According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Regis Philbin has been on TV more than any other person in history. For 17,000 hours he informed and entertained us all. And he never let you forget his love of Notre Dame Football. In a 2011 interview he was asked about what made him successful and he said “spontaneous conversation.”
And though Mr. Philbin has been off the air for nearly nine years, the news of his death this weekend brings an odd mixture of sadness and happy remembrance. If you watched him in the morning or on Who Wants to be A Millionaire or during the Macy’s day parade, you always knew that he would make you smile. David Letterman often said that Regis is the funniest man on TV. High praise indeed.
The tributes flooding in over social media read like blurbs for a movie Philbin would promote: “Always made me laugh” — Tony Bennett. “One of a kind” — Henry Winkler. “A lovely man” — Rosie O’Donnell. “His wit was only surpassed by his huge heart” — Meredith Vieira. “As wonderful a man as he was talented” — Paul Reubens, also known as Pee-Wee Herman. “You were the best” — LeVar Burton. “Philbin has passed on to even greater airwaves, at 88. He was a fantastic person, and my friend.” – Donald Trump.
This kind of warmth and universal praise from such a diverse group of people across the political and social spectrum teaches us a valuable lesson. No matter the ideology, Regis made everyone feel a little better with his compassionate spontaneity. His lack of fear permitted him the greatest of all gifts: the ability to laugh at himself while letting the rest of us in on the joke. Katie Couric’s interview with him on 20/20 probably says it all.