Wow, I have a lot of stuff!” Regis Philbin exclaims, looking around the tightly packed Upper West Side office he uses as host of Live! With Regis and Kelly. There’s just one problem now that the television veteran is leaving his hit morning chatfest on Nov. 18: what to do with all of it. “I can’t get rid of these things. I don’t want to put them in storage,” Philbin says, gesturing at a life-size cutout of Dean Martin, photos of himself with then-actor Ronald Reagan, and countless gifts fans have sent him over the years. (His favorite is a rock with his late cat Ashley’s face painted on it.) “I hate to go,” he says of departing the show he created nearly three decades ago. “But I feel like it’s time.”
After 50 years in showbiz, Philbin knows how to make an entrance-and an exit. “I’ve been fired before, and it’s much better to leave on your own terms,” says Philbin, 80, adding that his decision to depart Live! wasn’t easy. “I’m going to miss it, but I’m also excited to do something else before my time is up. Still, you hate to make a mistake after doing a show like this.”
That self-criticism is nothing new for the Bronx native, who took his first job as an NBC page in 1955 but never dreamed of being on-camera himself. “My first assignment was to go down to the set of Tonight!,” he recalls. “I looked at Steve Allen playing the piano, making jokes. Everyone was beautiful and talented. I thought, ‘What am I doing here? What can I do in this business?'”
Apparently there was plenty. After a short-lived talk show on a San Diego station, Philbin joined The Joey Bishop Show, where he gained a following in the sidekick role and got used to schmoozing celebrities, including his own former idol Bing Crosby. (“I’ve never been that starstruck,” he recalls.) Then Live!, with its off-the-cuff approach, took off in the ’80s as Regis bantered and bickered with cohost Kathie Lee Gifford.
“We had no idea what a phenomenon it would become,” says Gifford, who left the show in 2000 but remained close with Philbin. “He deserves the life he’s earned. There will never be another like him.” Current cohost Kelly Ripa, who took over in 2001, attributes the series’s ongoing popularity to Philbin’s charisma: “He is simply the world’s best storyteller.”
Not that he remembers all of them. “Sometimes they’ll play a clip, and I’m like, ‘Wow, did I do that? Was that person on the show?'” jokes Philbin, who calculated that he spent nearly 17,000 hours on the air (including his time hosting ABC’s 1999-2002 hit game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?). “It doesn’t feel like 50 years,” he says.
Philbin, who lives in an apartment across the street from Live!‘s studio, knows that leaving his cushy setup will take some adjusting. “I can’t tell you how I’m going to feel once I’m not doing it,” says Philbin. “It’s going to be surreal.” His wife of 41 years, Joy Philbin, with whom he has two daughters, Joanna, 38, and Jennifer, 37 (he also has a son, Daniel, 46, from a previous marriage), couldn’t agree more. “I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like to wake up and have him here in the house,” says Joy, 70. “He’s so not going to be retiring and staying home!” Already, he jokes, “I’m finding out my wife really likes her time alone in the mornings.”
As he ponders his next step, Philbin has plenty on his plate. His book tour for his new autobiography How I Got This Way kicks off as soon as he leaves Live!, he’ll be visiting his two grandchildren in Los Angeles over the holidays, singing at a concert in Palm Beach, then distracting himself with a 19-day cruise through East Asia. “By the time he looks up, he’ll be completely settled,” says Joy. Although there’s still the matter of all that office loot. “We have an empty room in our house in Greenwich,” he says. “Joy wanted it as a gym, but I may have to fight her for it!”