”I always wanted to be a TV talker,” says Regis Philbin. He got his wish. This year Philbin celebrates his 30th anniversary of yakking, riding high on the syndicated morning talk show LIVE with Regis & Kathie Lee. The four-year-old hit, with 10 million viewers weekly, is his gold medal after a three-decade gabathon that has included eight local talk shows (in San Diego, New York, L.A., Chicago, and St. Louis) and five attempts at going national. Now, on a stool beside cohost Kathie Lee Gifford, he has found the perfect Philbinesque place to park his peculiar, italicized personality. Lurching forward, hands chopping, he’s benignly dangerous, a toothless pit bull, hardly less kinetic than the out-of-control! imitation rendered by Saturday Night Live‘s Dana Carvey.
But off camera is another Regis: a warm, sometimes even fuzzy 58-year-old. (He called Joy, his wife of 22 years, twice during this interview.) Three decades of ”slugging through” (his words) have left him more humble than his TV persona lets on. Here’s what he let on to Entertainment Weekly:
1. That’s a funny name. Regis Philbin. Did you ever think of changing it?
It’s not a great show business name, but Robert Redford was taken.
2. You’ve interviewed Nixon, Reagan, Debbie Gibson. Who’s your favorite?
My favorite guest, if I had to name one, would be Barbara Walters. She has a hundred anecdotes about everybody she’s ever talked to, remembers everything. That’s my idea of a great guest.
3. What was the scariest time in your career?
In 1964 I’m doing a local show in San Diego. Then comes that big break-replacing Steve Allen on the syndicated Westinghouse late-night show. I get to Hollywood and find out I’m on a two-week tape delay! What could I possibly talk about that would have relevance two weeks from now? I have to be live, and be able to relate something that has happened in my real life. I don’t know how to use writers. I remember being in a hotel suite in San Francisco before the show premiered and staying up until dawn, literally in shock and scared to death. I psychologically was not ready for it. So I failed miserably.
4. Do you hold any grudges from 30 years?
I was always the punching bag of the press, but just to be on top now makes you forget all that. I’m disappointed in my own inability to cash in on the opportunities that came my way. I should’ve grabbed that Westinghouse show and run with it and been on top for the next 30 years. Johnny Carson was in the same place at the same time and became a national icon. And me? I’ve been hustling, trying to make ends meet.
5. When you finally did go national with Regis & Kathie Lee in 1988, did you have confidence in it?
That was the year of discontent on television. Geraldo was breaking his nose, Phil was walking around in a dress, Sally was walking around with hookers, Oprah was losing 65 pounds. And here we were talking about what we did last night! Who cared? But I knew that if they could just watch us two, three times in a row that we could hook our share of the audience. And we did.
6. Last year you told a gory, 12-minute story about your kidney stones, then held up the 9-inch tube that had once been inserted in your penis. What possessed you to do that?
Here’s the trap you give yourself when you make your life part of the show. When something extraordinary happens to you and everybody knows about it, you gotta come back and tell them about it. When the doctor pulled out the tube, I said, ”I gotta have this because they won’t believe it!” The audience doesn’t want to know how wonderful your life is. What’s going to keep them tuned in is the other side of life — the aggravations, the slights, the family stuff. Sometimes you really gotta suck it up and tell the most embarrassing things.
7. How do you two put guests at ease?
Right at the beginning, when they walk out, you shake their hand real firm.
8. Who was your most successful interview?
In 1962 Nixon was running for governor of California and he came on the San Diego show. He came across very strong that night. I asked him to play the piano; he got up and played the piano. I heard he was so up after the interview that as he walked down the corridor he slammed his hands together and said, ”God, I loved being on television with that guy!” I felt really terrific after that.
9. Are you sexually attracted to Kathie Lee?
Please. The last woman on earth! And she would say the last man on earth. There’s just a lot of fooling around and a lot of respect, too. She was born for this job. She’s a wild woman!
10. If you did get married to her, how long would it last?
Until the first day she went shopping.