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Who Wants to Be a Millionaire host Regis Philbin dies at 88

Mr. Philbin in 2007 with Kelly Ripa, who replaced Ms. Gifford as co-host in 2001, and who became known for playing his chatterbox sidekick.

Regis Philbin, TV’s Enduring Everyman, Dies at 88

With patience, determination and folksy, spontaneous wit, Mr. Philbin climbed to pre-eminence relatively late in life on talk and game shows.

Regis Philbin, the talk- and game-show host who regaled America over morning coffee with Kathie Lee Gifford and Kelly Ripa for decades, and who made television history in 1999 by introducing the runaway hit “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” died on Friday night. He was 88.

His death was announced by his family in a statement. The statement did not say where he died or specify the cause.

Mr. Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford interviewed Hillary Clinton in 1996, when she was the first lady. “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee” was a fixture of morning television from 1988 to 2000.

In a world of annoyances, Mr. Philbin was the indignant Everyman, under siege from all sides — by the damned computers, the horrible traffic, the inconsiderate people who were always late. There was no soap in the men’s room. Hailing a cab was hopeless. Losing a wallet in a rental car? Fuhgeddaboudit! Even his own family was down on him for buying a chain saw!

And was it possible, he wondered, to ask ever so softly in a crowded pharmacy where to find the Fleet enemas without the clerk practically shouting: “Whaddaya want, buddy? A Fleet enema?”

“Aggravation is an art form in his hands,” wrote Bill Zehme, the co-author of two Philbin memoirs. “Annoyance stokes him, sends him forth, gives him purpose. Ruffled, he becomes electric, full of play and possibility. There is magnificence in his every irritation.”

From faceless days as a studio stagehand when television was barely a decade old, to years of struggle as a news writer, TV actor and sidekick to Joey Bishop, Mr. Philbin, with patience, determination and folksy, spontaneous wit, climbed to pre-eminence relatively late in life on talk and game shows.

Regis, as he was universally known, was a television personality for nearly six decades and an ABC superstar since 1988, when his New York talk show went national. But he also wrote five books, appeared in movies, made records as a singer, gave concerts and was a one-man industry of spinoffs, from shirts and ties to medical advice and computer games.

By almost any measure — ubiquity, longevity, versatility, popularity — he succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of a stickball-playing kid from the Bronx. Near the end of his career, Forbes put his net worth at $150 million, and Guinness World Records said he was the most-watched person in television history, with more than 17,000 hours of airtime — equivalent to two full years, night and day. (The previous holder of that record, Hugh Downs, died this month.)

His forte was unscripted talk. Shunning writers and rehearsals, relying on trivia and his own off-the-cuff comments in a 15-minute “host chat” and then on good chemistry with co-hosts and guests, he ad-libbed for 28 years on “The Morning Show” (1983-88), “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee” (1988-2000), “Live! With Regis” (2000-1) and “Live! With Regis and Kelly” (2001-11).

Unlike most late-show monologues, Mr. Philbin’s were personal: self-mocking accounts of life’s woes and misadventures. The rest of the show might be anything: Ms. Gifford talking about her pregnancies or her dogs, Chardonnay and Chablis; Regis dancing with Chippendale hunks, unable to get his pants off over his shoes, hopping about in his underwear.

Mr. Philbin and Ms. Gifford often exchanged barbed put-downs — he chided her for being late; she called him a jerk — but they rarely drew blood, even when the topics were the infidelities of her husband, the sportscaster Frank Gifford, or allegations that child labor was being exploited in Honduras to make the Kathie Lee clothing line for Walmart. (She denied knowledge of sweatshop conditions and campaigned to protect children from them.)

Along with homemaking advice, cooking demonstrations and celebrity interviews, Mr. Philbin had a predilection for sports guests. A Notre Dame alumnus, he talked football, boxing and basketball like the teammate he had never been. He worked out in a gym regularly, but he also shamelessly exaggerated his own prowess. He once put on wrestling togs and skull-and-crossbones tattoos for a WrestleMania skit.

“Our show is Reege living out his jock dreams by racing across Columbus Avenue in traffic to catch passes from Joe Namath and Terry Bradshaw,” Ms. Gifford wrote in a memoir. “It’s Reege mussing up wrestling manager Freddie Blassie’s hair and getting a chair tossed at him; shadowboxing with Razor Ruddock; weight lifting with Joe Piscopo; jousting with American Gladiators Lace and Gemini.”

After Ms. Gifford’s departure and an interregnum with no regular co-host, Ms. Ripa joined the show in 2001 and was judged a refreshing change: sprightly, irreverent, clever at playing the chatterbox sidekick to the irascible Mr. Philbin. He often made a joke of looking bored while she rattled on.

In one episode, the “American Idol” star Clay Aiken playfully put a hand over her mouth to shut her up.

“That’s a no-no,” she snapped, complaining that she had no idea where his hand had been.

While still doing his morning show, Mr. Philbin in 1999 became host of the original American version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Modeled after a highly successful British quiz show, it soared to popularity overnight as the highest-rated prime-time game show in television history. At a time when game shows were often seen as disreputable ghosts of the past, an astonishing 30 million viewers tuned in three nights in a week.

The show, whose concept was so emphatic that its creators put no question mark in the title, single-handedly lifted ABC to first place from third among the networks; made Mr. Philbin ABC’s biggest star; raised the stock value of the network’s parent company, Disney; and revolutionized ideas about what constituted a prime-time hit.

A tournament-style show in which contestants answered consecutive multiple-choice questions for cash sums rising to $1 million, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” was addictive. It was designed around relentlessly rising tension, with throbbing music, flashing strobe lights, a loudly ticking clock and Mr. Philbin, the inquisitor, posing questions on a scale of silly to impossible and then demanding, “Is that your final answer?”

“To sit in the audience, with the lights underneath the Plexiglas floor swiveling in all directions and a huge camera boom sweeping overhead, is to feel as if one were inside a giant pinball machine,” Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker in 2000.

After Ms. Gifford’s departure and an interregnum with no regular co-host, Ms. Ripa joined the show in 2001 and was judged a refreshing change: sprightly, irreverent, clever at playing the chatterbox sidekick to the irascible Mr. Philbin. He often made a joke of looking bored while she rattled on.

In one episode, the “American Idol” star Clay Aiken playfully put a hand over her mouth to shut her up.

“That’s a no-no,” she snapped, complaining that she had no idea where his hand had been.

While still doing his morning show, Mr. Philbin in 1999 became host of the original American version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Modeled after a highly successful British quiz show, it soared to popularity overnight as the highest-rated prime-time game show in television history. At a time when game shows were often seen as disreputable ghosts of the past, an astonishing 30 million viewers tuned in three nights in a week.

The show, whose concept was so emphatic that its creators put no question mark in the title, single-handedly lifted ABC to first place from third among the networks; made Mr. Philbin ABC’s biggest star; raised the stock value of the network’s parent company, Disney; and revolutionized ideas about what constituted a prime-time hit.

A tournament-style show in which contestants answered consecutive multiple-choice questions for cash sums rising to $1 million, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” was addictive. It was designed around relentlessly rising tension, with throbbing music, flashing strobe lights, a loudly ticking clock and Mr. Philbin, the inquisitor, posing questions on a scale of silly to impossible and then demanding, “Is that your final answer?”

“To sit in the audience, with the lights underneath the Plexiglas floor swiveling in all directions and a huge camera boom sweeping overhead, is to feel as if one were inside a giant pinball machine,” Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker in 2000.

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