Regis Philbin has the mannerisms and voice that launched a thousand parodies, but his ubiquity underscores his accomplishments. Think about this — in a society where television has played such a major part of our lives for the past half-century, Regis Philbin holds the Guinness-certified world record for the most hours logged in front of a television camera.
Considering his daily hour on “Live with Regis and Kelly,” it’s not a record that anyone is likely to break soon, and now that he’s also hosting CBS’ prime time “Million Dollar Password,” he’s still one of the hardest working men in the field.
Bankrate spoke to Regis about “Password,” the secret to TV success, and how he has remained a man of fairly simple desires even with such great success.
Bankrate: What attracted you to “Million Dollar Password”?
Regis Philbin: It’s a great way to return to prime time TV, which is still the largest arena in our business. I had a good time doing “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” years ago, and so here comes “… Password,” which is probably the most popular of all the game shows through the years. This is the fifth time they’re bringing it back, and the chance to do it in prime time, on Sunday nights, on CBS, following “60 Minutes” — how could I turn it down, Larry? I had to do it.
Bankrate: What is it about hosting game shows in general that you enjoy?
Regis Philbin: I think they’re a great form of entertainment, and I love giving the check for $1 million to a winner. That becomes a big thrill for me as well as for them. But I do enjoy working on a good game, and I think “… Password” is about as attractive as it gets. You get so involved in the game that even though I’m just the host, trying to keep things together and in progress on the show, I have a tendency to get involved, almost blurting out the word sometimes. So it’s just a great show, and I’m happy to be back.
Bankrate: How does this version differ from the older ones?
Regis Philbin: The money is much higher, of course. These days to start a new game show you need a million-dollar payoff or nobody cares. And here, we have the people up — not sitting down behind the little desk that they used years ago, but up and facing each other. So the camera is focused on one face, then the other, and it goes back and forth. It’s quite tense and a lot of fun, especially in the end when they connect and get the word out there that they won.
Bankrate: You’ll be receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Daytime Emmys. What are your feelings about that?
Regis Philbin: The truth? I’ve been around a long time now and I’ve seen these awards go to real giants in our business, and I just don’t feel like I’m one of them.
Bankrate: When you heard that you were going to receive a lifetime achievement award, did it feel premature?
Regis Philbin: Well, I said to David Letterman the other night, this is when they tell you, “Leave! You’ve been around long enough!” But I was only kidding, I hope. I’m gonna be around. I’m gonna stay longer. But it is nice to pick it up on the way to wherever I’m going.
Bankrate: You’ve been co-hosting “Live … ” for about 20 years now, and been doing shows like this for about 40. What is the key to succeeding on a show of this sort?
Regis Philbin: Well, a show of this sort depends on your relationship and the chemistry you develop with your co-host. I’ve had about six different co-hosts, and all of them have their own personalities. It’s a matter of getting involved in their lives and getting to know them, but not really knowing them that much, so that you’re not surprised by what they’re saying.
I never talk to any of them before the show begins. Whatever conversation we have mainly happens right there in the 20 minutes we have for host chat. So I think you’ve gotta keep that area fresh, and you don’t do that by hanging out after the show and going to lunch and dinner and all that.
Once in a while I do that, but for the most part I wanna be surprised when she tells me something, and I want her to be surprised when I tell her what I did last night or what’s going on in my life. That freshness is the key to the whole relationship.
Bankrate: Are there ever times where you regret something you say on the air?
Regis Philbin: No, but today, because I went to the “Sex and the City” premiere last night, Kelly said, “what was Joy (my wife) wearing?” And I couldn’t think! So I did catch a little flack about that after the show. I just couldn’t come up with it, Larry! There were so many women around, such goings on, it really was a very lively premiere, and the after-premiere party was terrific, too. So I couldn’t think for a minute, Larry. Forgive me.
Bankrate: Well, it’s not me who has to forgive you. Now, will you be hosting the red carpet coverage for the Oscars this year?
Regis Philbin: They haven’t asked me for this year. I think they make those decisions when they get closer to the Oscars. But I did do it last year after about 30 years of not doing it, and it was a lot of fun. Brought back a lot of memories.
Of course, when I did it, I was all alone out there. Somebody had an idea at Channel 7 in Hollywood — “Hey, let’s do the red carpet. That’s where all the stars are walking up. We’ll put a camera out there and make a show out of it.” And that was as simple as that. Now, of course, it’s a full three-ring circus out there.
Bankrate: Wait — are you saying you’re the first person who ever did red carpet coverage?
Regis Philbin: Yes, I am. That was for a local ABC station in Hollywood in the late ’70s.
Bankrate: So when you do it now, now that it’s changed so much, what’s the most challenging aspect of it?
Regis Philbin: For me, it’s the rehearsal that goes into it. In the ’70s, being the first and only one out there, the pacing wasn’t so strenuous. It was more lackadaisical. “Hey, here comes Gene Kelly. There’s Fred Astaire. Hey Fred, how you feeling?”
Now, of course, you’re competing with a couple of hundred cable stations and a lot of syndicated shows, so it’s important that things be done right, and in a speedy way. You’ve got 30 minutes out there and you have to make every second count. For me, that pace was the most difficult part of doing that show.
Bankrate: Part of the key to your success is a certain “everyman” persona. Considering your successful career, do you have tastes that could be considered extravagant?
Regis Philbin: I don’t think so, Larry, I can’t tell you one thing I feel is extravagant. I was born and raised in New York City while the Depression was going on and coming to an end, and through WWII, and I take that kind of stuff to my bones.
So now, even though life is sweet and I have a beautiful apartment with a view that I never thought I would ever have when I was a kid here in New York, my extravagances are quite limited.
Bankrate: So despite your success, you’re a bit frugal, a bit careful with money, because of how you grew up?
Regis Philbin: I think you could say that about me, yeah. It’s not like I haven’t spent money on homes and things like that. It’s just that my lifestyle as I’m living it now would have to be considered not extravagant.
Bankrate: What is the most decadent thing you ever treated yourself to?
Regis Philbin: I bought (CBS sportscaster) Warner Wolf’s house in Greenwich, Conn. about 18 years ago. It’s probably the most extravagant thing I ever did. A second home in Greenwich, Conn.? C’mon.
Photo: copyright Disney-ABC Domestic Television