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REGIS? YES! REGIS!!

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As a stage act, it ranked right up there in blank-verse quotient with Andy Kaufman’s famous skit, the one where he lip-syncs over a recording of the cartoon character Mighty Mouse. There was Regis Philbin, on the stage of the Resorts Atlantic City Casino-Hotel Superstar Theater. More than 1,400 people had paid, or been comped, $40 a ticket. And Philbin was pecking out, with painful pauses, a skeletal version of “Whistle While You Work” on the piano.

He said it was from his piano-lesson primer, “Alfred’s Basic Adult Duet Book, Level 1.”

“Doesn’t it tear your heart out?” he said, as he negotiated shakily through the song’s coda. “This is not an act. I just can’t get it.”

Well, apparently we do. Because it seems that there is nothing that Philbin can’t do to entertain us. He is the Millennial Man, as ubiquitous as mosquitoes at a summer camp-out. Not since the heyday of test patterns has one visage taken up so much TV time. Whatever he does--and some have clearly questioned what it is exactly Philbin does--we love it.

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“When you think of Regis, his persona is pixieish,” said Gary Edgerton, chairman of the communication/theater arts department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and co-editor of the Journal of Popular Film and Television. “He will tweak people. But he can be quite supportive with guests who are nervous or awkward. He is our favorite uncle.”

Even his name is part of his appeal. “Having an odd name helps, sure,” said Dr. Richard Wessler, chair of the psychology department at New York’s Pace University. (Regis is named for his father’s Manhattan Jesuit high school.) “When Elvis Presley came around, what was an Elvis? Having an odd name makes him lovable, also unique. He’s trustworthy. He’s our neighbor. He’s Regis.” Yes, he is. And he’s going to stay Regis as long as we let him.

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The couple-hundred luckies who have managed to cadge a seat for a taping of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” have filtered into the studio on 67th Street near Central Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. A young Eddie Murphy look-alike named Quentin Heggs flies up and down and around the space-age set, warming up the crowd.

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“No black contestants,” says Heggs, shaking his head in mock shame. “Don’t we know enough?”

The set looks curiously smaller in person; the depth it appears to have on-screen may come from mirror pieces under a plexiglass floor on which Philbin and the contestant of the moment sit before their computer stands. Heggs asks those in the crowd for their best jokes. One volunteers this: A man asks his wife for sex. She says, “No.” He says, “Is that your final answer?” She says, “Yes.” He says, “Then I want a life line. I want to call a friend.”

“Congratulations,” says Heggs, in mock-exasperation while throwing the joke-teller a “Millionaire” T-shirt. “For the ninth consecutive night, we’ve heard that joke.” Still, five nights later in Atlantic City, Philbin tells the joke--albeit with references to himself and his wife, Joy--and the crowd, a bit blue-haired and overwhelmingly female, roars. Our favorite uncle makes us smile once again.

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“Look at this! Can you believe it?! Filled! I tell you, it’s amazing! It’s wonderful!” Philbin is speaking, as he often does, in exclamation marks, as he shows off the large wall calendar in his dressing room for “Millionaire.” He points to the thick jottings in Magic Marker on the calendar through the end of March. There are 2 and 5 p.m. “Millionaire” tapings three to five times a week. Each weekday morning, there is space for “Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee.” Three days have 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. blocked out to record audio and video for the update of the CD-ROM version of “Millionaire.” The Atlantic City dates, rehearsal for those Atlantic City dates and guesting on David Letterman’s first comeback “Late Show” are all on the Regis To-Do list.

He took the “Millionaire” gig because Joy thought he needed something to fill his afternoons. As Philbin puts it: “She was out many afternoons, so she said, ‘Why don’t you find something to do?’ I thought it might be something to kill, say, one afternoon a week. I didn’t anticipate the hit that ‘Millionaire’ was going to be.”

He’s talking about a new contract with “Millionaire” and in his own way has made it clear that in the wake of the show’s success, he wants a raise. (Sources put his current fee at about $100,000 a show.) His “Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee” contract is due to run another year and a half.

“Sometimes I get tired. Sometimes it seems ridiculous,” said Philbin, sneaking a peek at his TV, which is playing his favorite station, CNBC. “But most of the time, who can complain?”

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Even the other most-exposed TV icon, Rosie O’Donnell, who herself was recently a life-line caller on “Millionaire,” is in awe. “Frankly, he is too big to be stopped,” she said. “Let Regis be Regis!”

That may well be Philbin’s whole charm, that he is Regis, all the time.

“You know when Jim Carrey made ‘The Cable Guy,’ big mistake. Regis always plays the same part,” Dr. Jeff Golub-Evans said. “He’s actually not playing a part, just being himself. There is a certain comfort in that.”

If there is someone Philbin could be excused for being uncomfortable around, it’s Golub-Evans, his dentist.

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“He is a regular guy and that’s what it is about him,” Golub-Evans said. “He remembers dental assistants--names and birthdays of their children. We have other celebrity patients here and they insist on coming up a back way. Regis sits in the waiting room, but he realizes everyone recognizes him and smiles and treats them like a next-door neighbor.”

But then, sometimes it backfires, even for our favorite uncle. “I get into a cab and I notice the cabby is looking at me,” Philbin tells the crowd in Atlantic City. “I smile and I hear him say, ‘You look just like. . . .’ And he can’t quite figure it out. So I eventually tell him, ‘Regis Philbin?’ ‘Nah, not that jerk,’ he says.”

He’s even Kathie Lee Gifford’s favorite uncle, telling only the most self-deprecating stories about their 15 years together. “The question people always ask me: How do you get along with Kathie Lee?” he tells the Atlantic City faithful. And they groan in expectation. “No, really. No arguments, no harsh words in all this time. Well, there was the time I didn’t talk to her for two weeks. Didn’t want to interrupt her.”

Gifford gave her take on the je ne sais quoi that is Regis in the introduction to Philbin’s 1995 autobiography (written with Bill Zehme), “I’m Only One Man.” “The charm of Regis is he is still the same scared and shy little Catholic boy afraid to knock on the door of the radio station at Notre Dame to ask for a job,” she wrote. “He’s still the same kid who got dumped after the prom. He’s still the same young man from the Bronx whose mother used to tell him, ‘The poorhouse is just around the corner, Mr. Big Shot’ (even though the street is now called Regis Philbin Avenue).”

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Perhaps Philbin is so loved, even in his time of blatant overexposure, because he is reaching his greatest fame at age 66. Though he has had a pretty decent career hosting variety and talk shows locally and nationally, it’s been a steady, workmanlike road to the top. In an era where multimillion-dollar ballplayers disdain kids seeking autographs and Internet nerdlings make even more, Philbin seems to represent the old work ethic. He’s been divorced and has a son with serious birth defects. He’s been fired and canceled, just like us. He’s had angioplasty and has to put up with a nervy boss young enough to be his son. But he hasn’t given up being Regis.

“I was trying to think of a funny term for Regis-mania, but all I can think of is that popular uncle at holiday parties,” said Matthew T. Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington think tank. “He’s lively, punchy, but still sweet. Regis is the anti-hunk who adds to the realism of ‘Millionaire.’

“No one will watch a game show hosted by an extremely handsome person,” Felling continued. “Regis is Richard Simmons in a suit, quick-witted and nearly sexless. Alex Trebek is someone you are intimidated by at a dinner party. Regis is the guy you make fun of at happy hour. But he listens, he really listens. And that puts you at ease.”

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It is the morning after Gifford’s last night subbing for Carol Burnett on Broadway, and she is a-babble. Names are dropping from her lips stage right and left about who was at her after-party at the 21 Club. She’s gushing and effusing and the audience at “Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee” is atwitter with her. Philbin sits a bit sideways in his chair and looks at his proto-niece proudly, barely saying a word. After a few minutes, there is a pause in her story. “Look at her!” Regis sputters out in exclamation points, and completely without irony. “The woman is on top of the world!”

If that is the case, then Philbin is flying over Earth like Santa on Christmas morning, listening to what the kiddies want and giving it to them straight. He is as busy as he wants to be, and he wants to be busy. He needs no life lines. But let’s let him have his final answer. The question: What makes you likable?

“I don’t know. It’s a hard thing to answer about yourself,” said Philbin, shy and embarrassed. “I guess it’s good genes. My parents brought me up well, to have pleasure when making people happy.”

But then he leaped to his exclamation points. “Oh, no! I can see the headlines now!” he exclaimed. “Regis Thinks He’s a Nice Guy! Who Does He Think He Is?!”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Life of Regis

A look back on the life and career of Regis Francis Xavier Philbin, born Aug. 25, 1933, in New York, N.Y.

1953: Graduated Notre Dame University, serving in the Navy immediately afterward.

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1955: Page at NBC in New York.

1955: Married to Kay Faylan (whom he divorced in 1968). The couple has two children: Amy, born 1961, and Daniel, born 1967.

1955: Gets first job in Hollywood as stagehand at KCOP-TV, Los Angeles.

1957: Moves to San Diego to work first in radio, then in local television news, doing features at two stations, finally ending up with a talk show, “The Regis Philbin Show,” on KGTV-TV.

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Early 1960s: Worked in Los Angeles as a talk-show host, locally with a show called “Philbin’s People” and then syndicated around the country on Westinghouse from 1964-65 on “The Regis Philbin Show.”

1967: Becomes sidekick to Joey Bishop on Bishop’s late-night ABC talk show. When Bishop bows out in 1969, Philbin takes over as host for the last several weeks of the show.

1970: Marries Joy Senese. They have two daughters: Joanna, born 1973, and Jennifer, born 1974.

1970s: Hosts a series of local talk shows in Los Angeles, including an Emmy-winning seven years on “A.M. Los Angeles.”

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1975-77: Hosts two game shows: “The Neighbors” on ABC and the syndicated “Almost Anything Goes.”

1981-82: Teamed with Mary Hart for another program called “The Regis Philbin Show,” this time on weekday mornings on NBC.

1982-88: “Regis Philbin’s Lifestyles” runs on cable’s Lifetime. It’s a show about health, fitness and cooking.

1983: Teamed with Cindy Garvey on “The Morning Show” at WABC-TV in New York.

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1985: Kathie Lee Gifford becomes Philbin’s “Morning Show” co-host. Ratings improve.

1988: Show is renamed “Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee” and is syndicated nationally. Philbin is nominated seven times for Emmys through the years.

1993: After undergoing angioplasty, puts out video “Regis: My Personal Workout.”

1995: Writes his autobiography with Bill Zehme, “I’m Only One Man.”

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1999: Becomes host of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”


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