Kathie Lee Gifford Recalls Last Time Seeing Regis Philbin: 'He Was Failing, I Could Tell'
On Monday, Gifford, 66, spoke with the Today show about her decades-long kinship with Philbin, who died on Friday at age 88. The pair co-hosted Live with Regis and Kathie Lee for 15 years, but their friendship was defined by their off-camera bonding, she said, adding that their chemistry was instantly apparent: "We just took off like a rocket."
Gifford, who spends most of her time at her new home in Tennessee, said she visited with Philbin and his wife Joy weeks ago when she was back in the New York area. The TV personality said Philbin appeared more frail than her last time seeing him.
"Of course the first call I always make is to Regis and Joy ... so I said, 'Can we get together? Can we have some lunch?' So they came over about two weeks ago," recalled Gifford, who appeared on the broadcast from Connecticut home. "I saw Reg get out of the car with Joy and I sensed much more fragility in him than I'd seen in him since the last time in January out in Los Angeles."
"We sat right here on my screened porch and we laughed ourselves sick — we always just picked up right where we left off," she said, explaining that she and Philbin had become "dear friends" even after she exited the show.
Added Gifford: "... We had the best time, and after they left, I just thought to myself, 'Lord, is that the last time I'm going to see my friend?' Because he was failing, I could tell."
Gifford said she paid a visit to Joy on Sunday, giving her condolences to his loved ones while also giving them the space to grieve in private, something she said she understood from losing her husband Frank, who died in August 2015 at age 84.
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"I didn't want to intrude on their private family time because I remember what that was like," she said. "It's been five years, almost, since Frank passed, and you love your friends reaching out but you also desperately need that private time as a family."
"Anyway," she continued, "I was just grateful to have the time with them and comfort them a little bit and let them know that I believe with all my heart that I know where Regis is and I know who he's with, because I had many, many conversations with him over the years about faith and where we go when this life is over, and he was very curious, as always."
Gifford said that Joy told her their recent visit was one of the last times she heard Philbin laugh.
"She said, 'Kathie, he hadn't laughed in a long, long time. I was so worried about him.' I think it was like Frank, he's just ready, you know?" said Gifford. "... And she said, 'The day that we came to have lunch with you was the last time I heard him laugh.' "
She added: "That will forever be a precious gift the Lord gave me, that I got to laugh with him — one of my best friends in all of my lifetime."
In an exclusive statement to PEOPLE on Saturday, Philbin's family said his loved ones are "forever grateful for the time we got to spend with him." Philbin is survived by daughters J.J. Philbin and Joanna Philbin, whom he shared with his wife of 50 years, Joy Philbin.
He was also father to daughter Amy Philbin, whom he shared with his first wife Catherine Faylen. Philbin and Faylen had another child, son Daniel Philbin, who died in 2014.
Honoring Philbin in an emotional tribute on Instagram over the weekend, Gifford wrote that "there are no words to fully express the love I have for my precious friend, Regis. I simply adored him and every day with him was a gift."
"We spent 15 years together bantering and bickering and laughing ourselves silly—a tradition and a friendship we shared up to this very day. I smile knowing somewhere in Heaven, at this very moment, he's making someone laugh," Gifford continued. "It brings me great comfort knowing that he had a personal relationship with his Lord that brought him great peace.
She added: "There has never been anyone like him. And there never will be."