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Regis Philbin, beloved TV host of 'Regis and Kathie Lee' and 'Who Wants to Be A Millionaire,' dies at 88


Morgan Hines Bill Keveney   | USA TODAY
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TV legend Regis Philbin, a household name during his ever-present, six-decade career on the small screen, died Friday of natural causes. He was 88.

Philbin, embraced by millions for a not-overly-polished familiarity and brisk speaking style that seemed more neighborhood than Hollywood, was a dominant TV force in daytime for more than two decades, co-hosting "Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee" and "Live With Regis and Kelly." He briefly became the king of prime time, too, as host of game-show phenomenon "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire."

Philbin's family confirmed the news to USA TODAY in a statement sent Saturday by his representative, Lewis Kay.

"We are deeply saddened to share that our beloved Regis Philbin passed away last night of natural causes, one month shy of his 89th birthday," his family wrote. 

His family and friends will be "forever grateful" for the time they had with Philbin, who was born in the Bronx on Aug. 25, 1931, praising "his warmth, his legendary sense of humor, and his singular ability to make every day into something worth talking about." 

"We thank his fans and admirers for their incredible support over his 60-year career and ask for privacy as we mourn his loss," the Philbin family said.

ABC plans a one-hour "20/20" special, "The Morning Maestro," on Tuesday (8 EDT/PDT). 

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Philbin, who had years of experience in local morning talk, teamed up with Kathie Lee Johnson (later Gifford) in 1985 on “The Morning Show” in New York. Their success in the nation’s top media market led to national syndication in 1988 and a new name, “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee.”

Over his career, Philbin became a ubiquitous presence on television, spending decades in daytime talk highlighted by more than 20 years on the morning show with Gifford (1985-2000) and then Kelly Ripa (2001-2011). Philbin made his last appearance on the show, now known as “Live With Kelly and Ryan,” in November 2011.

On TV, he frequently mentioned his wife, Joy, and their day-to-day activities became part of the conversation. Joy Philbin also guest-hosted "Live!" with her husband.

Celebrities routinely stopped by Philbin’s eponymous show, but its heart was in the first 15 minutes, when he and Gifford (or Ripa) bantered about the events of the day. Viewers laughed at Philbin’s mock indignation – building to a crescendo via mounting levels of exasperation – over not getting the best seat at a restaurant the night before or being henpecked by his partner.

Gifford told USA TODAY in 2019 that she hesitated to join the “Today” show in 2008 because she feared her best TV years were captured on "Regis and Kathie Lee." 

"I thought I’d done the best television I could possibly do. Regis and I did 15 years together, and we changed the face of daytime television forever," she said. "We really did. ... (Philbin is) a master at it, and I felt very grateful to be a part of history."

In the middle of his “Live!” reign, Philbin arguably became the biggest name on TV, hosting ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” a two-week 1999 game-show event that became a national phenomenon. Philbin’s trademark question – “Is that your final answer?”  was quoted everywhere.

"Millionaire" was a TV supernova, spawning a prime-time series with Philbin and a long-running syndicated version hosted by Meredith Vieira, Cedric the Entertainer, Terry Crews and Chris Harrison. But the prime-time edition flamed out fairly quickly, largely due to overexposure, ending in 2002. Philbin hosted special event versions in 2004 and 2009, with ABC reviving the prime-time format in April with Jimmy Kimmel as host.

The "Millionaire" audience responded to Philbin’s warm, comic touch and the quick connection he made with contestants. He later jokingly referred to himself as the man who saved ABC. It wasn’t all hyperbole: ABC was suffering in the ratings before the game became a smash success. Forbes reported that two-thirds of ABC’s operating profit in 2000 was thanks to “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire.” 

Philbin, a U.S. Navy veteran and proud University of Notre Dame graduate who frequently touted his alma mater, was famous for his New York accent and enthusiastic vocal style, his cadence rising in speed, intensity and volume as he grew more excited. It led to many affectionate imitations.

Over the years, Philbin logged more than 15,000 hours on the air, earning him recognition in the Guinness World Records for the most broadcast hours by a TV personality, a record previously held by Hugh Downs, who died earlier this month at 99. 

“Every day, you see the record shattered, pal!” Philbin would tell viewers. “One more hour!”

Philbin was so prevalent on the small screen, it led to friendly ridicule from comedians, including David Letterman, who frequently featured Philbin as a guest on his late-night talk shows. Philbin knew that TV terrain, too, having served as second banana to Joey Bishop’s brief stint as an ABC late-night host in the 1960s.

Philbin also acted early on in his career, appearing on such shows as “The Big Valley,” “Get Smart” and “That Girl” in the 1960s and early 1970s. He returned to scripted comedies in later decades as a household name, playing himself on “Spin City,” “Family Guy,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “30 Rock” and “New Girl.” His most recent appearance was in April on “Single Parents,” an ABC comedy co-created and executive-produced by his daughter, J.J. Philbin.

He's survived by his wife and their daughters, Joanna and J.J. Philbin, as well as his daughter Amy Philbin with his first wife, Catherine Faylen, according to People. J.J. Philbin is married to Michael Schur, executive producer of "The Good Place," "Parks and Recreation" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine."

Contributing: The Associated Press