susan, write this down, will you? She’s never made me cry. I’ve sobbed a couple of times, but she’s never really made me cry.

SE: If you weren’t married and she weren’t married, would you marry her?

RP: No. No. I don’t think we’re right for each other to marry. I think we’re right for each other to work, you know? I don’t want to marry her. I just want to work with her, Susan.

When he’s not working with Kathie Lee, Philbin often hits the road to perform his act. He sings, he dances, tells jokes, and has a bit of audience participation (he likes to try out co-host replacements). He enjoys singing the classics of his heroes, such as Dean Martin and Bing Crosby. But the show-stopper, he says, is when he plays the piano.

“You know Chopin?” he asks. “You know Bach? You know Beethoven?” Philbin’s building up steam, notching it up for the payoff.

“And now there’s Regis!”

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