Two TV giants died within weeks of each other. Regis Philbin and Hugh Downs were one of a kind and totally different. I had the pleasure of knowing both of them. My first in encounter with Downs was from afar. I was 5, and he was the genial host of "Concentration." Try as I might, I could I never could figure out the rebus puzzles. My mom, a very smart businesswoman, wanted to watch "Search For Tomorrow," which was on at the same time. I groused. My father taught me an important life lesson: The person who pays for something gets to use it the way they want. So, "Search for Tomorrow" it was. Thanks, Mom, you gave me my career. Every night before falling asleep, I would think of what the next episode would contain. Hello, writing and soap operas!
Downs went from quiz show host to Renaissance man. He was the first co-host of "20/20." He and Barbara Walter were the perfect pair. He was always calm and polite. Walters was ... not. I still remember her asking Lady Bird Johnson how she dealt with the affairs of her husband, President Lyndon Johnson. Downs tried to hide how horrified he was.
I had the pleasure of meeting Downs at a press event and later at press junket cocktail party. I hate those parties. Downs spotted me and could see this from the look on my face. He came over and said he wanted to add something to the information he had given me earlier. I know he was being kind, and I always loved him for that.
Downs, who was 88 at his death, had more hours of on-air work. Then along came Regis, who took over the crown. Philbin, 88, died following a heart attack at his home.
Walking down the street with Regis was always a treat. He loved his fans as much as they loved him. He had a perpetual smile and twinkle in his eyes.
Philbin got his start as an NBC page. After that, he was the sidekick to nighttime TV host Joey Bishop. He then hosted several radio shows. Then came his greatest job, co-host of ABC's morning talk show. The viewers fell in love with him and sidekick Kathie Lee Gifford. The show eventually took the name "Regis and Kathie Lee." He joked with her and the audience when she droned on about her two children. It was never mean either.
Regis was crushed when she left ABC for an NBC morning show. Gifford recalled how supportive he was. They remained close until his death. Not showbiz close but a real friendship. Needing a partner, he hoped for Susan Lucci. When Kelly Ripa got the job, he was a pro. He called her Ripa, Pipa.
Next came "So You Want to Be a Millionaire," a massive hit for ABC. Regis was the king of the network until he was dethroned. They asked him to take a major pay cut. Feeling used, he declined.
You would never know he did not have a regular gig. He was everywhere. He made 150 guest appearances on David Letterman's show. Letterman is not known for being effusive, but upon Regis' death, Letterman not only called him his favorite guest but a friend.
One day, after being on his show, we walked down 6th Ave. He smiled and stopped to talk to anyone who wanted to say hi or get an autograph. Suddenly, a man called out: "This is the greatest day of my life. Getting to meet the man I idolize. Mr. Bracken, I love your movies." The fan thought he was the movie song and dance man Eddie Bracken.
What did Regis do? Correct him? No. He signed the name Eddie Bracken and thanked him for being a fan. It does not get any classier than that.
Told you so. With dozens of claims rolling in that working for Ellen is akin to a day in hell, the company that produces the show has hired a third party to see if she is the Queen of Mean or the Queen of Nice.
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