July 29, 2020

Regis Philbin, R.I.P.

It seems somehow fitting that Hugh Downs and Regis Philbin would die within a month of each other, for I can't think of two men who've logged more facetime on television than them. Indeed, it's hardly a surprise that Philbin holds the Guinness world record for most hours on television in the history of the medium, nor that the man who'd held the record previously was Downs.

Like Hugh Downs, who came to national prominence as Jack Paar's sidekick on The Tonight Show, Regis Philbin made his network debut as sidekick for Joey Bishop; and just as Downs had to deal with Paar's famous walkout, Philbin was confronted with Bishop's announcement that, because he and ABC could not come to turms, he was walking off the show. Hugh Downs rose to that occasion, and so did Regis Philbin. The two men had long runs on morning television: Downs on Today and Philbin on Live with Regis and [fill in the name]; and they both hosted popular game shows (Concentration by Downs, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by Philbin). And if that was all there was to Regis Philbin's television career, if all we had to do was compare him to Hugh Downs, that would be pretty good.

But doing so would miss the essence of Regis, the way he connected with an audience, the way his warmth came through your set and into your home. I've often commented on how television is the most personal of communications media, and those who appear on it become guests in your living room, and few personified that more that he did. He wore his life on his sleeve, with the knack for making people feel as if they knew him, what with his self-deprecating humor and stories about his personal life. He was trustworthy, genuine, real—and if you mentioned that to him, he might well have laughed and then repeated the old line about how if you can fake sincerity, you can do anything. I'm not saying that there weren't people who didn't like him, just that he made it very difficult to do so.

Two things stand out. First: when his longtime co-host Kathie Lee Gifford left Live, viewer surveys showed that the most popular choice to replace her was nobody, that people would be perfectly happy to have Regis do the show solo, or perhaps with his wife Joy. Second: during the initial run of Millionaire, when the show took the nation by storm, Regis started a trend by appearing each night in a monochromatic suit, shirt and tie. It was a look that I very much favored myself, and it hardly surprised me that he could pull it off, and that it would become a fashion statement.

He might have seemed an unlikely television hero, but like the best of them—like Hugh Downs, for example—you either have it or you don't; and Regis Philben most definiately had it. Class, style, charisma, warmth—whatever it might have been, there it was. It's missing more and more from a television landscape that depends on anger, hostility, stridency, instead of the things that for so often defined what it meant to be a guest in someone else's home. I'm not saying that there will never be another Regis Philbin, because that would be not only foolish but presumptious. I'm just saying that it will be difficult to find another one, and in that I presume you'll agree. TV  

1 comment:

  1. Fact that nobody seems to notice:
    Regis Philbin never "worked solo".
    His greatest successes were always with an on-camera partner - someone who could set him up for his stories, and if the partner could reply with stories of her own, so much the better.
    Even on Millionaire, Regis had a partner: the contestant.
    While asking the questions, Regis was always drawing out the civilian, relaxing him, quietly urging him toward the answers, building the enthusiasm toward winning the Big Money - all broadcaster's skills, learned over many years.
    Flashy types (you can fill in the names) can never seem to learn that the show isn't about them, and that's why so many of then fall by the wayside.

    Sidetracking (but not really):
    Yesterday I learned of the passing of one of my all-time favorite actresses, Jacqueline Scott.
    The obits called attention to her best-known role, as Richard Kimble's devoted sister Donna on The Fugitive.
    Her overall career arc was as "The Wife": at some point, she played faithful/worried spouse to so many guest stars on just about every TV series from the '60s onward.
    Once, TV Guide profiled Jacqueline Scott (they used to do that with character people - remember?).
    When she sat down to chat with the TVG writer in a studio commissary, she looked around the room and cheerily observed "Hey, I see four of my former husbands here!"
    (In real life, Jacqueline Scott had one marriage which lasted more than 60 years, which does count for something.)
    What kept her on screen for so many years was that she wasn't a sexpot or a glamazon; Jacqueline Scott looked and sounded like someone you would know and like, a neighbor or an old friend, someone you'd like to spend time with - and this quality stood her in good stead for many years.
    She will be missed.

    While I'm here, I'd like to mention another obit from yesterday:
    Bent Fabric was a pianist from Denmark, with a deceptively simple style of playing that made him a big record seller all over the world.
    You may remember a melody he wrote that became a huge hit in the USA: "Alley Cat".
    As a kid, I had many of Bent Fabric's LPs; one of the great frustrations of my present days is that these albums haven't been reissued as CDs.

    By the way, Jacqueline Scott was 89.
    Bent Fabric was 95.
    Lives well lived, as the saying goes …


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