In his new memoir, How I Got This Way, veteran TV host Regis Philbin engages the reader with chatty recollections of the people who have influenced him over the course of his career, including the 28 years he spent as the easy-going co-host of the popular morning program, Live with Regis and Kathie Lee followed by its subsequent incarnations, including Live with Regis and Kelly.
Each chapter is named for the person (Bill Cosby, Dean Martin, Howard Stern, Kathie Lee Gifford, Jerry Seinfeld, among others) who had an impact on his life. At the end, he gives pointers – with a bold-type headline, What I Took Away From It All – on the lessons he learned from them.
And so it happened – appropriately enough – that in an encounter with Mr. Philbin last week, when he was in Toronto on a whirlwind trip to promote his book, some lessons ensued.
And here they are. Regis Philbin: What I Took Away From It All.
Just because someone looks great for his age, don’t mention his age.
Mr. Philbin walks into the rooftop lounge of a downtown Toronto hotel just after noon, running a little late. He flew into town the night before and has been up since the crack of dawn to start a long day of back-to-back interviews, impromptu fan skirmishes and a store appearance. Tired? Not outwardly, anyway. He could have stepped straight from the pages of GQ magazine, a slim figure in a perfectly pressed, light grey wool suit, lavender shirt and purple tie; a live wire of energy and affability – flash of a bright smile, lively eyes, a firm handshake.
“You’re 80?” you say with a bit of dumbfounded surprise. He doesn’t look anything near it.
He shuts off his megawatt conviviality like a light. “That’s right,” he snaps.
He looks at you, without offering more.
So you say that people might assume that after 50 years as an award-winning host in the TV entertainment business, Mr. Philbin’s recent departure from Live may be an understandable desire to have a rest. “But it’s clearly not an age thing,” you add.
“You’re the one making something of the age thing,” he retorts. His light remains off.
There’s a difference between an interview subject being grumpy and faux grumpy. Trust that it’s the latter. It might just be his way of testing you.
Mr. Philbin soon relaxed and began an easy discussion about his decision to leave the show. "I’m proud of that show," he says, leaning back in his seat. “It was a success. And I’m glad I did it … It’s not about being bored, but it wasn’t going to change, and I thought that before I call it quits, I would like to try another facet of TV.
“Of course, everyone said you were forced out by ABC and so they want to know, ‘Did they make any attempt to keep you?’ ” he says. “Well, they did offer me a contract for the next three years, but I had made up my mind, and the contract wasn’t that appealing.”
It takes courage to leave a long-term success.
“Yes, it does!” he exclaims, megawattage fully restored. “And that’s why all those years thinking about signing for another three years, I said, ‘Yeah, I will.’ Because it’s scary out there. TV has changed. There’s a lot going on now, but maybe there’s something I haven’t really done, so I’m considering that now.” (He is reportedly contemplating a family talent competition show.)
The success of the famous often comes down to having a knack for something – and being smart enough to stick with it once they’ve identified it.
“I had a feeling. I had an idea,” Mr. Philbin says about his on-air habit of talking about his daily adventures. He had seen Jack Paar’s spontaneous, chatty manner in the fifties on a morning show, a style that later made him the original king of late night on NBC’s The Tonight Show. Mr. Philbin emulated Mr. Paar, developed his own version of breezy delivery, and found his golden shtick. The only missteps in his career came when he wasn’t doing a talk show live. Pretaped spontaneity tanked.
He never talks with his co-host before they go on. And his preparation is simple. “Sometimes it was considering a lot of stuff that went on at home. You think twice about using it. Maybe the wife would get angry. So there were decisions that had to be made. But I wouldn’t share them with anyone else. I would just plunge ahead. The spontaneity thing gives more life, more excitement to a story than simply asking [your co-host] ‘What did you do?’ knowing full well what she did. That doesn’t excite her or you.”
Laugh when someone flies off the handle in an unpredictable way. It’s entertainment.
Sure, his life has had spells of unemployment, and there was a divorce from his first wife, mother of his two children. But mostly, Mr. Philbin is serving up vanilla ice cream. He doesn’t think of himself as famous. On his talk show, “you make [the guest]the star. It’s about them.” Hanging out with George Clooney on Lake Como is “a nice element.” His success is all about “luck and timing.” His adores his second wife, Joy. Jokingly, you wonder if life can all be so good.
“She wants an enemy!” Mr. Philbin announces to the entire room. “She wants dirt!”
He looks around at the restaurant patrons. Two tables to the left sit two old men. “Them!” he booms. “Maybe they’re enemies! Try them!” They look up, confused.
He turns to his public relations handlers. “She wants dirt!” he exclaims again, pointing his finger. They smile wanly, saying nothing. They had been the ones to say Mr. Philbin can sometimes be faux grumpy.
“What do you want from me?” he continues, faux something you hope, leaning forward with a grin that’s far too big, overblown wattage.
Interviews are strange and interesting things. No matter what, they always end with many thanks and a convivial handshake.