Philbin Brings Millions To The Game

millionsofgameDon’t get him wrong. Regis Philbin clearly loves his family-wife Joy and daughters Joanna and Jennifer. But if we’re talking lifelines–as in whom Philbin would phone for help if he were a contestant on his own top-rated Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? show–he readily admits he wouldn’t even consider calling home. “I mean, relatives are nice and everything,” he says with the sarcastic playfulness that has endeared him to fans of Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee. “But they aren’t necessarily the last word.”

Philbin says he would pick a pool including Michael Gelman (the executive producer of Live! who, says Reege, “keeps telling me he knows so much”) and experts in science, medicine, and law whom he has met or interviewed as a TV talk-show host.

Since Millionaire debuted last August, as a special two-week event, the American version of the wildly successful British game show has captivated audiences by raising financial stakes to near-lottery levels and providing a new level of TV tension. Millionaire, which airs three times a week–Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights–on ABC, has now been seen by half the country’s TV audience.

In an era in which high-tech stocks have created instant millionaires, the chance to strike gold on prime-time TV has obviously struck a chord with viewers. For Philbin, 68, Millionaire is even better than cash. It is the career jackpot he never dreamed of.

“This is the only time you’ll see me without Kathie Lee,” he quips when he comes on set to warm up the audience for Millionaire. He means no malice, of course. But, in his immaculate black wool suit with chalky pinstripes to create what producers have decided is a “rich” look, Philbin is clearly delighting in his new fame.

After a long, late-blooming career–he was comedian Joey Bishop’s TV sidekick in the 1960’s–he is suddenly cool. He is mobbed in public; horns honk as he walks down the street in New York; autograph seekers storm him at tennis tournaments. And “Is that your final answer?” (the line he delivers repeatedly during each show) has become the “Where’s the beef?” of the new millennium.

Although he does rehearse the questions beforehand, Philbin never knows the answers until they flash on the computer screen before him. And his empathy with his contestants sometimes leaves him weak of heart. “I try to make my guests foci as comfortable as possible,” he says. “I hope it helps them, because I want them to win as much money as they can. It’s always a wrench in your heart when you’ve got someone who’s doing so well and suddenly it’s over; they’re out of lifelines and they don’t want to guess, so they take their money and go home. You can’t blame them. Anyone in their right mind would do the same. But it’s always anticlimactic for me.”

Philbin readily admits that One of his biggest frustrations with the show is that there aren’t more women contestants. “There are too many men and too many computer people,” he says. “I think women are hesitant to try out for some reason.” But there has been an increasing number of female winners (see “Woman’s Work,” opposite). Philbin insists that persistence is the key. Toby Moore, a $250,000 winner, called 24 times before he qualified.

Those who call the 800-number posted during the show and correctly complete a recorded quiz quickly enough are put through a second, similar test. The top respondents may then get a call to come to New York. Though there’s not much time to prepare at that point, Philbin suggests perusing a current almanac. “It’s a good place to start. You can read that on the plane. Brush up on your presidents and historical events.”

Now that he’s committed to both Live! (which is broadcast Monday through Friday from a nearby studio) and Millionaire, Philbin wrestles with the busiest schedule he has ever known, with no chance to rest in sight. his contract with Live! lasts through August 200l. His contract with Millionaire goes for five years. What will happen then gives him little cause for concern. “It’s all ahead of me,” he says. “In the meantime I’m just thrilled to be part of this hit show. It’s the real McCoy.”

And that’s his final answer.

WOMAN’S WORK

She didn’t hit the million-dollar mark. But Jane Oviatt won big enough. Big enough to set a record, last November, as the first female contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to break the $100,000 mark. Big enough not to worry when she lost her watch during her whirlwind weekend in New York City as a guest of the hit TV game show. Big enough so that the morning after she cashed out with $125,000, she and her husband headed to the exclusive Fifth Avenue jeweler Cartier to celebrate.

Weirdly, the extravagances ended there. When she realized the watch she liked best cost a cool $11,000, Oviatt, a 33-year-old former teacher with two young daughters, decided she didn’t really like it that much–even if she could afford to treat her-sell: Back home in Wheaton, IL, she happily settled for a $100 watch from Service Merchandise.

“I knew I’d have more fun spending the money on my kids and our house,” she says. The bulk of the money will be tucked away for college or a rainy day: “It’s just nice having that peace of mind now.”

Oviatt concludes: I’m just glad I made it as far as I did. And I’m just so happy I don’t have to skimp now and go to garage sales to look for lamps.”

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