Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Oh, Reeg!

If you wanted to launch a nearly-50-year career in television, invading people's homes and gabbing their ears off, you could have done better than to be Joey Bishop's sidekick, of all things.

Yet that's the path that Regis Philbin took, and it worked.

Philbin was the quintessential second banana---kind of a poor man's Ed McMahon, if you can imagine such a thing---for four years in the mid-to-late 1960s, working under the shadow of talk show host and former Rat Packer Bishop, late nights on ABC.

For many, that might have been the end of the resume.

But Regis kept finding work, kept managing to horn his way into folks' living rooms.

Now, about 50 years after it started, Philbin's career is about to come to an end. He's leaving "Live with Regis and Kelly" at the end of the year, a year in which he'll turn 80 years old.

Whenever a celebrity can leave his or her medium on his or her own terms, that's a feather in the old cap. For every Carson or Letterman or Philbin who leaves/will leave voluntarily, there are hundreds of actors/hosts/emcees who get kicked to the curb in one way or another.

Like so many second bananas, Regis Philbin had no discernible talent. Still doesn't, really, except for one, and it's a big one: the ability to be likable.

Don't underestimate the power of this particular "talent."

Philbin doesn't act, doesn't really sing. Isn't all that good of an interviewer. But he's self-effacing and seems like a guy you'd like to hang around with---if for no other reason than he would appear to be someone who'd defer the spotlight to you, if that's what you wanted.

He's the second banana who stayed that way, even when he was hosting the game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" on ABC in the late 1990s, early 2000s.

In that role, Regis played second banana to the contestants and to the game itself. He was even the sidekick to the dramatic lights and sound effects.

He was the host, but he wasn't the star. And that's kind of what his entire career has been like.

There's no question that Philbin, after over 20 years in television, finally found his milieu when he teamed with Kathie Lee Gifford for a daytime gabfest. The chemistry between he and Gifford, and then later with current co-host Kelly Ripa, was plain as the nose on your face.

Theirs were softball interviews, but that was OK, because "Live" didn't purport to be anything other than a relaxed conversation, either between co-hosts or between co-hosts and guest. The audience was overwhelmingly female, and older than most targeted demographics. There was a lot of homemaker to everything.


The very likable (if not talented) Regis Philbin


Philbin was along for the ride when "Millionaire" exploded onto the scene in 1999, giving rebirth to the game show genre, which had been moribund for years. He wasn't so much of a host as he was a maitre'd, directing you to your seat and letting the contestants, the lights, and the electronic music provide the bulk of the entertainment.

Regis, during "Millionaire," would essentially stop by your table every so often and ask you how things were going, but then he'd fade back into the shadows, as he was so used to doing.

"Millionaire" was a victim of its own success, and overexposure, but Regis was fine; he had a steady day job, after all.

Regis Philbin may go down as one of the best-liked TV personalities of all time.

Which is why he's been in our living rooms for half a century.

Sometimes the best talents are the ones you can't teach.

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