Regis Philbin...The True King Of Late Night
Regis Philbin was a TV legend in so many ways and if all he had ever done in his amazing career was host his ABC syndicated morning show, that would have been enough…but there was so much more to him.
In some ways he was the true “King Of Late Night.” Most people might not be aware that that Regis’s first break on national television was as Joey Bishop’s sidekick on ABC’s late night “Joey Bishop Show”. Regis took a lot of ribbing from the caustic Bishop in the two years that they were on the air, famously walking off the show one night. According to Philbin at the time, it was the culmination of drubbing from not only Bishop but the TV critics. Regis returned a few nights later with great fanfare. In later years Regis revealed that it was a stunt designed by Bishop to get higher ratings against the dominant Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson. Either way this wouldn’t be the first time that Regis would be at the center of a late-night storm. The Joey Bishop Show ended on December 26, 1969 with some real late night fireworks. Bishop had just completed his monologue when he declared that it was his last show, walking off and leaving Philbin to finish the final show. Regis would have some more seminal late-night moments in later years.
From 1975 to 1981, Regis switched his sights to daytime where he lifted the last place A.M. Los Angeles on KABC from last place to first place. Perfecting the art of the “host chat", Regis began each show with what become his hallmark; engaging his audience (and later his co-host) in discussions about his life and the day's events.
Regis with Kathie Lee Gifford [L] and Kelly Ripa [R]
This served him well (as well as his co-host’s Kathy Lee Gifford and Kelly Ripa) on the “Live! With Regis and…” nationally syndicated morning show on ABC from 1985-2011. For over three decades, Regis’ no holds-barred enthusiasm made America fall in love with him. Whether exchanging impromptu banter with Kathy Lee Gifford, Kelly Ripa or the thousands of guests that sat in the guest chair, Regis not only held his own but quite often dominated…on live television no less. It’s no wonder that David Letterman also fell in love with him.
Letterman (and his producers) loved Regis so much that he appeared on both NBC’s Late Night and CBS’ Late Show a total of 136 times over a period of 33 years in late night (the most ever of any guest!) Just watch some of his appearances on YouTube and you will fall into a rabbit hole of Regis and Dave greatness that will keep you laughing for hours. Regis was guileless, fearless and always a willing recipient of David’s good-natured ribbing over the years.
Hosting a Late Night TV show is not for the faint of heart. It requires an extremely high standard (and constant flow) of comedy ideas from your writing staff and a high level of production from the crew to deliver the equally high ambitions of the writers and most importantly the host. Dave had that in abundance with the exception of one thing…a steady stream of great guests who could hold their own with Dave. Dave had the biggest stars on his show every single night, but you would be surprised how often these A-list guests did not deliver A-list interviews. Letterman may have made it look easy and entertaining, but it wasn’t.
Enter Regis Philbin. He first appeared on NBC's Late Night in 1983 and his appearances grew more and more frequent (especially when Dave moved to CBS.) Regis was one of those guests who had regularly reguarly scheduled yearly slots on the Letterman show, whether he had something to promote or not which was a rarity...and he always delivered. He was also the Late Show’s go-to person when a guest dropped out at the last minute...often with less than an hour’s notice. The writers loved Regis so much that they often had him just walk on the show and interrupt the action just like he he did in Letterman’s penultimate show from May 5th, 2019 (see the clip below.)
Regis interrupts Dave's monologue on the next to last Late Show
So, it’s no surprise that Letterman wanted Regis by his side during three seminal (and very personal for Dave) Late Show moments.
Regis/Late Night Seminal Moment #1
Regis didn’t know that his appearance on January 14th, 2000 was going to be any different than his other appearances. He was on for two segments with the first being classic Regis. He was at the height of success with “Who Wants To be a Millionaire” and David couldn’t have been happier or prouder for him...but that didn't mean he was above making fun of all of the Millionaire hoopla.
Regis was appearing on just about every magazine cover including Entertainment Weekly (on the left). He was dressed in a suit made of money. Dave held up the cover and told Regis; “’You know, it’s ok to say no every once in awhile”
But Dave gushed over how amazing Regis was during his introduction and he made a great entrance with a blue dot covering his private parts (with a great ad lib of “next time get a bigger dot”.) At the end of the first segment, before going into a commercial break, Dave told Regis;
“I have something I want to ask you…it’s a little bit of a personal nature”
Coming out of the break Dave asked Regis about his medical history and it was clear that he had no idea where Dave was going with this, nervously asking him “Which particular problem?”
When David mentioned the “plumbing problem” Regis knew exactly what he meant. Dave mentioned the history of heart problems in his own family (Letterman’s Dad died in his 50s from a heart attack) and that he had an angiogram scheduled the next day. It was was clear that Dave wanted to talk to someone who had been through this scary procedure...someone he trusted. This was was weighing heavy on his mind and he was looking for some comfort in Regis' experience having gone through the same procedure...and of course Regis provided zero comfort instead focusing on all of the worst-case scenarios. And of course loved that even more telling Regis as he ended the interview; “I’ll be thinking about you…you’re my role model.”
Dave turns to Regis for advice the night prior to his angiogram (which would escalate into bypass surgery.)
Regis/Late Night Seminal Moment #2
As we all know, Dave’s angiogram quickly escalated into an emergency quintuple heart bypass and he was off the air for 10 weeks returning on February 21st, 2000 and of course, to none's surprise on the staff, Regis was his featured guest on that show.
And once again, Regis delivered on what was a truly special moment in Dave’s life. Dave was speaking from his newly energized heart when he told him;
“Well I want to thank you. There are so many people to thank and your help and your friendship and your appearance on that show that night before I went into…”
Regis with Dave on his first show back from bypass surgery.
Regis/Late Night Seminal Moment #3
But it was Regis’ appearance on the September 17th, 2001 Late Show that truly shows how much he meant to Dave and as we would soon find out what he meant to us all.
The horrendous events of 9/11 happened during a Letterman vacation week. As the week went on (with the entire country in a daze) it wasn’t even a question of when we would do another Late Show but more of a “is it even possible” to do the kind of show and comedy that Letterman specialized in. Ground zero was a true ground zero on the September 17th when Dave made the decision to try and tape a show that night. All the other Late Night shows remained dark almost as if looking for Dave to show them the way to move forward. Dave’s guests that night were Dan Rather and of course Regis Philbin. We all knew it was going to be a muted show…there would be no opening Late Show graphics and a noticeably subdued Paul Shaffer would lead the CBS Orchestra with appropriately poignant music throughout the show. Tears were shed by both Letterman and Dan Rather in the course of the show so g-d only knows what the Regis interview would be like. But I can’t help but think that Dave knew that if there was one person to help him figure out how to strike a humorous tone on this first show back, with all the darkness at that time, it would be Regis…and boy he was right.
Starting with his introduction; “Thank God, Regis is here, so we have something to make fun of” it felt like Regis had given Dave a release valve to laughter. It started off low key but it didn’t take long for Regis to wind Dave up with; "Eveytime I come here lately there's another crisis. Big man's going to the hospital...big man's getting out of the hospital and now this!"
There were lots of laughs and I think the highlight for me personally was when Regis suggested they go out to dinner one night and bring Dan Rather with them to cheer him up! Did Regis Philbin just make a gentle jab at Dan Rather for crying a few moments earlier? It was an amazing moment…one of just many that Regis has given us for decades and thousands of shows (his own and on other’s).
Regis with Dave onLate Show's first show back after 9/11
"His family and friends are forever grateful for the time we got to spend with him – for his warmth, his legendary sense of humor, and his singular ability to make every day into something worth talking about,"