Regis Philbin believes part of his job is to cheer up America .“The news is so grim in the newspapers and on television that I just feel like people deserve a little cheering up, and if I can give it to them I’ll try,” Philbin says about his daily dose of good cheer on Regis and Kelly, the top morning show.
Philbin says that living literally across the street from the show’s West Side studio is a huge benefit and he makes a point of getting out and about several nights a week – movies, openings, concerts – so he’ll have something to banter about with Kelly Ripa during their host chat segment.
Philbin says his hero was Bing Crosby. He grew up listening to Bing Crosby, a half-hour every night without fail on the radio starting at 9:30. “I fell in love with his voice,” Philbin recalls. “It was just a clear, beautiful voice, and it was so friendly that I began to think he was my friend."
Years went by, and Philbin moved to Hollywood to start his career. At one point, from 1967-‘69, he was a sidekick for the comedian Joey Bishop who hosted a late-night TV talk show. Bishop knew of Philbin’s childhood affection for Crosby, and when the legendary crooner showed up on the show as a guest one night Bishop asked Crosby to sing the Irish lullaby “Toora Loora Loora” for his biggest fan, Philbin.
“Well, my God, I’m sitting there, and I can’t believe I’m sitting next to Bing Crosby, and then he sings ‘Toora Loora Loora’ to me. It was a wonderful moment,” Philbin remembers.
But the thrill didn’t stop there. When the show returned from an ad break Bishop told Crosby that Philbin knew all of his songs, and then asked Regis to sing a sample.
“Oh, I was dying. I had never sang before,” says Philbin.
“Bing was looking right at me and I sang ‘Pennies From Heaven,’ which was one of his great hits. I got a recording contract the next day from Mercury Records in Chicago. That’s only because I happened to be in the right spot.”
Philbin is deeply proud of his Irish heritage. Born in New York City and raised in the Bronx, he’s an equal mix of Irish and Italian, with his paternal grandfather hailing from Co. Mayo and maternal granddad from Italy.
“My father Francis Philbin was born on the Upper East Side in the Yorkville area. His father had come from Ireland,” says Philbin.
“To make a long story short, there were many members of the Italian family, so my poor father was outnumbered. He was a good guy about it.
“My mother’s sisters would descend on our little house in the Bronx, and every Sunday there would be a big chicken dinner and lots of spaghetti and meatballs. In those days it was rather common for the Irish to marry someone outside of their own background.”
But the Irish side of young Regis, who was named after father’s alma mater Regis High School in the city, wasn’t totally overwhelmed by the Italian.
“Oh, no,” he says. “I marched in every one of the St. Patrick’s Day parades when I went to Cardinal Hayes High School. It’s a really great parade!
“Then I went to Notre Dame, home of the Fighting Irish, and that gave me a little more stature as an Irishman.”
How did a kid from a close-knit family who had never left New York before wind up all the way in South Bend, Indiana to attend one of the most revered Irish institutions in the world?
As Philbin tells it, his father was in the Marine Corps and served during World War II in the Pacific. One of his fellow Marines was a guy called Moose Krause, an all-American football player who played for the famous coach Knute Rockne at Notre Dame.
“At night, Moose would stand in front of the bonfires that these officers had where they would have dinner, and he would regale them with stories of Notre Dame and the Fighting Irish and the Four Horseman,” says Philbin.
“My father was enchanted. Krause was a great motivational speaker. So when it came time for me to go to college there was no question. My father called Moose, and Moose called Father Thornton, who was in charge of registration, and before I knew it I was going to Notre Dame.”
Once a Notre Damer, always a Notre Damer, and that certainly holds true for Philbin, who graduated in 1953 with a degree in sociology.
“It becomes part of your life forever,” Philbin says. “There’s no getting around it. So I’ve loved being part of it all these years. And, of course, I’ve died with the football team.”
Ah, yes, the football team, the pride and joy of Notre Dame. It would just help if they could win a few more games, the beleaguered fan Philbin says.
“The new coach Brian Kelly certainly has the right name, doesn’t he? But I’ve given up . . . they keep saying that this is the guy who’s gonna save it. But they’ve got to show it to me now.”
Philbin has traveled to Ireland, and brought his morning show over there in the 1980s to film at the Philbin family homestead in Co. Mayo.
“We took a crew over to seek out my great-great grandfather’s home,” Philbin recalled. “We went over there and we got to the priest in the town and he directed us right to the location. It was just a foundation of where the house was.
“So I said, let’s have a party for whatever Philbins were left here in town. Well, it got around and the whole town came running! It was a memorable trip for us.”
The show will naturally have a St. Patrick’s flavor on March 17, with Celtic Woman among the guests. Philbin says he’s a big fan of this year’s grand marshal, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
“He’s just a great guy. I took him to Notre Dame last season and he loved the campus,” Philbin says.
“We played USC and I thought Notre Dame had a chance to beat them because they had lost a few games, but no, we lost!”
Philbin is certainly feeling physically better than he did on St. Patrick’s Day three years ago, when he had triple-bypass surgery. “I could hear all the rootin’ tootin’ on the street and I was saying, God, I wish I was out there,” he recalls.
Philbin also had hip replacement surgery at the end of last year, and every day he’s feeling stronger and stronger. “They say after six months everything will be just fine, but in the meantime I’m doing well,” he says.
And that prognosis is music to his fans’ ears.
He admits the day-time television job as co-host of Live with Regis and Kelly sometimes gets to him and he gets tired of it.
“Barbara Walters is leaving her Academy Awards show that she’s done for so long, and why, if you ask her, she’ll say that she’s tired of it. And there are times when I get tired of this,” Philbin says.
“The first show segment is all ad-libbed and all spontaneous. You’ve got be prepared to make it happen so it’s a responsibility. Yes, I do get tired, but when the bell rings you go out and do it.”
Millions around America are glad he does.