The mayor of New York gave him the key to the city. Tony Danza, sitting in the audience, shouted, “We love you, Regis!” He finally told “the honeymoon story” you didn’t know you wanted to hear. The studio was filled not with citizen-fans but with family, celebs, and the great orange face of Donald Trump. It was the final new Live for old Regis.
The last, heavily scripted Live hour was loaded with pre-taped segments (“Regis Reflects” moments?) that contained nary a second of what made Regis Regis: spontaneity. Well, not entirely: “A little long but okay,” was Regis’ abrupt dismissal of that awful “You Make Me Smile” montage. As Disney mogul Bob Iger was introduced to deliver some verbiage, Regis muttered craftily, “Oh, he’s still here?” The best non-Regis moment came from Kelly Ripa’s speech to him, so genuinely emotional she had to read it from notes she held in her shaking hand; it was touching. Not so touching? The ad immediately afterward touting “the first Live with Kelly show on Monday!” The machine must roll on…
One thing that has not been said about Regis during this final week of salutes, encomia, and Katie Couric Starbucks runs?: Regis will be missed, however briefly (“the first Live with Kelly show!”), because he grew old in his job. Now, that sounds like a kind of insult, but I mean precisely the opposite. First, there is much to be said for longevity in television. In this medium, familiarity breeds not contempt but comfort; affection. Knowing that most weekday mornings you could turn on Live with Regis and Kelly or Live with Regis and Kathie Lee or AM New York or (the period during which I met him) AM Los Angeles and know that Philbin would spend the first 15 minutes of an hour talking about who he had dinner with the previous night, what movie screening he went to, what muscle in his arm ached from what minor ailment, what a headline on that day’s New York Post front page signified in the Regis-verse, how irritated he was by the infernally obsequious-yet-manipulative producer “Gelman” (a character the two had worked out over the years) — this was the stuff of pure fluff and pure pleasure. You cannot replace that.
Second (hah — you thought I’d lost my train of thought, didn’t you? Like Regis has, so many times, so entertainingly!): Regis grew old but remembered. He remembered, and talked about, an earlier generation of show business. A singer of enthusiasm but no great distinction, an interviewer with no stomach for gotcha ambushes, a former sidekick to a former Rat Packer with a burning desire to be his own host, his own Big Cheese, Philbin connects to the TV, movie, and nightclub traditions of the ’50s and ’60s. For him, Don Rickles will always be as cutting-edge as Louie C.K., and why not?
Third: Regis grew old but forgot. He started forgetting the names of the younger celebrities, the barely-worth-remembering who, he was too polite or too politic to say on-camera, were not yet worth remembering. (Selena Gomez? Kevin Connolly?) Implied in this was a philosophy you could almost hear him articulate in Regis-speak: “Go DO something and then come on MY show and talk about it! Go make a great movie, go tell a great joke, go have a great life experience, and THEN you’ll be worth my remembering your name, YOU PIPSQUEAK!”
You’ll indulge me one Regis story. It’s the early ’80s and I’m a TV critic for a Los Angeles newspaper. I’ve written about Regis’ local morning show, co-hosted with the blonde psychodrama that was then Cyndy Garvey, numerous times, and he’s read some of my jabs at him on the air, reading them in mock-anger, which was a total gas. Cut to the Universal Amphitheatre on a hot L.A. evening; I’m there to review a performance by Bob Hope. (Footnotes about “Bob Hope” and “reviewing” for a “newspaper” available upon request.) I take my seat with my wife. I become aware of a buzzing rustle behind me, someone murmuring in a voice I recognize: It’s Regis, settling into the seat behind me with his wife, Joy. I decide to break with reportorial objectivity and turn around and introduce myself — yes, I am the author of those pesky periodic reviews of you, sir. He could not be more kind and gracious. He shakes my hand, extends mock-sympathy to my wife, introduces me to his. It’s all done in a few minutes. I sit back down with my back to him and pull out my notebook and pen, ready to take notes on Bob Hope’s performance.
As the lights dim, seconds before Hope makes his entrance, everyone in my vicinity hears this vocal eruption, this Regis roar: “What I want to know is, how did Ken TUCK-er get a better seat than ME!”
Everyone laughs, and they don’t even know what or who Regis is talking about.
That’s how good he was, and is.