Regis Philbin, the most televised man in history, ends a run of affable irascibility this morning as he airs his last Live with Regis and Kelly. A few years ago, when he was about to debut as host of America’s Got Talent, I spent a little time with him to try to get at what made him so good at what is a very difficult-to-define job, hosting. It’s worth looking back at now:
[W]hile America may have talent, Regis does not. At least, he says, that’s what he thought when he became a San Diego TV host almost a half-century ago. “I wasn’t a comedian or a singer or a dancer,” he says. “I didn’t have any of the abilities you need to succeed in this business.” It wasn’t until 1967, when he became second banana on Joey Bishop’s late-night ABC show, that the Rat Packer told Philbin he chose him for his special talent. “I said, ‘What is it?'” Philbin recalls. “I was on pins and needles. He said, ‘You! You are a great listener!’ Which was not the answer I was hoping for.”
What Regis had, I came to realize, was the mastery of the kind of Zen ability required of a host: he had to be a distinctive personality that an audience would embrace, and someone who could disappear into the background when his guests needed to shine—be that on an interview show or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. TV is full of people who can do one or the other, but there’s a real trick to doing both:
[E]ven Philbin–the guy who does monologues about every dinner he eats and when he hosted Millionaire proclaimed, “I’m saving the network!”–finally says the key to the job is remembering that it’s not about you. Whether you’re talking to George Clooney or a guy with an oven on his face, it’s about “putting aside your ego and making your guests be better with you than they would with anybody else.”
In other words, it’s about being a good listener. Turns out that really is a talent.
In the process of listening, Regis became a guy millions of Americans wanted to listen to, even if it was to complain about something that happened to him on his latest vacation. A half
decade century and a zillion televised hours after starting his career, Regis has earned one morning where it is, in fact, about him.