A TV Star Movingly Recalled The Last Meal She Shared With The Iconic Regis Philbin

Iconic broadcaster Regis Philbin’s death sent a shockwave of sadness through the television industry. A titan of show business, his career lasted over six decades, encompassing daytime TV, hosting talk shows, game shows and even singing. In the weeks following his death, one of his longest serving co-hosts emotionally recounted the last meal she shared with her old friend.

When Philbin died on July 24, 2020 at the age of 88, a television legend passed. His family released a heartfelt statement the following day. It read, “We are deeply saddened to share that our beloved Regis Philbin passed away last night of natural causes, one month shy of his 89th birthday.”

The statement went on to speak of Philbin’s unique qualities. It read, “His family and friends are forever grateful for the time we got to spend with him — for his warmth, his legendary sense of humor, and his singular ability to make every day into something worth talking about. We thank his fans and admirers for their incredible support over his 60-year career and ask for privacy as we mourn his loss.”

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Philbin’s cause of death was later confirmed by the Farmington, Connecticut chief medical examiner’s office. He died from a, “myocardial infarction due to coronary artery disease and hypertension.” Philbin had struggled with heart issues in his later life. He had an angioplasty procedure, which widens blocked or narrowed coronary arteries, in 1993 and also a triple heart bypass in 2007.

Tributes immediately poured in from all corners of the entertainment industry. Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest, who host the ABC syndicated morning talk show Philbin co-hosted from 1983 to 2011, posted a heartfelt message on Seacrest’s Instagram account. They wrote, “We are beyond saddened to learn about the loss of Regis Philbin.”

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Ripa and Seacrest declared Philbin, “the ultimate class act, bringing his laughter and joy into our homes every day on Live for more than 23 years. We were beyond lucky to have him as a mentor in our careers and aspire every day to fill his shoes on the show. We send our deepest love and condolences to his family and hope they can find some comfort in knowing he left the world a better place.”

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Late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel tweeted, “Regis was a great broadcaster, a good friend and a tremendous amount of fun. He leaves behind a beautiful family and a TV legacy that will likely go unmatched.” He then referenced the late comedian Don Rickles, joking, “Regis, I hope our friend Rickles met you at the pearly gates with open arms and a slew of the insults you loved so much.”

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Executive Chairman of The Walt Disney Company Bob Iger tweeted, “We are heartbroken to hear that a long-time colleague and friend, Regis Philbin, passed away at the age of 88. Regis graced us with warmth, humor and self-deprecating wit, always bringing happiness to us all.” He concluded with, “Rest in peace, Regis.”

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Ross Mathews, also known as “Ross the Intern” on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno went with a personal, yet humorous, message of remembrance. He tweeted, “Watching Regis Philbin as a kid was so influential. His easy nature, storytelling, and uproarious sense of humor made me want to be like him.”

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Matthews continued, “We met in the early 2000s and I told him I’d always wanted to meet him. He smiled, shook my hand, and said, ‘Well, now you have.’ A class act.” Seinfeld star Jason Alexander also told of personal experience with Philbin, tweeting, “On the occasions I got to be with him, he was always a bright light, endlessly interesting and interested in everyone.”

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It was clear how many people’s lives Philbin touched during his career, but where did it all begin for him? Born on August 25, 1931 in New York City, Philbin was raised in the Bronx. His parents were Irish Catholics named Frank and Florence, and Philbin was their eldest son. His unusual first name was inspired by the Regis High School in Manhattan, which his father attended.

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After graduating from Cardinal Hayes High School, Philbin attended the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He achieved his degree in sociology in 1953. He went on to join the U.S. Navy, serving as a supply officer. However, his future would not be in the military, and by 1955 he had been hired as a page at The Tonight Show.

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After a few years of fulfilling miscellaneous industry jobs, Philbin became a film-delivery man at the Los Angeles television station KCOP-TV. Fittingly, his sharp sense of humor led to his first real break in show business. He began writing funny reviews of KCOP-TVs newscasts and posted them up on walls backstage. His colleagues found them so amusing that he was offered a position as a news and sports writer.

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This role led to other similar ones, with Philbin gaining experience with news and reporting positions in both television and radio. In 1961 he was given the chance to host his own talk show on KOGO-TV in San Diego. The Regis Philbin Show was a low-budget endeavour, however, with no money available to hire a writing staff.

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However, the lack of writers wound up being a blessing in disguise for Philbin. It compelled him to come up with the off-the-cuff hosting style he would later become known for. Inspired by Jack Paar, the second host of The Tonight Show, Philbin would begin each episode by conversing with his audience, sharing his own thoughts and feelings on life and current events.

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In 1967 Philbin had his first taste of true national exposure when he became the host’s “sidekick” on The Joey Bishop Show. Bishop would jovially make fun of Philbin, and though the audience loved it, Philbin didn’t like being the butt of the joke all the time. He also got wind that ABC executives weren’t happy with his work and disliked his accent. So, he sensationally quit while live on air in 1968.

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However, Philbin came back a few nights later, seemingly assured by Bishop that he and the network wanted him to stay. He would subsequently work on the show until 1969. Amazingly, Philbin admitted in his 1995 autobiography I’m Only One Man! that he and Bishop had pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes and executed a publicity stunt, designed to steal some of rival talk show host Johnny Carson’s audience.

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A hugely successful stint on A.M. Los Angeles from 1975 to 1981 saw Philbin take the show from the lowest rated morning broadcast in the local area to the number one ratings king. Then in 1982 he returned to his native New York to co-host WABC-TVs The Morning Show with Cyndy Garvey. However, it was in 1985 that Philbin would find the on-air partnership that would define his career.

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Kathie Lee Gifford joined Philbin on The Morning Show and they would prove to be the perfect morning television double act. Ratings skyrocketed. In 1988 the show became syndicated nationally and was renamed Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee. It became a television institution and, during his tenure on the show, Philbin and Lee were jointly nominated for an Emmy Award eight years in a row from 1993 to 2000.

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However, Gifford and Philbin didn’t just host their morning show together. They collaborated on two books: Entertaining with Regis and Kathie Lee and Cooking with Regis and Kathie Lee. They co-hosted The Miss America Pageant. In fact, their status as an iconic due was even exploited when they leant their vocal talents to animation, voicing Typhon and Echidna in Disney’s 1998 Hercules movie.

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In 1999 Philbin moved into the game show arena, taking up hosting duties on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Based on a massively popular British show, this went on to become the highest rated primetime game show in American history. This runaway success allowed Philbin to increase his annual salary in 2000 and the $20 million he negotiated was the most ever paid to a game show host.

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Philbin’s enduring popularity was proven yet again when Gifford left their show in 2000 and was replaced with soap opera actress Kelly Ripa. The show became Live! With Regis and Kelly and the ratings behemoth continued unabated. Philbin won two Daytime Emmy’s for Outstanding Talk Show Host during this period.

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In 2004 Philbin would make history when he surpassed Hugh Downs and set a new Guinness World Record for “Most Hours on Camera.” Over the course of his career, he had amassed a mind-boggling 15,188 hours (nearly 633 days) in front of television cameras. November 2011 saw his last episode of Live! With Regis and Kelly and after this he would transition into a role as monthly recurring co-host on The Rachael Ray Show.

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It didn’t take long after Philbin’s death for Gifford to appear on the Today show to pay tribute to her late friend. An emotional recounting of the details of her final encounter with her greatest co-host and his wife Joy followed. She revealed that she visited the Philbins’ only a few short weeks before his death.

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“I was up from Tennessee, where I live most of the time, and of course the first call I always make is to Regis and Joy,” said Gifford. “I said, ‘Can we get together, can we have some lunch?’ So, they came over about two weeks ago. We just had the best time.”

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Gifford and Philbin also spent some time together at her home. She revealed, “We sat here on my screen porch and we laughed ourselves sick. We always just picked up right where we left off. You know, I was with him 15 years, but it’s been 20 years since I left the show. And we’ve become dear friends through the years.”

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However, despite enjoying the reunion with Philbin so much, Gifford found herself in a reflective mood when he and Joy left. She told Today host Hoda Kotb, “I just thought to myself, ‘Lord, is that the last time I’m going to see my friend?’ Cause he was failing, I could tell.”

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In the end, Gifford has chosen to cherish this last lunch date with Philbin. She said, “I was just so grateful the Lord gave me that final time. And it was so precious because when I talked to Joy the day that I found out right after he had passed, she said, ‘Kathie, he hadn’t laughed in a long, long time.’”

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Gifford continued, remarking that Joy told her, “’I was so worried about him. The day that we came to have lunch with you was the last time I heard him laugh.’” Gifford then added, “That will forever be a precious gift the Lord gave me, that I got to laugh again with one of my best friends in all my lifetime.”

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Drawing a parallel between Philbin and her late husband Frank, who passed away at the age of 84 in 2014, Gifford said, “I think he was like Frank. He was just ready, you know?” She added, “So many of his friends had died. His dearest friends had died the week before, actually. He was ready to go.”

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Gifford revealed she was informed of Philbin’s passing soon after it happened on Friday July 24. Two days later, she paid a visit to the Philbins, bringing food and, “one of every gift wine I had.” She said the family was huddled together in the living room, looking through pictures. Gifford said, “There were thousands of pictures and we reminisced for a little while.”

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Her husband’s passing in 2014 had given Gifford insight into the grief the Philbin family was experiencing, so she made sure not to stay with them longer than necessary. The last thing she wanted to do was intrude. She believed, “You love your friends reaching out, but you also desperately need that private time as a family.”

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“I was just grateful to have the time with them and comfort them a little bit,” said Gifford, “let them know that I believe with all my heart that I know where Regis is and I know who he’s with.” She then explained that she and Philbin had spoken about death, the afterlife, and the nature of faith many times over the course of their friendship.

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Gifford said Philbin was always curious during these conversations and made a point to listen closely to her point of view. She said, “We always respected each other’s opinions so highly. You know, in all the years we were together we never had one cross word.” When Kotb then asked what Gifford would miss the most about Philbin, her voice broke slightly as she responded, “Everything.”

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On a happier note, Gifford fondly remembered the off-hand, unscripted energy she and Philbin brought to Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee from 1988 to 2000. She said, “When we first started, we had no idea what we had, but we knew what we didn’t want. We didn’t want writers, we didn’t want a million producers, we didn’t want it overproduced. We just wanted to sit there and have fun together.”

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Gifford continued, “We never talked before the show. We didn’t have what they call ‘elements’ in our business. He’d hold up the newspaper, and we’re off to the races.” Additionally, sometimes a family matter, such as Gifford’s son Cody being ill, would be the thing to spur conversation. She said, “Or, I’d say Cody threw up, and we were off to the races. We never planned it.”

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At the core of it all, Gifford believed she and Philbin were ideal personalities for a career in front of the cameras. They also deeply admired each other and shared the same sense of humor. She said, “He was an entertainer in his guts, and so was I, and so when we came together, although we didn’t have a friendship yet, we had a mutual respect for what we had accomplished already in our careers.”

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In early August 2020, Kotb told Entertainment Tonight that she had contacted Gifford in the wake of Philbin’s death. Interestingly, she only wanted to talk about the good times. Kotb said, “I called Kathie after his passing and she talked about how he had been frail when he had last seen her but all she could think about were these years and years of the richness that they had together.”

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Kotb added that Philbin “said the best years of his professional life were the ones spent with Kath, and I just thought to myself, ‘Wow.’ Anybody who met Reg — you met him a million times, loved him. I think, you know, what strikes me when I think of him coming in this studio is how he belonged with us.”

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“And when I say us, I don’t just mean Kathie Lee, Jenna and me — our people who are on-air — he belonged with the crew,” clarified Kotb. “Like, he delighted in entertaining people. Didn’t matter if cameras were on or off and he always kind of led with kindness and he always just seemed happy to be there.”

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