Regis & Rickles bringing laughs to bergenPAC, you hockey puck!
Thirty years ago, I was backstage at WABC-TV’s “The Morning Show,” interviewing its hosts, Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Johnson, and telling them how they really, really should be syndicated.
Philbin agreed. “We have something special here,” he said. “And I think the rest of the country would enjoy it. But I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Fortunately, he was wrong. And two years later, Philbin and Johnson, who by then had become Kathie Lee Gifford, debuted coast to coast on “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee,” which soon became one of the most popular programs in the history of daytime television.
Much has happened since then, admits Philbin, who is appearing on Tuesday at bergenPAC alongside that other living legend, Don Rickles.
The Dalai Lama of insult comics, Rickles is, in Philbin’s estimation, a “terrific guy, a good friend and, I think, possibly the funniest comedian I’ve ever met.”
Should the numbers be important to you, Rickles hit the Big 9-0 in May, and Philbin turned 84 in August. Neither is apt to be tapped to replace Ryan Lochte in the next round of Speedo ads. And yet, both gentlemen still regularly hit the road, pop up on talk shows and continue to do what they do best — which in Philbin’s case is a little bit of everything.
“I introduce him, bring him out, and we talk a bit — discuss things we’ve done together, look at clips and ... whatever else happens,” Philbin says. “It’s a riot. And he’s the best there ever was.”
Philbin’s gift for off-the-cuff patter, punctuated by the occasional burst of exasperation — “I’m only one man!” — was honed in his earliest days on the air. “We didn’t have a budget for writers,” he recalls. “So I made do.”
His later on-air pairing with Kathie Lee seemed odd at first. He was a dyed-in-the-wool, Bronx-born, tell-it-like-it-is New Yorker. She was a decidedly perky, born-again Christian who had worked as a personal assistant to Anita Bryant before joining the casts of “Hee Haw Honeys” and “Name That Tune.” But somehow they brought out the best in each other, particularly during the first 15 minutes of the show, which was unscripted.
“That was always the way I wanted it,” he says, “with Kathie Lee, Kelly or whoever else was there. Backstage, I’d always say, ‘I don’t want to know anything beforehand.’ Tell me on the air — what you did, what kind of fun you had, and that’s the way it went.”
(He does note, however, that the celebrity interview segments were another story: “The kids who booked the show would write out questions for us.” But there was plenty of ad-libbing, too.)
I remind Philbin that one of the biggest fans of that part of the show, Barbara Walters, was a guest on the day I went to the set. “I knew she really liked the show,” I tell him, “and I tried approaching her, before she went on, to get a quote for my story. But your staff pounced on me, as if I was trying to attack the president. I never even got to ask my question.”
Philbin laughs. “Barbara Walters IS the president,” he says.
They’re still friends, he says. And his influence on her lives on, every day, on “The View.” As Walters has often said, the popular “Hot Topics” segment of that show, which is about to start its 20th season, was inspired by Regis and Kathie Lee.
Fans of “Live!” — which is now in the capable hands of Kelly Ripa — probably know that Philbin’s favorite guest was the late Perry Como. And today, Philbin becomes emotional just hearing the singer’s name.
“Yes, yes, he did the show several times, and he really was my all-time favorite guest,” Philbin says. “And I had always admired him as a performer. When I was younger I was always going to clubs in New Jersey or Long Island to hear him sing. Great voice. Great personality.”
Another moment he’ll never forget during his time on the show was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, since “Live!” really was live.
“We were getting made up, about to go on, and we weren’t sure what had happened,” he says. “Someone ran in and told us ‘There’s some big horror show happening downtown. They said a plane hit a building.’ We were backstage, we didn’t really know what was going on yet, we had no real details. What’s going on? But I knew right then — a plane hit a building? — we would never get on that day.
“Then, like everyone else,” he continues, “we were in shock. We weren’t back on the air for days.”
By that point in his career, Philbin had already carved out a second niche for himself, as host of the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” And he was on his way to breaking Hugh Downs’ Guinness Book record for most hours on television — logging 15,188 hours on the air in August 2004.
And he was just warming up.
Philbin departed “Live!” in 2011 and, although he makes frequent guest appearances on several shows, including Rachael Ray’s cooking and lifestyle show on ABC, he does consider himself retired.
Well, sort of.
“The thing about retirement,” he says, “is ... oh, I don’t know. You miss talking to people and seeing everybody every day. But after 28 years here [in the New York market] and 25 years in Hollywood, I was kind of tired. I like filling in when someone asks me. I did two days recently with Kathie Lee, and when something comes up — like this show I’m doing with Rickles — I’ll do it. And with Rickles — really, how could I say no to that?”
Asked if there’s anything he’d like to say to his fans in New Jersey, Philbin laughs and yells, “Come and see us! It’s going to be fun!”
And, yes, that’s his final answer.