By Elizabeth Sporkin
September 30, 1991 12:00 PM

JOHN TESH AND MARY HART THEY’RE not. Unlike the Entertainment Tonight cohosts (and just about every other gab-show personality on the tube), Regis Philbin, 58, and Kathie Lee Gifford, 38, have somehow escaped television’s standards for safety-sealed packaging. Instead, on their syndicated daytime show, Live with Regis & Kathie Lee, they often come unwrapped.

They have no shame. They have no modesty. They have no scripts. Between guests (ranging from gardening expert Mr. Mother Earth to Tom Cruise), they offer a stream of unguarded ad-libs about their personal lives: Like how Regis’s wife, Joy, was first in the buffet line at a party, or how Kathie Lee’s nipples “went out this far” during a mastitis infection.

Even when they’re not saying anything funny, they make you think there is substance under the bubbles. Consider this recent exchange after Phil-bin tripped on a cobblestone:

Philbin: “I could feel myself spinning oat of control!”

Gifford: “Reege!”

Philbin: “Usually I’m agile and I can handle it.”

Gifford: “Reege!”

Philbin: “There are hundreds of people looking. One guy said, ‘Oh, that’s that Regis Philbin!’ ”

This is chemistry—a mixture that attracts some 18 million fans weekly, including Mike Wallace and Madonna, who asked to be a guest in May. Says late-night host Arsenio Hall: “You ain’t hip unless you watch Regis and Kathie Lee.”

Seen on 190 stations, Live is, according to the ratings service NTI, the fastest-growing national talk show. Philbin and Gifford also injected new verve into this month’s NBC telecast of The Miss America Pageant (see story on the winner, page 10), which was seen by an estimated 45 million people.

Their shtick is tough to resist, especially Life’s 15-minute “host chat,” in which they discuss really important things like the time Kathie Lee saw David Letterman picking his nose while stalled in traffic. Not that Gifford avoids her own private moments. She gave kick-by-kick descriptions of her 1990 pregnancy with her son, Cody, now 18 months—from morning sickness through stretch marks. One day last December she blurted out that her husband, Monday Night Football’s Frank Gifford, sleepwalked in the nude and ended up in bed with the nanny. “Boy! I heard about it from everybody,” says Frank.

Not one to be upstaged, Regis also revels in revealing intimate details, such as his 1990 kidney-stone operation. He has called his mother-in-law, Ethel Senese, Hello! Let’s Eat! on Live so often that the poor woman is known by that name at Bloomingdale’s. “I realize there is nothing I can do about it,” admits wife Joy, 48, who cohosts the show when Gifford is out sick, “but there have been times that I have literally screamed at the TV.”

Their new high profile is good news for Regis and Kathie Lee, two former also-rans who together have logged more than 50 years in show business, including his 1967-69 stint as Joey Bishop’s late-night second banana and her self-described job as the La-la Lady (substituting “la la” for song titles) 14 years ago on Name That Tune.

The pair’s relationship, though, is strictly made-for-TV. The two see each other primarily on the air, unless Regis wanders into Kathie Lee’s dressing room before show time to borrow her hair spray. When taping is over, they sign autographs, then leave the Manhattan studio to get on with their separate lives—and amass more details to blab about.

Take one week this summer in the life of Kathie Lee: Maria Maples, freshly ditched by Donald Trump, took refuge at the Giffords’ five-acre-plus Greenwich, Conn., estate. “It’s the softest, most romantic home,” says Maples. “You go downstairs, and you have this Mickey Mouse-shaped waffle that Frank made on your plate.”

A few days later Trump arrived, bearing a 7.5-carat-diamond engagement ring. He didn’t bring a change of clothes, so golf buddy Frank picked up some shorts for him at Woolworth’s. Kathie Lee broke the Trump-Maples reconciliation story on Live.

Okay, so maybe that’s not a typical week, even for Kathie Lee, whose calendar fills up fast with obligations ranging from White House dinners to commercial tapings for Slim-Fast and Carnival Cruise Lines. (She’s one of the nation’s Top 10 celebrity spokespersons.) But what she really delights in, she says, is the “real-life stuff” that she shares with Gifford, Cody and their bichon frise dogs, Chardonnay and Chablis. “We have Frank’s grandchildren [he has five] wandering around, and Cody pee-peeing in the pool,” she says. “It’s like a little piece of paradise.”

In this Eden, Adam is played by Frank, 61, the former New York Giants halfback she met in 1982 when he was subbing for David Hartman and she was subbing for Joan Lunden on Good Morning America. At the time, she was estranged from her first husband, gospel composer Paul Johnson. Frank later became involved in an acrimonious separation from second wife Astrid. (They were divorced in 1986.) Kathie Lee and Frank began as friends, she says, until he tired of hearing about her boyfriend problems. Finally he said, “I’m not going to listen to this anymore. You’re going to hang out with me.”

Despite their 23-year age difference, they married on Oct. 18, 1986. Since Gifford already had three children of his own, he was reluctant to start a new family. But three years later, as viewers of Live know, Cody (named after Cleveland Browns tackle Cody Risien) was conceived accidentally on a Carnival cruise (natch) when, Kathie Lee reported, she “miscalculated” her fertile period. Nothing embarrasses Kathie Lee, who has attributed her openness to the fact that “I knew from the day I was born I was loved.”

The day was Aug. 16, 1953. Her father, Aaron Epstein, a naval officer stationed in Paris, and his wife, Joan, sent out birth announcements reading A STAR IS BORN. Recalls Joan, who now runs an inn with Aaron in Rehoboth Beach, Del.: “As a child she loved to perform with her little microphone.”

Raised in Bowie, Md., with brother David, now 41 and a minister, and sister Michele, 36, a singer, Kathie Lee remembers growing up “normal and happy.” She attended a Methodist Sunday school, and at age 12 became a born-again Christian. (Although she doesn’t often attend church, Gifford maintains an active spiritual life, including saving nightly prayers with son Cody.)

As a senior at Bowie High School in 1971, she won a $1,000 scholarship and a dark brown wig in the local Junior Miss pageant. Ultimately, though, she was thrown out of the national contest for talking to a boy, a pageant no-no, but not before meeting cohost Anita Bryant.

“She kind of reminded me of myself when I was younger,” says Biyant, who hired Kathie Lee as a girl Friday and baby-sitter for her four children. “She was fun and bubbly.” The next year Bryant got her protégée into Oral Roberts University, which Kathie Lee left a semester shy of graduating as a voice major. Drawn to showbiz, Gifford worked as an opening act in Las Vegas and had a small part on a soap opera. At a 1974 taping of the Oral Roberts’s weekly TV program, she met Paul Johnson, whom she married in 1976. (They split six years later, she says, because they wed “too young.”) After her Name That Tune stint, she became a Good Morning America regular. Even back then, she had whatever it is that makes her Kathie Lee, and sometimes it would just come out. Once, after introducing a GMA segment dealing with Princess Diana’s impact on British fashion, she digressed from her script and said, “Maybe she can help the Queen!”

That loose-cannon spontaneity might not have been right for GMA, but it was certainly fine with Philbin, who had been honing his own off-the-cuff style since the early 1960s. “My God, she is so alive!” Regis recalls thinking. “She makes David Hartman look like a young guy.”

Since 1985, she has been doing the same for Philbin, who after 30 years in the business is so set in his ways that he can tick off his morning regimen: “I get up at 7:30, take a tablespoon of cod-liver oil and two tablespoons of milk for my arthritis. I take my shower, shave, have some breakfast, go back and brush my teeth,” he says. This all takes place in the three-bedroom Park Avenue apartment that he shares with Joy and the couple’s two daughters, Jennifer, 17, a high school senior, and Joanna, 18, a college freshman.

The eldest son of Frank and Florence Philbin, Regis was named after his father’s alma mater, Manhattan’s Regis High, a Catholic boys’ school. He grew up in the Bronx, graduated from Notre Dame in 1953 and entered the Navy. But what he really wanted to do was go into television like his idol, Jack Paar. After early jobs as an NBC page, a Hollywood stagehand and a TV reporter, Philbin snagged his own late-night San Diego talk show by age 30.

Meanwhile, Regis had met actress Kay Faylan and plunged into “a marriage that didn’t work or last,” he says. Before calling it quits after 11 years, in 1968, the couple had two children, Amy, now 32, a singer, and Danny, 26. Danny was born with two malformed legs, which were later amputated. He is confined to a wheelchair, and the National Enquirer portrayed him in 1989 as Philbin’s forgotten son who lives with his mother in an L.A. housing project. “It was all lies.” says Philbin, who reports that Danny is living comfortably in suburban Van Nuys and that he interned last summer for California Congressman Robert Dornan. Danny notes that he and his father talk “every week,” and says, “I love my dad. and I in really proud of him.”

Philbin was Bishop’s sidekick when the marriage to Kay disintegrated. He fell in love with Joy, then Bishop’s assistant. “She was always laughing,” remembers Bishop. “I was glad that Regis was finding some happiness. “The couple married on March 1, 1970.

Months before, on the last installment of The Joey Bishop Show, guest astrologer Sydney Omarr told Philbin that he was going to become a household word. “When is this going to happen?” asked Regis. Replied Omarr: “It’s going to take 20 years.”

Omarr obviously had impeccable sources. Between 1970 and 1990, Philbin hosted nearly a dozen talk and game shows. In 1983 he moved back to New York City to host The Morning Show, Live’s local predecessor, going through a series of cohosts, including Joy, before ending up with Kathie Lee. ‘ Since then, he says of his cohost, “We’ve never had a fight, not even a cross word.”

These days Omarr is predicting international success for Philbin. “Regis will become universally acclaimed, maybe because of technology that I’m not aware of. says the astrologer. Oh, Reege! Is the world ready?


SUE CARSWELL in New York City