Remembering Notre Dame's Regis Philbin
“When the bank asks me about my assets, I include my friendship with Regis Philbin.”
— Lou Holtz
Many college sports are known to have a “face of the program.”
For approximately six decades, Regis Philbin was “the face of Notre Dame” on television unlike anyone else in history. The 1953 Notre Dame graduate died Friday (July 24) at age 88.
In 2004, the Guinness Book of World Records feted Philbin for owning the most hours on United States television, which at the time was 15,188 (eclipsing the previous standard held by Hugh Downs). That total would rise to more than 17,000.
Quite a few of those hours were spent as an ambassador of his beloved alma mater — and even a few minutes were spent plugging Blue & Gold Illustrated, unsolicited and free, during telecasts.
This was a regular occurrence in the 1990s, and we would know from many phone calls to the office how old and new subscribers had heard about us on the Live! With Regis And Kathie Lee show (with Kathie Lee Gifford replaced by Kelly Ripa in 2001).
That was an era when print media was still fashionable, and our goal at BGI was to “have enough subscribers to fill Notre Dame Stadium.” With the help of such free advertising — also provided by ESPN’s Beano Cook — we did, only to see the venue expand from a capacity of 59,075 in 1996 to just over 80,000 in 1997 (no, we never came close to that).
More importantly, Philbin became a promoter of Notre Dame while becoming a favorite media personality, talk-show host, game-show emcee, actor and singer.
Born on August 25, 1931, the Bronx native was raised in a strong Catholic household and graduated from Cardinal Hayes High School before enrolling at Notre Dame in 1949 — when head coach Frank Leahy guided the Fighting Irish football team to its third national title in four years.
After earning his sociology degree in 1953 and serving in the Navy, Philbin’s show business career began as a page on The Tonight Show in the 1950s before hosting his own talk show in San Diego and then breaking into network television in 1967 as the sidekick on The Joey Bishop Show. Eventually, he returned to his New York City roots as a host of a morning show that morphed into his alliance with Gifford.
From 1999 through 2002, Philbin also served as the original host of the mega-hit game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Other hosting credits included Million Dollar Password, the first season of America’s Got Talent, and a co-host with Rachael Ray.
He was honored with Daytime Emmy Awards for outstanding talk show host for Live! in 2001 and 2011, plus outstanding game show host for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
In 2003 he was immortalized on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and in 2008 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Daytime Emmy Awards in 2008.
A regular on the Notre Dame campus, especially for football games, he donated $2.75 million to create the Regis Philbin Studio Theater in the Marie P. DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts that opened in 2003.
Prior to that gift, Philbin had received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Notre Dame in 1999 in recognition of his previous gifts in support of scholarships along with his service as host of an annual fund-raising broadcast on behalf of the Center for the Homeless in South Bend.
Likewise, Philbin was a generous benefactor for Cardinal Hayes while leading capital campaigns there.
Married twice, Philbin is survived by his wife of 50 years, Joy. One daughter, Jennifer, is a 1996 Notre Dame graduate and a current Hollywood screen writer, while another, Joanna, received her master’s degree from Notre Dame and is an accomplished author.
Philbin’s first union produced daughter Amy and son Daniel, who had a spinal cord defect that confined him to a wheelchair. He worked for the Defense Department and died in 2014 at age 49.