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The First 15 Minutes of Regis Philbin's Career

Gary North
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Nov. 21, 2011

I am not a big Regis Philbin fan. The only time I watched one of his shows was last Friday night -- his final show. I had set the machine to record it show that morning. In his total career, I had watched him for fewer than 15 minutes. This gives you some indication of my commitment to Mr. Philbin.

I wish I had seen his first on-camera performance. It lasted 15 minutes.

I grew up in southern California. The least watched TV station in the region was KCOP -- channel 13 -- which was appropriately numbered. The station was always trying to find performers who could attract a large audience. It never did in my day.

One of KCOP's celebrities in the mid-1950s was a lively talk show host named Tom Duggan. I did not watch him until the early 1960s, when I was in college. By then he had switched to a rival station. At KCOP he had two shows: an evening show and a 15-minute sports show during the day.

Duggan had a drinking problem. Sometimes he would not show up for the afternoon show. One of his writers was Philbin. One day when Duggan did not show up, the manager put Philbin in front of the camera. He later said he was scared, but at the end of the show, he knew he wanted to be on TV.

He had wanted to be in the industry for years. He had been a page in New York City for Steve Allen's The Tonight Show. But this was the first time he had been on-camera.

The story of what happened next is in this biography. He did not think he could break in full-time at KCOP. He quit. He had no replacement job, no fall-back position. Fortunately, his now ex-boss helped him find a job a newscaster at a low-powered AM radio station in San Diego.

In a way, his career then mimicked Allen's. Allen had started out in Los Angeles as a late-night disc jockey. But, to liven up things, he invited people to come to the studio. More and more came. He began interacting with them, taking the microphone into the audience. Then local celebrities started asking to be on the show. Allen invented the talk show format. He went from radio to TV.

Philbin did the same, with lots of ups and downs.

There was this difference. Allen's career slid after the Steve Allen Show, a variety show he quit The Tonight Show to host. He walked away from a gold mine for a silver mine. Then the ore played out. I have written about this before. Philbin's career never slid for long.

He had a gift for improvisation, or so I have read. He was not a comedian. He was a writer. But he could interact well with a live audience.

As it turned out, Philbin became the longest-running survivor in the genre. The other talk show hosts came and went, but at 80 -- he looks a decade younger -- he was still at the top of his game on Friday. He almost died of a heart attack a few years ago, but still he would not quit.

On the farewell show, the Rent choir sang a song, "995,600 minutes." That was 28 years on his morning show. But there were lots more minutes on the air in the quarter century that preceded this show. That is a talk-host show record which nobody is likely to break.

He was upbeat. He was not teary, at least not on-screen. He did say that his greatest sense of satisfaction was that he thought the show had made people feel better and happy. I suppose it did. I never saw it. But it is clear that he had spent his life making his job his calling. It was the most important thing he could have done in which he would have been difficult to replace.

Jerry Seinfeld will try. Yes, Seinfeld, who also quit at the peak of his career. But it's only for a few days. I imagine that it's a favor to Philbin to keep the show's ratings up in the transition. I find it hard to believe that he wants this as his new career day job, which has to be taped early in the morning. His co-host, a perky blond who seems to connect with the audience, will have to find a way to make the transition. I hope something works out for her, but I have no intention of finding out if it does.

The key to his career was his decision to leave his job as a writer, with no fall-back position, when it was clear that he could not break in at KCOP. He had to leave town. KCOP was the bottom rung of the TV ladder in L.A. He had to go to radio in a backwater city in a backwater station.

If he had stayed at KCOP, he might have moved up. But to what? KCOP was at best a rung up to KTTV, which was not much better. But he had a taste for performing, and he could not postpone his departure. He sensed what his calling was, and he did what he had to. He went into the boonies to hone his craft.

Tom Duggan died in 1969 after a car accident. He never really had much impact. The most important thing he ever did was to fail to show up on the day that nobody was available to replace him for 15 minutes except Regis Philbin.

I remember reading a piece by Duggan in the summer of 1962, I think, after his release from a hospital. My guess is that he was drying out from a binge. He said this. Someone had come to see him and had left $20 cash behind as a gift. (That was $150 today.) He said the money had really helped. He could buy cigarettes and other basics. He was clearly down and almost out.

Then I think of Philbin's career.

We never know how fame will turn out. We cannot know what 15 minutes will lead to.

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