One evoked genuine emotion; the other just wouldn't go away

By Josh Wolk
December 20, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST
Gifford: Richard Drew/AP/Wide World

When it comes to TV farewells, the old showbiz mandate ”Go out with a bang, not a whimper” should come with a corollary: ”But let someone else do the banging.” If only someone had whispered such wisdom in Kathie Lee Gifford’s ear before she exited stage Reege.

Gifford announced in February that she was stepping down from her hosting throne on ”Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee.” Which meant that she had five months before her July 28 swan song — five months to weep, to bang her own drum mercilessly, to nail home her Al Gore style talking points. She would miss us all, she promised, but she had to pursue her acting and singing dreams.

Sadly, this extended look at me adieu only encouraged her detractors to pop her self inflated ”good luck” balloons. In the months following her farewell week, every stumble was reported with glee: Regis’ ”Live!” ratings have shot up 19 percent since she left; in its first month, her pop pap disc ”Heart of a Woman” had sold an arrhythmic 17,000 copies; Reege’s scheming producer, Gelman, didn’t invite her back to promote it. She defended herself — loudly — claiming she hadn’t wanted to go back on ”Live!,” that she’d actually wanted to quit the show for the past five years. All of which made people want to plug their ears to her shrill farewell, not memorialize it.

Michael J. Fox, on the other hand, vanished from the screen with the same laconic, understated dignity he’d radiated since his ”Family Ties” fame. He announced in January that his fourth season on ”Spin City” would be his last; he wanted to spend more time with his family and raise money to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease, the affliction he shares with more than 1 million Americans. His May 24 exit attracted 33 million viewers, but it had the intimacy of a group hug: Fox embraced his weeping cast, offered a self effacing wave to the studio audience, and darted away.

He was showered with statues this year — an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a SAG award — all of which seemed less for his benefit than for ours, another chance for us to say farewell. ”Because he started on TV as a kid and people grew up with him, it was doubly emotional,” says ”Spin City” cocreator Gary David Goldberg, also the man behind ”Family Ties.” ”In a way, they were saying good-bye to their own family.” Bang!