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Longtime TV Host Regis Philbin Dies At 88

Regis Philbin speaks onstage at Spike TV's <em>Don Rickles: One Night Only</em> on May 6, 2014 in New York City. Philbin was on television for more than half a century.
Theo Wargo
Getty Images for Spike TV
Regis Philbin speaks onstage at Spike TV's Don Rickles: One Night Only on May 6, 2014 in New York City. Philbin was on television for more than half a century.

Regis Philbin, the affable talk show host and a fixture of the small screen for decades, has died at 88.

"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 told NPR in a statement.

"His family and friends are forever grateful for the time we got to spend with him – for his warmth, his legendary sense of humor, and his singular ability to make every day into something worth talking about," they said. "We thank his fans and admirers for their incredible support over his 60-year career and ask for privacy as we mourn his loss."

With his larger-than-life persona, Philbin cultivated an air of informality on his talk shows, well known for the amusing banter he shared with his co-hosts. Although the Philbin of television seemingly oozed charisma, he suffered in his youth from a lack of self-confidence. "I missed so many opportunities along the way to do what I wanted to do because I didn't have the confidence to tell myself, much less anybody else, 'Yes, this is the business I wanted to be a part of,' " he told Fresh Air in 2011.

Feeling that he lacked the talent to make it in showbiz, after his graduation from Notre Dame he spent two years serving in the Navy. On his last day, a major in the Marines asked Philbin what he wanted to do with his life.

"I told him, 'What I'd like to do is go into television but I don't know if I have any talent or what I could do,' and he got very angry. ... He said, 'Well, what do you mean? Don't you know you can have anything you want in this life if you only want it bad enough? Do you want it?' And I said, 'Major, I'm not sure.' And he boomed at me, 'Do you want this?!' And I snapped to and gave him a salute and said, 'Yes, yes I want this.' "

The major, Philbin recounted, told Philbin to drive to Hollywood. "And that's what I did."

Philbin began his television career as an NBC page for The Tonight Show in the 1950s. He worked as a newscast broadcaster for several years, before getting his first big break in 1967, when he became the sidekick to Joey Bishop on The Joey Bishop Show. From there, he went on to host local morning shows.

His biggest stroke of luck might have come when Kathie Lee Gifford joined him in 1985 as co-host of ABC's The Morning Show in New York City. The pair was so successful, that Live with Regis and Kathie Lee was nationally syndicated three years later. With impressive ratings, it was a mainstay on American television through the '90s.

In 1999, Philbin took on another role — the inaugural host of ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. He continued regularly hosting the show until 2002, making his famous question — "Is that your final answer?" — a national catchphrase.

Meanwhile, Philbin was continuing his daily job as host of Live. After Gifford left the show in 2000, Philbin went through several guest co-hosts, before soap opera actress Kelly Ripa was chosen as his permanent partner in 2001. They worked together for about a decade, before Philbin stepped down from the show in 2011 at the age of 80.

By that point, he held the Guinness World Record for the most hours spent in front of a television camera.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").