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Aug. 23-29, 1999



Regis Deserves This One

        Regis Rules!
       Oh, go on, I feel half the brickbats being tossed at me from some quarters about being a cheerleader for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
       In addition to the elation the entire nation (including many who have held their noses at game shows) is experiencing, I'm finding this the ultimate denouement for Regis Philbin. The road to hosting the nation's number one television show---on a network which, three decades ago, Regis publicly declared did not want him---has taken many detours.
        I go back with Regis to my junior high years. When Joey Bishop made his much-vaunted and ultimately-unsuccessful challenge to Johnny Carson in 1967, Regis was brought on board as Joey's sidekick. After a successful stint in local television in San Diego and a short-lived syndicated talk show of his own, Regis had his first network exposure.
       Legends are divided on what happened to Regis during his three years on The Joey Bishop Show on ABC. As one who rarely missed him, I'll share my own perceptions.
       Joey was the big star, Rat Pack alum, trumpeted as the man who would bring ABC late night success. Regis was supposed to be the network rookie, the yes man, the kid to read the commercials.
       Instead, in the first year, Regis became every mother's son or son-in-law. He was a big brother to kids and teens. A running gag had Regis doing his impersonation of actor John Carradine saying, "Thank you." Rege even sang, on occasion, including a forgettable number he had recorded on a 45, "The Best Thing You Ever Had." Regis was rapidly becoming the Julius La Rosa to Joey's Arthur Godfrey. If some reports from 1968 are accurate, Regis' fan mail was threatening to outclip Joey's.
       Joey's ratings were not rivaling Johnny's at a level ABC was pleased with and Joey was looking for a scapegoat. On a Tuesday night in July 1968, at the point when Joey regularly brought Regis onstage, Regis was obviously distraught. He never criticized Joey on the air and, in fact, said---to the shock of the live audience and the nation---"I've known for weeks now ABC has wanted me off this show. They feel a different sidekick will bring higher ratings. So, Joey, I've made up my mind. I'm going to leave." In the most dramatic walkoff from a television series since Jack Paar did the same thing in the late '50s from The Tonight Show, Regis left the stage.
       In fact, Joey had been less than benevolent to Regis on air for months. TV Radio Mirror reported "it didn't take a genius to see Joey was putting the knock on Regis."
       One week later, after a huge buildup, Regis came back to the sounds of the Notre Dame fight song, leaving some to speculate the whole thing may have been a publicity stunt. Truth be told, the night of Regis' return (Joey was taping his show one night prior to broadcast) was so hyped, the episode was one of only three times Bishop ever beat Carson in the ratings.
       Sixteen months later, Bishop left the show---for good, five weeks ahead of its cancellation by ABC. On Thanksgiving Eve 1969, Joey was informed by his agent the network wanted to drop him, effective New Year's week. Joey decided to make his own farewell that night, leaving Regis to do the rest of the show. Over the next five weeks, Regis emceed the show seven times and proved himself an adept interviewer and humorist.
       For the next seven years, he would toil as a local emcee in Los Angeles, perfecting the act which would eventually lead him back to national syndication in the late 1980s. He was even one of four finalists considered to become the original version of Good Morning America. Yet, he was a missing person to his old Bishop Show fans.

       In 1976, ABC tapped Regis to return in both prime time and daytime. A replacement series which had been the surprise of the summer of '75 was tapped for Saturday nights to replace the ill-fated Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. Regis was the field commentator for Almost Anything Goes, a compendium of offbeat games between small-town competitors. In daytime, Regis was tapped to host one of the most forgettable games in network history.
       The Neighbors was a Bill Carruthers concoction which tried to exacerbate the Chuck Barris "relationship" formula. The premise was to see how much gossip a group of neighbors (predominantly the female variety) knew on each other. Regis tried his best but appeared terribly uncomfortable with the entire format, as well he should have. The ratings, ironically, were actually good, averaging an 8.2 and beating Guiding Light on CBS and Another World on NBC. Yet, Fred Silverman---who had just jumped from CBS to become president of ABC Entertainment---began micromanaging ABC's daytime schedule. He hated The Neighbors and Regis disappeared in 13 weeks.
       We won't cover the ground of Regis' latter history with his NBC morning show and the megasuccess of Live with Regis and Kathie Lee. Nonetheless, in the years before Regis struck gold in syndication, I always wondered why he wasn't recruited to do another game show. He had the air presence, the personality, and the light humor necessary for success.
       Regis has been joking for two weeks now of how "I've saved the network," but he really isn't wrong. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is making people tune to ABC in numbers they haven't since early in the decade. The show, itself, is magnetic enough but a poor host could have hurt it. Whichever programmer decided to slot Millionaire as an every-night strip ought to be given genius stripes. However, Regis Philbin is the glue who holds the whole package together.
       At least two of television's classic emcees have complimented Regis' work as host to me in the last week. What's ironic about all of this: in an era when many producers try to find the most recent Saturday Night Live alumnus or standup comic to host what has passed for game shows, of late, a 68-year-old man is proving them all wrong. I love it. Regis is the second oldest man ever to host a prime time network game and is drawing the network's best 18-49 demographics.
       That song Regis recorded and sang on Joey's show had lyrics which read, "Then you lost me...the best thing you ever had." ABC almost lost Regis 31 years ago because of inane network tampering and a jealous host. In what may or may not be the twilight of his career, he has become the best thing ABC ever had in the twilight of the century.
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