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A man made for TV, maybe the last of his kind



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Longtime media personality Regis Philbin, host of “Live! WIth Regis and Kathie Lee” and “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?,” has died. He was 88.

USA TODAY

It may be overstating it to say Regis Philbin was the last of his kind, but not by much.

Obituaries refer to Philbin, 88, who died Friday, as a morning show host, mention “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and throw in something about what a good late-night talk show guest he was.

That’s all true, and you don’t become the record holder for logging the most hours in the history of television (beating out Hugh Downs, who died earlier this month) by not having a talent for it.

But what Philbin really was is a made-for-TV creation. And you don’t see those much anymore.

‘There will never be another’: Kathie Lee Gifford, President Trump, more react to Regis Philbin’s death

There were a lot of stops on his TV career path. Among many other things, he was Joey Bishop’s sidekick on a late-night show, but that didn’t last (because the show didn’t). He appeared in movies (“Shrek”) and on TV shows (“Fresh Off the Boat”), but he wasn’t really an actor (he often played himself later in his career).

How Philbin built his TV persona

“Millionaire” was briefly the most popular show on television, and he was good on it, but you never really thought of him as a proper game show host like Alex Trebek or Pat Sajak.

“Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee,” which made him nationally famous as he chatted the morning away with Kathie Lee Gifford (and later Kelly Ripa) and their guests, was entertaining, but the appeal was him talking about himself or his take on the world. He combined a feisty personality with a nice little streak of self-deprecation – something David Letterman recognized. Letterman had Philbin as a guest frequently, and he did not disappoint.

Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford react during a WABC-TV broadcast of “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee” on Sept. 8, 1988, in New York. (Photo: Gerald Herbert, AP)

Certainly, Philbin was rich and well-known. But he was mostly just Regis Philbin, famous for being Regis Philbin (or at least a TV version). He was sort of like a utility infielder in baseball: never the best at any one position but able to play them all pretty well.

It’s obvious that TV has changed since Philbin started – his career lasted more than 60 years. Though audiences knew who he was, when “Millionaire” exploded unexpectedly when it made its debut in 1999, he truly became a household name. It’s difficult to overstate how famous he became. He even had a clothing line, based on his monochromatic getups on the show.

A greedy ABC ran the show into the ground, but some nights it attracted 30 million viewers for a single episode. And they all heard Philbin say, “Is that your final answer?”

Why it’s hard to reach the level of fame Philbin achieved

Audiences are too fragmented for anywhere near that kind of audience now, because media are too fragmented. There are too many streaming options, cable offerings – people don’t watch network television the way they used to.

You can get semi-famous in a lot more places now – Twitter famous, TikTok famous – but the concentration of attention just isn’t the same.

There are superstars, still. Everyone, it seemed, was talking about Taylor Swift when she released “Folklore” on Friday. She and Beyonce may be the only artists who can so dominate pop culture with a new release right now. Most people would recognize LeBron James or Tom Brady if they saw them walking down the street. If Oprah Winfrey has something to say, people want to hear it.

But these are people who excel at what they do – they’re famous for a reason. Philbin was different. He excelled at being pretty good at a lot of things. That’s a lost art, perhaps because there’s not much call for it anymore. Philbin occupied the dwindling middle shelf of fame – it’s up there a little, but it doesn’t seem unreachable.

In reality it’s a lot harder to reach than it looks. But for a long time Philbin had it within his grasp.

Reach Goodykoontz at [email protected] Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. Twitter: @goodyk.

More: Regis Philbin, beloved TV host of ‘Regis and Kathie Lee’ and ‘Who Wants to Be A Millionaire,’ dies at 88

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