Wrestling and the world just lost comic, tv host, game show host, actor and philanthropist Regis "Mr TV" Philbin at age 88. Guiness Book of World Records honored him as having logged the most television hours of anyone on the planet which is how he said he'd like to be remembered(over 17,000 total tv hours). Important for us, he devotedly plugged wrestling while having top wrestlers on in every incarnation of his television shows, from the early sixties, until he retired several years ago from his own ABC's Live! With Regis morning talk show. And it all started with CAC stalwarts, Freddie Blassie and The Intelligent, Sensational Destroyer(Dick Beyer). Regis never failed to let the world know how much he'd always loved wrestling.
Fellow historians may remember Philbin most fondly as a long time friend of Fred's since 1962 when Regis started his earliest talk show in San Diego(later moving it to Los Angeles' ABC affiliate KABC first as "The AM Morning Show") and often talked about attending area wrestling shows. He regularly discussed the matches he saw growing up as a legit fan who actually attended Southern California(our Hollywood Eaton/Lebell office territory)wrestling bouts. He soon booked name wrestlers on his various 1960's-to-current tv shows including Blassie many times and Beyer at least twice. On one of Dick's more famous appearances, he even brought Regis one of his masks that wife(Wilma #1) had crafted out of women's leg stocking material. On-camera, Regis eagerly put on the "sock" as Dick called it, and he wore it the rest of the show during the interview to promote one of Dick's big bouts against Fred. It was always heart warming to hear Regis call Fred and Dick "kiddo" on-air, which was his term of endearment when he really cared about a true friend. Even these slightly older wild men who were amongst the very few who could out-talk Reege. He said he "couldn't get enough of those guys. Man, can they talk!"
Later on his national ABC Network show in New York that debuted in 1988, he had Fred back on particularly when WWF went national in '83-'84 along with Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and Liz. Plus in later years, Undertaker with CAC's Bill "Paul Bearer" Moody, Ric Flair, CAC Honorees Curt Hennig, Kurt Angle, Curt Hennig, JBL, DDP, of course Bobby Heenan, Gene Okerlund and Steve Austin; CAC Lifetime Member The Rock, John Cena, HHH, BIg Show and more. There was never a year that Regis didn't have wrestlers on. WWE immediately honored him on their website plus a vignette last night on RAW for his many contributions to the biz and his lifelong support of it, including inerviewing talent at at least one Wrestlemania. Regis also claimed he'd briefly done some "late 1950's wrestling announcing" like his game show host idols Dennis James and Joe Garagiola(Joe the St Louis Cards baseball legend & former NBC network Today Show lead host in the 70's who was always close with 1991 CAC honoree Sam Muchnick). Regis' long relationship with wrestling was also in effect while cohosting the late night 1967-69 Joey Bishop show that competed with rival network NBC's Johnny Carson/The Tonight Show. He brought Blassie back and Fred presented him with a Brass Knucks honorary trophy while also showing him how to use knucks "to become champeen." Fred as always tried to get heat by claiming he hated Regis' favorite singer Frank Sinatra which was about as far from shoot as it gets. Regis would later guest regularly on the Tonight Show, David Letterman, Jerry Lewis' weekly show and many others, always finding ways to bring up wrestling. When Regis finally got his national ABC morning show in 1988, he never ceased having wrestlers on. that ran from the 60's to the 90's!
According to Regis himself, he started writing for tv and standup comics in 1958, later also writing for The Tonight Show's initial host Steve Allen. Before his own 1960's-mid 70's Los Angeles area morning weekday show(simply called at first The Morning Show) began, he'd done one for ABC Radio in nearby San Diego, CA which was where he first had Classy Freddie on the first of many times in 1962. Fred came on a second time that year to talk up his upcoming Dick Van Dyke Show guest appearance doing the scripted 'Twizzle' dance knockoff of The Twist legit teen craze where he ended up airplane spinning Dick. and while Fred claimed he "intentionally" broke Regis' finger that day, Regis told me he'd "caught it accidentally in a button hole on one of Fred's spangly ring jackets and when Fred moved away too quickly in a bit, my finger indeed got broken. I didn't care, it made for good tv and it was Blassie." But it was Regis' ABC, daily Los Angeles show that eventually caught Hollywood and national entertainment buzz by about 1966. Unlike other area morning shows, he had on as guests a cache of Hollywood's elite on as well as athletes. And of course pro wrestlers. Regis told me on my CRN radio show in 2002 that he of course loved Blassie which was why he had him on the air whenever he could all those years and that he considered Fred a great friend. Fred in turn would work/claim "that I made Regis into the star that he became." When Fred verbally shot, he'd admit Regis actually made him a household name and how grateful he was. And that he "loved Regis like a brother."
Most famously, Fred Blassie was on Regis' AM Los Angeles weekday morning show several times on our KABC, ABC affiliate channel 7, which was the template-in-progress for his later New York "LIVE!" show. Fred's first recorded appearance I can find was 1962 to talk up him being on Dick Van Dyke for that Twizzler episode capitalizing on The TWIST dance craze.
Regis "also moonlight from little daytime talker to my much bigger weeknight PM show as Joey Bishop's side kick for our ill-fated attempt to unseat NBC's and Johnny Carson's/Tonight Show. That was soon after Carson took over from equally successful Jack Paar as the second or third actual Tonight host if you include Ernie Kovacs in after Steve Allen." Regis had greater success with his morning show in L.A., but went thru many cohosts, in the 70's like Sarah Pursell, L.A. Dodger star Steve Garvey's wife Cindy and sports car-maker John Delaurian's wife Christine. I'm trying to verify if Regis had other pro wrestlers from our Los Angeles Cal Eaton/Jules Strongbow 60's wrestling office on like rumored Bobo Brazil or former CAC fellow 90's board member Gorilla Monsoon, and will report back if any others did in fact appear on either Regis' San Diego or L.A. morning shows. Years later when Regis appeared on David Letterman's NBC and CBS shows, on one particular show, they compared notes on all the wrestlers they'd interviewed. Letterman grew up on Bruiser's WWA in Indiana and Regis let him know the first WWA was in Los Angeles and that Letterman's idol, Dick Afflis had had some awesome Los Angeles wars with Blassie over the original WWA world title at the Olympic Auditorium. A shoot note is that Bruiser never dropped that strap circa ~1964 as planned and simply took it with him when he suddenly bolted(ala Stan Hansen years later in the AWA). Bruiser then created his own WWA office version in Indianapolis and reportedly initially used Jules Strongbow's famous WWA/Los Angeles belt against the wishes of his business partner, Wilbur Snyder at the time. The Hollywood office had to create an all new WWA belt before it was merged with the NWA championship in 1967(NWA champ Gene Kiniski broadway title vs title bout against then WWA champ Bobo Brazil).
REEGE(as Fred called him well before Kathy Lee Gifford) nearly accidentally exposed the biz a bit in the summer of 1971 when he taped a remote for his show at the Lawrence Welk charity golf tournament in L.A. The annual event often had wrestlers there(CAC's John and Chris Tolos, Kenji Shibuya, Louie Tillet) as the co-chair was Jimmy Lennon Sr(our famous L.A. territory ring announcer). And Jimmy was the uncle of the famous Lennon singing sisters who were on Welk's ABC weekly Saturday music show. Back to that 1971 tournament, Blassie was there with all the other stars and had just begun hitting the links. Fred years later told me he had no idea Regis and his cameras would be there. But at the time, he was just trying his best to kfabe his quiet participation in it. Promoter Mike Lebell had already filmed tons of separate segment footage to air each week on both Lebell tv shows depicting Fred laid up, long-term at Santa Monica's St. John's Hospital. Looking pitiful in a hospital bed, selling the Monsel's Power incredible KCOP-TV13 blinding angle with John Tolos from months earlier. One of the greatest angles ever, it's purpose was to set up the August 1971 massive L.A. Coliseum outdoor blowoff show Fred and John were in the main event of atop other great feuds like Brazil/Sheik, Mil Mascaras/El Solitario, Gordman and Goliath versus Shibuya and Mr Saito, etc. So that July day once Regis saw Fred, he said he ran over and shoved a mike into Fred's face and that Fred really looked upset. He told him "Reege, I'm supposed to be in the hospital this week, selling the eye injury & wearing an eye patch(which he didn't have on of course having a great time playing golf) acting like I'm still in agony!" Thankfully that segment never aired and got no media exposure or it could've ruined the angle. After the Coliseum show broke all existing gate and attendance records(beating even an outdoor Thesz versus Leo Nomellini for an NWA Title Match many years earlier) with either 25,000 or over 28,000 reported at the then home of the L.A. Rams, USC Trojans and UCLA Bruins; Fred left the territory, reportedly upset at the payday he and Tolos' received for not just main-eventing this historic outdoor card, but "also our tiny share of the closed-circuit theater gate." It's believed that this amazing Tolos/Blassie feud was wrestling's first closed-circuited presentation. This was the fourth time completely sold-out Olympic Aud cards were shown in many Southern California theaters, dating back to their earlier huge matches, but culminating with the August 1971 spectacular. I don't believe our office ever replicated closed-circuit again, until 1976's Inoki/Ali, Andre/Chuck Wepner event which was unrelated to our Hollywood Wrestling Office/Territory but as with San Francisco/Shire and other circuits, local matches were added as the openers as it was shown on screens within the Olympic Aud after the live matches had concluded.
Once Regis lost his L.A. ABC network area affiliate weekday morning show, he briefly did the same show(also with a few area wrestling legends like Dick the Bruiser)in St Louis and then got the big call up in 1977 by New York's lead ABC affiliate. It was the same AM show pairing Regis with a female cohost(as in L.A. where he had Sarah Purcell and L.A. Dodger wife Cyndi Garvey), but now called "The A.M. Show with Regis." At first it was just local to the New York television marketplace but soon went national the following year, retitled "Live WIth Regis & Kathy Lee Gifford" as Frank Gifford's wife had already been part of the local show initially. And with it, Regis really became an iconic tv legend, killing ratings while winning six TV Emmy awards, the nightime hosting gig in 1999 of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, and years of hosting Disney Easter & Christmas Holiday parades on ABC. Whenever Regis returned to his home in L.A. that he and wife Joy kept, he'd dine Saturday mornings in Beverly Hills at the famous Nat and Al's Deli institution with comics Don Rickles, Jimmy Kimmell and Larry King who all also loved pro wrestling. Regis even "dragged" Rickles to two WWF shows" while Kimmell for some two decades on his own ABC late night show has had tons of wrestlers on. Fred in 1985 on "Live" also recreated his 60's angle with Regis messing up Blassie's carefully combed hair on-camera, with Regis as always pretending to run away "before I get another finger broken by Fred!" Any time he was on, Fred always appeared upset with Regis, staying true to his heel character except for the brief 1970-1971 years in L.A. when Fred had turned face after two heel versus heel cage matches with The Sheik at the Olympic that turned Fred face. And followed up by keeping his word to Rocky Johnson soon after, that he'd "stay scientific in our match." If anyone knows how the term "scientific match" came about to describe a face/face match, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Regis made a big deal at the time, complementing Fred on being "newly nice. Being a nice guy for a change really suits you Fred." Fred would pretend to stay soft spoken and polite but when pushed(in fun for the audience)would go from smiles to a scowl saying, "don't test me Regis" when the latter acted like he might reach up and mess with Fred's hair again as he had circa 1964 for the very first time. When I last interviewed Regis, he admitted that Fred had indeed tried to get him to come to our third and biggest CAC ancillary event in New York in the late 90's. George Napolitano was our local promoter and it was where we honored Vince McMahon Sr. His widow Juanita, Vince and Linda and their children Stephanie and Shane all in attendance. "I just couldn't get away that night but I also wouldn't have wanted to detract from it or cause anyone not to pay attention to the wrestlers. They're always supposed to be the stars of the show and I knew with the McMahons there, this would be an important night for wrestling."
In paying tribute to him on network tv Sunday, ABC Network also showed rare outtake footage from his NY Live! show where during breaks, he'd occasionally put reverse armbars on producer "Gelman," Kathy Lee and later Kelly Ripa. Maybe not P.C. today, but a basic grappling move both Blassie and Beyer in the 60's, had taught Regis. Make it a point to check out WWE's video tribute(at WWE.com) which I'm sure will run again Friday on Smackdown.
He certainly had a stranglelock on American television and his Hollywood Blvd star isn't that far away from that of Vince McMahon's. It's comforting that the non-wrestling world also feels the same way we do about losing Regis Philbin. One of the few equally brash and wild enough to verbally go toe-to-toe with Blassie on tv. And if you saw it, who could ever forget when Regis also tried making fun of Fred's 70's and 80's WWWF/WWF nickname "the Hollywood Fashion Plate?" An absolutely warm, great human being. Who quickly turned back into a little kid when he was around the boys, far more so than when he was with the more traditional film and tv stars.