THERE ARE Notre Dame fans — and then there’s Regis Philbin. The famed talk-show host has never been shy about sharing his passion for his alma mater — the greatest long-standing influence in his life, he says in his book How I Got This Way (HarperCollins). While on his book tour last November, Philbin stopped in Cincinnati. As a crowd of almost 1,000 fans eagerly awaited his appearance, Philbin sat down with St. Anthony Messenger to talk about his faith, his beloved university and the impact both have had on him.
Fighting Irish Spirit
“This was the first time I was left of the Hudson River, so it was quite an experience,” Philbin, a native New Yorker, recalls of his move to South Bend, Ind., in 1949. “And then to go to Notre Dame and be told over and over again what Notre Dame expects straightens you out in a hurry. It’s something you don’t forget. And I’m glad I heard it and felt the passion that most people do [there].”
Some of the most passionate people Philbin encountered while at Notre Dame were its football coaches, several of whom would become his mentors and friends. In fact, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz made such an impression that Philbin dedicated three chapters of his book to them.
Leahy provided Philbin his first life lesson in 1950. The team had just suffered a major upset to Purdue — its first loss in five years — and a crowd of shocked students, including Philbin, gathered outside the locker room, waiting to be consoled. “He told us … how sometimes during our lives, we, too, would be defeated by something or someone,” Philbin recalls in his book. “He explained that what had occurred on the field that day should only make us … want to win even more, make us understand that that’s what life is all about. It was all about getting back up again.”
Philbin carried that lesson with him through the inevitable ups and downs of his career. “It’s been very beneficial,” he tells St. Anthony Messenger. “It makes you stronger and overcome certain losses that occur in your life that everybody goes through one time or another.” Such as? “How about job loss?” Philbin offers. “That’s happened a couple of times, so you’ve just got to do a little prayer and hope for the best. I think your religion strengthens you in that regard.”
For Philbin, Notre Dame’s influence wasn’t found just on the football field. He says it’s the religious education he’s received, first at Our Lady of Solace Grammar School and Cardinal Hayes High School in New York’s South Bronx, and then at Notre Dame, that has grounded and guided him throughout his life.
“I think it solidified me, disciplined me and taught me an awful lot,” Philbin said while appearing on the TV show The Sunday Mass with New York’s Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan on Christmas Day 2009. “Everything I am right now I attribute to the 16 years I spent in Catholic education. This was great training for the life that followed. I don’t think other schools duplicate that in so many ways.”
How He Got Here
Regis Francis Xavier Philbin’s interest in show business sparked as a child. Listening to Bing Crosby croon on the radio every night, the altar server had visions of a singing career. But it was the Depression, times were tough, and at the urging of his parents to find his calling, he majored in sociology at the University of Notre Dame.
Although Philbin did finally admit to his parents his singing aspirations on the eve of his college graduation (and at their disapproval chose a career in television instead), he urges others not to delay their pursuit of their dreams. “You’ve got to tell everybody what you want to do so that maybe somewhere along the lines, somebody can help you achieve that,” he says. “But if you keep it quiet, no one will ever know about it and you will not succeed.” Philbin was in his late 50s before his road to success really began.
Following a two-year stint in the Navy after graduation, in which he was assigned to an LSM squadron in San Diego, inspecting inventory and advising supply officers, Philbin was ready to talk to just about anyone who could help him succeed. He worked his way through entry-level jobs on both coasts until his first break came with a Saturday night talk show in San Diego, where he modeled his icon Jack Paar, The Tonight Show host from 1957 to 1962, and formed the “host chat” style of conversation he’s so well-known for today.
In one of many twists of fate he’d encounter throughout his life, a glowing approval from newspaper gossip columnist Walter Winchell after appearing on Philbin’s show prompted producers of The Steve Allen Show to call on Philbin when Steve Allen retired as host in 1964. Philbin’s first job was as a studio page for The Tonight Show with Allen in New York nine years prior.
As Leahy forewarned, however, defeat would follow, with the show’s cancellation after just a few weeks. But as Leahy also advised, better times would come, and he was right when, three years later, Joey Bishop called.
Even as he progressed in the business, Philbin was never certain where his true talent lay. When he took over Allen’s post on the show, the inevitable question of “Why you?” plagued him.
Bishop answered that question in his first meeting with Philbin in 1967, telling him he was a good listener, and because of that, he wanted him as his sidekick. Philbin stayed true to his talent, each night sitting on stage and listening as Bishop interviewed guests from John Wayne and Kirk Douglas to the Rat Pack’s Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. The night Bing Crosby was a guest, however, Bishop urged Philbin not only to speak, but also to sing, to his childhood idol. Relying on the tune he knew so well from his nights by the radio, Philbin launched into “Pennies From Heaven” and fulfilled a dream.
From that appearance, Mercury Records offered Philbin a record deal, and 15 years after telling his parents he wanted to be a singer, he became one, with “Pennies From Heaven” his first recorded track. “Keep those favorite songs of your youth with you for life and pay attention to the lyrics,” Philbin advisesin his book. “If you love them, use them as your inspiration and guide.”
Crosby wasn’t the only fateful encounter he’d make while on The Joey Bishop Show. Bishop’s executive assistant was Chicago transplant Joy Senese, whom Philbin immediately noticed. A few months after the show shut down in 1969, the pair married.
Throughout all of his ups and downs, Philbin says Joy has been the one constant in his life, often appearing by his side as a fill-in co-host. And even when Joy is not beside him on screen, she is still present in at least as many of Philbin’s stories as Notre Dame is.
“When you do a show like this for decades, your audience wants to know more and more about your life, wants to meet your wife, know your family,” Philbin writes. “They always enjoy some inside stuff, the simple day-to-day quirks and realities of your personal world. And I’ve always had plenty of stories to tell them about adventures with my one-of-a-kind wife.”
The couple has two children, Joanna and Jennifer, who join Philbin’s two children, Amy and Daniel, from a previous marriage.
After The Joey Bishop Show ended, Philbin went through a string of jobs in Los Angeles, St. Louis and Denver. He thought his roller-coaster ride was over when he was asked to fill in on an early-morning talk show in Chicago in 1974. But when it was time to choose a permanent host, he wasn’t it. Crushed by the defeat, Philbin once again turned to Notre Dame, and then-coach Ara Parseghian, for some much-needed inspiration.
Leahy retired from coaching in 1954, and after 10 years of subpar seasons, Parseghian had led the football team to a 9-0 start. He and Philbin became friends after he appeared on The Steve Allen Show as a guest, a day after Notre Dame lost to rival USC in 1964. Recalling Parseghian’s positive attitude following the loss and now listening to the coach tell him he wasn’t allowed to quit, Philbin left renewed and hopeful.
A Morning Mogul
Things did eventually look up for Philbin, as both Leahy and Parseghian predicted. He became ntertainment editor for the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts at an LA station, which led him to co-host his own morning talk show, A.M. Los Angeles — his start of a 35-year run on morning television. Another talk show with Mary Hart followed a few years later and then a move to New York when he was offered a co-hosting spot on Morning Show in 1983. Two years and two co-hosts later, Kathie Lee Gifford joined the show, which was renamed Live With Regis and Kathie Lee after becoming syndicated in 1988, and the rest, as people say, is history.
Philbin, however, is not one to bask in the glory of success, always striving to achieve unattainable perfection — a work ethic modeled after his friend Lou Holtz, Notre Dame football coach from 1986 to 1996. “Perfection means everything to Lou Holtz,” Philbin explains in his book. “Whether or not you play football for him, you can’t help but get fired up by the sheer conviction Lou Holtz turns loose on any group. You want to be the best player, the best company boss, the best anything you can be in his presence.”
Like Holtz, a notable motivational speaker, Philbin strives to be a good role model. “I’ve spent a lot of time with Lou and a lot of that rubs off on you,” he tells St. Anthony Messenger.
He remains a strong supporter of Cardinal Hayes High School. In 2007, he designated Hayes as the beneficiary of his $175,000 winnings from his appearance on the game show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? He did the same years prior, donating $50,000 after appearing on Celebrity Jeopardy! (Philbin is no stranger to game shows — he served as host of the popular Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? from 1999 to 2002.)
Each year, he also funds scholarships for several Hayes students. “When I go there and see the kids, I’m very proud of them and what they’ve accomplished and the difference that Hayes has made in their lives,” he says. “And frankly, it’s all based on the religion part of it.”
Although many public figures often shy away from promoting their faith, Philbin has never felt any consequence of merging his faith with media. “There is a wide chasm between the media and religion, especially the Catholic religion I think, but that’s just the way it is,” he says. But “I’ve supported Hayes, Notre Dame and the church on many occasions.”
As the Guinness World Records holder for most hours logged on screen (currently at more than 16,700), Philbin has befriended many influential people during his career. But the people and experiences at Notre Dame remain at the top of his inspirational list.
“That privilege of being educated at Notre Dame goes a long way,” he tells St. Anthony Messenger as he walks toward his cheering fans at the bookstore; “and Lou Holtz, who insists on you trying to be perfect. I’m not. I’m just like everybody else, but that, and the religion, helped me a lot.”
Philbin adopted a more ordinary way of life last November when he decided to leave Live after 28.5 years. “I feel like it’s time to move on to something else,” he says. That might be a new family talent show he was in talks to host at press time, but in the meantime, Philbin is content to concentrate on the present: “I really don’t know where I’ll be going or what I’ll be doing. I hope something develops that I like, but if it doesn’t, I’m going to enjoy my time off.”
`Well-deserved time off that is certain to include some Notre Dame football games.