Look at him now: pacing in his cramped office a few floors above the ABC studio in Manhattan where Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee improvises its way across the airwaves each morning. Look at him now, just after the show: listening to a Dean Martin CD, strutting amid the clutter, and modeling the pants of a brown suit.
”This suit didn’t make it!” he says… or, more exactly, exclaims. Yes, the brown was fine for the daytime show he finished a half hour ago downstairs, but it was rejected by producers of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. ”They gotta have their dark suits!” he booms. ”They want a rich look. They want a millionaire look.”
Look at him now: a millionaire himself. But until this moment of prime-time success when he’s suddenly cool, it seemed the 65-year-old Regis Philbin would forever be the brown suit of American broadcasting. An appealing brown suit of strong fiber, having endured since his younger days as Joey Bishop’s talk-show sidekick in the 1960s; and still well-tailored even after four decades in the trenches of televsion, including two defunct 1975 game shows (The Neighbors and Almost Anything Goes) and enthusiastic lapel grabbing by Kathie Lee Gifford five mornings a week for the last 12 years (”guerrilla television,” he calls Live, where the lighting’s never up to his standards and where the phone employed to ask viewers daily-trivia questions often disconnects at will).
There’s no questioning his durabilty. ”Regis has that very rare ability to be himself on camera,” says Live executive producer Michael Gelman. ”He can look through the camera and connect with the viewer at home.” But even his most devoted followers — those who believe that Philbin stands among the most able of live broadcasters, right up there with Carson, Letterman, and Paar — might have reasonably assumed that Live would be Philbin’s career zenith, that Philbin was a nice brown suit that would never be worn in the evening.
But look at him, a kid from the Bronx, in the black and on prime time. ”I gotta tell ya,” he says, ”it’s a major thrill, after all these years in the trenches, 9 o’clock in the morning with no help, no hype, a phone that doesn’t work.”
So what prodded him into adding Millionaire to his hosting resume? Marital harmony, actually. ”This is over at 10 o’clock,” he says of his day job. ”And by 1:30, I’m home.” Explains Philbin’s wife and sometime Kathie Lee stand-in, Joy: ”We need to have separate time, so I said, ‘You really need an afternoon job.”’ He had considered other game shows, updates of What’s My Line? and Who Do You Trust?, but when tapes of the British version of Millionaire landed on his desk, ”I wanted it!” he says. ”Now we tape [Millionaire] at 7 at night, and guess who’s not too happy?” Oh, but he’s wrong. ”I remember his face the morning after the first show premiered [Aug. 16],” says his wife, ”and the ratings were so high. I haven’t seen Regis excited like that.”
Look at him, a quick-change artist, straddling morning and night, contractually bound to the game show for the next five years and to Live until August 2001. “Between now and then I’ll have to make a decision,” he says. “Some of that will depend on the success of [Millionaire].” Look at him, a man who returned to New York City in 1983 against his wishes, in search of a job, now weighing his options. “Now look at me!” he says, reverting to the underdog role that has served him so well. “But the phone on the morning show still doesn’t work!”