Remembering Regis Philbin, the legendary TV personality and talk show host

The iconic TV personality died at age 88

Today's expression: Go on to
Explore more: Lesson #291
September 3, 2020:

After a life in front of the cameras, the iconic TV show personality and talk show host, Regis Philbin, died at age 88. He will forever be remembered for his hit daytime talk show on ABC, hosting “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” and his relatable, unpretentious personality. Plus, learn the phrasal verb ‘go on to’.

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Regis Philbin was America’s ubiquitous television host

Lesson summary

Hi there, welcome to Plain English lesson number 291. I’m Jeff; JR is the producer; and this full lesson can be found at PlainEnglish.com/291.

Coming up today: Regis Philbin has passed away. He was all over television; in fact, he was on television more than any other person in history. I saw one of his game shows in person; I’ll tell you about that, too. Today’s phrasal verb is “go on to” and we have a song of the week. Buckle up: this is a long one. Let’s get going.

Regis Philbin’s life on TV

His was a life spent in front of the cameras. The American television host Regis Philbin died in July. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Regis logged over 16,700 hours on television—more than any other person in the history of the world.

For over twenty years, he was co-host of a daytime talk show on the television network ABC. Having outlasted, and out-rated, so many of his competitors, he then went on to host the prime-time smash hit gameshow, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”

Regis’s success on TV owed in large part to his personality as a relatable everyman—an unpretentious New Yorker that people across our diverse country could identify with. On his talk show, he engaged guests in friendly banter, talked about the news, chatted with his on-air co-hosts like old friends, and—it must be said—griped and complained about life’s everyday nuisances, a quality that endeared him to so many fans. As host of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” he genuinely wanted the contestants to win as much money as possible. He was as comfortable on David Letterman’s couch as he was hailing a cab on the streets or watching a football game.

The man was comfortable on camera. He knew how to be on television. He had good looks, but not movie-star good looks. He was well-spoken, but not too smooth. He was empathetic and friendly, but never in a fake way. Many people in show businesses said he was one of the nicest people they ever met—and genuine. Anyone can be nice; it’s hard to be nice and mean it, like Regis did.

He was named after his father’s high school in New York City. He admitted that his name—Regis Philbin—was not a “made-for-show business” name. But, he joked, “Robert Redford” was already taken by the time he was born.

Regis was a New Yorker’s New Yorker. At his peak, he was as famous as other outsized New York personalities like Joan Rivers, Judge Judy, Ed Sullivan and Donald Trump. He was born in the Bronx, spoke with a thick New York accent, went to high school in the city, and then graduated from his beloved University of Notre Dame in Indiana. After a few years in the Navy, he decided he wanted to be in show business. His idols were the singer Bing Crosby and the early television host Jack Paar. Regis’s first job in show business was as a page on The Tonight Show in Los Angeles. A page is a young employee who runs around doing errands and delivering messages for people.

He became an assistant on a competing late-night comedy show for a while before finally getting his own morning show on television in Los Angeles. That’s where he developed the interviewing and on-air conversational skills that would make him famous. He returned home to New York in the early 1980s to co-host a failing morning show, eventually pairing up with Kathie Lee Gifford. After just a few years, “Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee” was nationally syndicated, meaning it went out to most ABC television stations across the United States at 9:00 a.m., after the local morning news had ended.

They were like an on-air husband-and-wife pair, though they were each married to other people: Regis to his wife Joy and Kathie Lee to the football star Frank Gifford. The show became a success because it was unscripted and wholesome. At the time, other daytime talk shows were doing outlandish things to try to get attention: these were the days that Jerry Springer made trashy television famous.

But “Regis and Kathie Lee” was always classy and light-hearted. They never rehearsed what they were going to say and never had writers feed them lines or jokes. They walked onto the set thirty seconds before airtime and talked about the news or whatever had happened to them the night before. Regis would often pull out the newspaper and just read headlines and comment about what he saw. They would then interview guests from their signature bar-height chairs that would allow them to get up and move around.

Regis and Kathie Lee were together on-air for fifteen years, and Regis got another co-host, Kelly Rippa, after Kathie Lee left. After reaching the height of his popularity in daytime, Regis got the opportunity to conquer prime time too. ABC was looking for a host for a new type of game show that would be on in the evenings, a time dominated (then) by scripted dramas and comedies.

Regis became host of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”, which became an instant sensation. It was the American adaptation of a British concept that involved contestants answering successively-harder questions that allowed them to win more and more money. They could give up whenever they wanted and take home their accumulated winnings, but if they ever got a question wrong, they went home with nothing.

The show’s suspenseful music, high stakes and glittering set lent an air of drama to the show. The contestants went one at a time, so they weren’t competing against anyone else. This let Regis openly root for the success of the contestants. His famous line, “Is that your final answer?” entered the popular lexicon. You could see the relief on his face when the final answer was correct and the disappointment when the contestant went home empty-handed. When John Carpenter became the first person ever to win a million dollars on a game show, Regis was more excited than John was. The contestants came and went, but Regis was the star of the show, even inspiring a line of shirts and ties that matched his style on the set.

This was the first reality television show. Prior to “Millionaire,” television executives thought people only wanted to watch scripted and acted programming at night. After “Millionaire,” other copycat game shows, and later talent shows, followed. It also gave studios the confidence to invest in reality television and we know how big that became.

In addition to his regular gigs, Regis also hosted other game shows, hosted holiday and New Year’s eve specials, made cameo appearances in TV shows and movies, and even released a Christmas music album, in which he and Trump sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” together. He was a guest on the Late Show with David Letterman 150 times, more than any other person. He was the guest on Letterman’s first show after September 11, 2001 attacks in New York because, Letterman said, he trusted Regis’s ability to connect with the audience in such an important time.

Regis—or Reege, as Kathie Lee affectionately called him—died this summer at the age of 88.

See clips in our Facebook group

I can’t explain it, but I loved Regis Philbin. I didn’t watch regularly, but whenever I saw him, I liked him. My mom would watch Regis and Kathie Lee. I think she watched it like most people: she had it on in the house while she was doing other things. To me, Regis and Kathie Lee was synonymous with summer vacation. It would be on around when I woke up. And of course I could only watch during the summer.

I also went to a taping of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” It was so much fun. The lights, the music, the tension, Regis himself. It was great. I was just thinking about whether there is a modern-day equivalent to Regis Philbin and I would say Ryan Seacrest is that modern-day equivalent. He is now Kelly Rippa’s co-host on the same show. He’s the kind of guy who shows up everywhere—specials, award shows, talk shows, appearances in movies, things like that.

Hey, I’ll post a YouTube clip of Regis and Kathie Lee so you can see what the show was like. I’ll put that on our free Facebook group, which you can join by going to PlainEnglish.com/Facebook.

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Expression: Go on to