Signing off from morning television after more than 28 years on Friday, Regis Philbin brought to a close his final hour hosting “Live! With Regis and Kelly” by telling viewers, “I’ll always remember spending these mornings with all of you.”
Then, as the studio audience’s ovation subsided after the program’s fade-out, he voiced a kidding postscript to that crowd in attendance.
“I just thought of something I SHOULD have said,” he quipped, “I really want to stay!”
No such luck.
Philbin, who at 80 years old has logged more than 16,000 hours on television in a career that dates back to the 1950s, made good on his decision to leave the daily TV grind, an announcement he delivered on his show last January.
Friday’s tribute show had opened with cameras following Philbin’s walk from his dressing room to the stage, knocking on Kelly Ripa’s door along the way.
“I love you,” she said softly as they stepped before the cameras.
During the hour, past guests such as Justin Timberlake and Anne Hathaway offered brief filmed tributes.
The show was otherwise devoted to emotion-filled clip sequences of high jinks with Ripa, and such stars as Dana Carvey and Ben Affleck demonstrating their Regis impersonations.
Philbin’s parting gifts included a key and a plaque. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg paid a visit to thank Philbin for making the city a big part of his show, and presented him with a symbolic key. Walt Disney Co. chief executive Bob Iger showed a plaque honoring Philbin that’s newly installed on the outside of ABC’s Manhattan facility from which the show originates.
But the morning’s festivities had started an hour before the 9 a.m. EST airtime with a coffee-and-pastries reception for the studio audience. This was a hand-picked — and seating-chart-arranged — group of family, friends, past and present colleagues, and celebrities including Diane Sawyer, Bryant Gumbel, Donald Trump, Meredith Vieira, Tony Danza, Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Ripa’s co-host predecessor, Kathie Lee Gifford.
“The world adores Regis,” said Judge Judy Sheindlin, “but his friends adore him even more — enough to get up early in the morning, put on some makeup, come out and give him a cheer. Because, he’s just a special, sweet man.”
Philbin’s unsurpassed quantity of airtime was celebrated by the 14-member troupe from the off-Broadway musical “Rent,” which sang a version of the show-stopper “Seasons of Love” tailored to Philbin’s endurance: “995,600 minutes! How do you measure a career? How about love!”
Unseen by viewers during commercial breaks, Philbin schmoozed with the studio audience and occasionally cracked wise about the on-air ceremony, which clearly left him as uncomfortable as he was touched.
“Gelman’s getting carried away,” he said at one point, meaning longtime executive producer Michael Gelman. “He thinks he’s Scorsese! He’s NOT!”
And although Philbin had publicly sworn he wouldn’t shed tears at his farewell, members of the studio audience were privy to displays of emotion by him that were unseen at home.
Watching one pre-taped piece where viewers held hand-lettered signs that said “Regis,” he finally drew a finger across his throat in mock-desperation as if to signal “Kill it, please,” then glanced heavenward as his eyes welled.
Ripa was much more demonstrative on camera, fighting tears as she recounted how terrified she was on her first day as Philbin’s partner, and how he put her at ease.
The show will continue with Ripa. Similar to when she was chosen to replace Gifford, a succession of co-hosts will join her, some in contention for the permanent job.
Meanwhile, Philbin has been careful to say he’s not retiring. His immediate plans include a tour to promote his new book, “How I Got This Way.”