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Regis Philbin Explains How He 'Got This Way'

On Friday, Regis Philbin will step down from his hosting duties on the talk show Live with Regis and Kelly. But that doesn't mean he's retiring. In his new memoir, How I Got This Way, Philbin chronicles the twists and turns of his career and explains where he plans to go next.


Other segments from the episode on November 15, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 15, 2011: Interview with Regis Philbin; Review of the DVD release of the film "A Damsel in Distress"; Commentary on hillbilly boogie music.


12:00-13:00 PM

TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. At the end of this week Regis Philbin steps down from a job he's held for 23 years as co-host of a live syndicated morning TV talk show, first with Kathie Lee Gifford and currently with Kelly Ripa. But that accounts for less than half of Philbin's TV output. His career in television, including everything from being Joey Bishop's talk show sidekick to the winning host of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" spans more than 50 years.

He's credited by Guinness Book of World Records as clocking more hours on camera than anyone else in the history of television. Philbin has a new memoir published today called "How I Got This Way" which tells stories abut the people he's known and how they've affected him, professionally and personally. They range from Jack Parr to David Letterman and our TV critic David Bianculli thinks that's perfect company.

David says that Regis is just like Parr and Letterman, one of the most natural and conversational broadcasters in TV history. David spoke yesterday with Regis Philbin who took time out from his farewell week to talk about old times and new times too.

DAVID BIANCULLI, host: Regis Philbin, welcome to FRESH AIR.

REGIS PHILBIN: Thank you very much, David. Happy to be here.

BIANCULLI: Let's start out by making one thing clear. You're not retired, right?

PHILBIN: I'm moving on. I should've made that clear when I made the announcement. I guess I wasn't clear enough, but I should have impressed the fact that I hope I'm just moving on right now. In the meantime, if I don't find anything that I like, then I will be retiring.

BIANCULLI: Well, what to you does moving on mean? Do you see this as you're going to do nothing for six months or a year, or?

PHILBIN: You know, I'm not sure exactly what moving on - it was just a better phrase than retiring, I thought.


PHILBIN: But it hasn't helped because everybody still says, oh, you're retiring. What are you going to do in your retirement? Good luck, you know. I've kind of put myself into a box, but so be it. You know, whatever happens, whether I'm retiring or moving on, we'll find out in the future.

BIANCULLI: But the giant send-off that your show is giving you, I mean, and that everybody else is giving you. Jerry Seinfeld just interviewed you for this week's cover of Newsweek. All the...

PHILBIN: I can't believe that.

BIANCULLI: A very good article. And all these stars are popping in or sending tapes to say goodbye. So it is a pivot point in your life that obviously means a lot to a lot of people. Is it comfortable to sit through? Is it fun, or is it weird?

PHILBIN: You know, it's a combination of all of them, I would say, going in the feelings of importance. I guess it's more fun than anything else we've done on the show, I'll tell you that. Is it weird? A little bit because I know we're heading toward the conclusion of 28-and-a-half years. And what's the other alternative, David? Is it fun? Is it weird? Does it - there was one more thing that actually applies to it. And it's all of those things.

BIANCULLI: All right. Well, we can go with poignant. I know that wasn't what you...


PHILBIN: David, you are the interviewer. For years you have critiqued other interviewers and now here you are and I'm asking you what did you say and you can't remember.

BIANCULLI: I'm already on - I'm already listening to your answer.


BIANCULLI: So let me play something for you and see how you react to this. This is from one of your recent shows. Adam Sandler came on as a guest.


BIANCULLI: And you and your co-host Kelly Ripa are there and everybody wants to sort of do what Bette Midler did with Johnny Carson and serenade you somehow or do something.

PHILBIN: You know, you're absolutely right. That's what's been happening. And he had a poem, right?

BIANCULLI: He had a poem. So let's hear the poem.


ADAM SANDLER: I wrote this about 4:00 in the morning last night because I was so - you know, I know this is my last time with you, Reg, on the show. But we're going to hang out in real life. But here we go: (Reading) How could you leave us, Regis? Your quitting is simply egregious.


PHILBIN: It's a good word.

SANDLER: We need your banter with Kelly-gis. You two make us laugh till we pee-gis.


GROSS: You've had so many co-hosts: Kelly, Kathie Lee, even Cyndy Garvey sat here with you. And before them, Kitty Carlisle, Lillian Gish, Madam Curie too.


BIANCULLI: That's Adam Sandler serenading our guest Regis Philbin with Kelly Ripa standing by. So what is - what does that sort of stuff mean to you when you have to sit there and react to it in terms of live television?

PHILBIN: As soon as that poem was over, it was such a big hit in the studio when he delivered it - the audience loved it and everybody laughed - and so I asked him for the copy of the poem that he was reading and, you know, it was one of those things where things are scratched out and another line was added and it was so unique I had to have it. I asked him and he said sure.

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Regis Philbin, who is stepping down this week as host of "Live with Regis and Kelly." Are there any secrets for being a morning person and being on? How do you get so much energy in the morning?

PHILBIN: Well, after a while you develop it for the morning. It's the afternoons where you feel like you're going to die, you know.


PHILBIN: No. You know that you've got to be up and, I mean, it's not that bad for me now. About 15 years ago or so we moved into an apartment house that they built right across the street. It used to be the home of "All My Children" and then they tore that building down - it was just a very small short building - and they built this skyscraper. And I said boy, wouldn't this be nice?

This is one of the luxuries of working in New York, to live across the street and walk across the street to your job. And it was. And I think it helped me a lot to continue to do the job. It was great. So in the morning you wake up at 7:30, you get ready, you take the shower, the shave, you jump into your suit, make a little breakfast for yourself, look at the paper as it's delivered to your door.

Then come across the street around 8:20, check whatever else is in the papers you didn't see. Gelman comes in a quarter to nine. At ten to nine we go down, I get made up. At 30 seconds to nine they knock on our door. Out she comes and we walk down the hallway and we do the show. It's as simple as that.

BIANCULLI: What do you do if you're doing a live interview with somebody and you're venturing into personal territory and you suddenly sense that something really uncomfortable is going on?

PHILBIN: Well, you know, if you continue to be the interviewer that I have been all these years, you kind of have a double sense about that. That, you know, it's not fair. That you don't want to go - you don't want to go - you don't want to hear the outcome of that story. You want this person to look better than he or she is on anybody else's show and that's not the way to do it, I don't think.

And so I have turned away from that kind of an interview to something that would put them in a better light, something that's not going to make them feel as badly as they do about what's happened in their real life. And I think it's come back, not to haunt me but to bless me because a lot of the people that I have interviewed over the years have no qualms about coming back and do it again and again and again.

BIANCULLI: Your book "How I Got This Way" is a great way for me to get into talking about your career because you go through it chapter by chapter, but just by linking it to personalities or influences or inspirations along the way.


BIANCULLI: And it surprises me how honest you are and sometimes self-deprecating, not in a calculated way but in really saying how it is you felt, whether you were hanging with a celebrity and wondering whether you were really accepted by that celebrity.

PHILBIN: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: Or even dealing with your parents. Did you go in there just saying if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it that honestly?

PHILBIN: Well, I wanted people to know where I came from and what my feelings were as I grew up and how I missed so many opportunities along the way to do what I wanted to do because I didn't have the confidence to even tell myself, much less anybody else, yes, this is the business I wanted to be a part of. And letting it go all the way through Notre Dame and then through two years of Navy service. And then finally at the conclusion of my naval l service, because I befriended a couple of Marine majors who had been through World War II and through the Korea War and were tough guys and I would in our conversations I would tell them, you know, how I've wanted to do this but I couldn't do it.

On the very last day that I left, this one major, you know, came in to shake my hand and say goodbye and asked me what I'm going to do with my life. And I told him, what I'd liked to do is go into television but I don't know what if I have any talent and what I could do. And he got very angry because he was one of those perfectionists. You know, Marines are very, very meticulous about when they go to war or when they're in just in retirement, he said well, what do you mean? Of course, don't you know you can have anything you want in this life, you've only got to want it bad enough and now do you want it? And I said well, but major, I'm not sure because and then he boomed at me, do you want this?


PHILBIN: And I snapped to and gave him a salute and said for the first time, yes, yes, I want this. Then get in your car and go up to Hollywood and make it happen. And that's what I did and that's how I got my first job that was offered me on the West Coast.

BIANCULLI: And before you decided to take that advice and head down to try and make in terms of television, you reveal something in this book that to me was such a touching story, where you're graduating at Notre Dame and you set up this thing to impress your parents and reveal to them your secret ambition. And it's based on loving Bing Crosby and wanting to be an entertainer and a singer. And so you got a rehearsal pianist and a little thing and went straight from graduation I guess with the cap and gown still on and marched your parents in.


BIANCULLI: Was it that sort of thing?

PHILBIN: Well, you're very, you're very, very close. Yes. You know, I had promised them all through high school and college because they were dying to know: What business are you going to go in? What are you going to do with your life? And the only thing that I liked very much was the sound of Bing Crosby's voice, who I used to listen to when I was in my, you know, six, seven years of age, and the radio was on in my little kitchen in the Bronx, and at 9:30 at night on WNEW I would hear this voice singing to me. And he had such a clear and pure and friendly voice that I became enamored of this guy. He became my friend. And even though I was in the Bronx and he was in Hollywood, I would still see him every night or at least hear him every night at 9:30, and that's the guy I wanted to be.

Of course, I never had a singing lesson. I was totally unprepared for anything, but two weeks before I graduated with my parents coming out to see the graduation at Notre Dame, I discovered that one of the guys I hung around with for four years could play the piano. And I said, I can't believe you can play the - do you know the song "Pennies from Heaven," which was one of Crosby's great songs, which as a kid I used to sing to myself? Yeah, of course, I do. So we went to the music hall on the Notre Dame campus. We took one of those rooms where you have a piano and you rehearse whatever you're doing. And that's what we did for two weeks. And then my parents drove from New York and when they got out the car I said, don't say a word, mom. We're going, I'm going to tell you what I want to do. So I walked them through the campus and Gus was waiting at the piano. And we entered the music hall and I went down to the room I knew he'd be in, I opened the door, gave him a cue and I sang "Pennies from Heaven" to them. It was ludicrous. I know it broke their hearts. It was, I knew I was wrong from the first note I hit but I continued to sing the song because I had no place to hide.

BIANCULLI: Well, that's what I love about...

PHILBIN: It was terrible, David.

BIANCULLI: Well, what I love about the writing, it's so revealing of your personality, that you knew right from the start that this was literally not what they wanted to hear.

PHILBIN: Absolutely.

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Regis Philbin, who is stepping down this week as host of "Live with Regis and Kelly." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: We're talking with Regis Philbin who is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the person who has starred on more hours of TV than anyone else period. You say in the book that you paid close attention to Jack Parr and that's where with his monologue you recognized what it is you wanted to do. But here's what I don't understand, recognizing that Jack Parr is really good at talking extemporaneously on television about his life and being entertaining, it's one thing to recognize it, you know, it's a completely different thing to be able to duplicate it.

PHILBIN: Well, you want to know something, David? You expressed that beautifully. You're absolutely right. But the fascinating thing is that that's exactly what I would do at the street corners of the Bronx. I would re-create maybe a ballgame we played at Bronx Park that afternoon and who made a mistake and who, you know, and it was always very funny. And so I remembered that and I wished I could do that on TV instead of reading somebody's jokes, which I could never do.

By then I had seen Jack Parr do something that gave me the confidence that I also could do. It wasn't a matter of duplicating Parr, it was doing my version of it. And I can't tell you how many times I said that to Jack Parr. Jack, you were the one that told me what to do with whatever talent - if you have to call it that - that I had. And he wouldn't hear it, of course, because he was a great fan of television and he couldn't get over the fact that, oh, by that time I had a co-host and he couldn't get over the fact that we were working with each other not knowing where we were going with that first 20 minutes. But that's the way I wanted to do it because I felt that was the best way I could do it.

BIANCULLI: You're...

PHILBIN: I hope I answered your question. I don't even know.

BIANCULLI: Oh, you did perfectly.

PHILBIN: Your question was better than my answer.


PHILBIN: I don't like that, David.

BIANCULLI: You're fine.

PHILBIN: All right.

BIANCULLI: We're up to Joey Bishop now. And this is where a lot of people first learned about you and so you nationwide, was as Joey Bishop's announcer, sidekick.


BIANCULLI: And he called you a good listener as your major talent. But the thing about the book that I did not know - it's one of the most famous episodes of the first round of TV late night wars, where you walk off and sort of leave the show.

PHILBIN: That's true.

BIANCULLI: It was after Jack Parr had famously done it for a few months...


BIANCULLI: ...objecting to censorship on his program.

PHILBIN: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: But this is the first time, decades after it happened, that I've learned that Joey Bishop convinced to you to do it as sort of a ratings stunt because Johnny Carson was coming to town.

PHILBIN: Well, that's exactly what happened. And frankly, this is the first time I've admitted that to anyone. I didn't want to tar Joey's name in any way. He was the one that frankly, you made a little a joke of it at the beginning and yes, he was the one who, he had watched me do an interview with Joe Pine and he was looking for a second banana.



PHILBIN: Yes, Joe Pine...

BIANCULLI: And those people who know Joe Pine, yeah.

PHILBIN: No, they don't know him.


PHILBIN: No one knows Joe Pine anymore but he was the toughest of all the radio guys in the world, and that's in the book too. But anyway, Joey heard that interview and I went to him. And as I walked in the door he said I saw you last night. You got a lot of talent. I said, wait a minute, this is the answer to my question all my life.


PHILBIN: What is my talent? And so he thought for a long time and I mean a long time and it was embarrassing because I had come in and put him on the defensive with a question instead of him questioning me. And finally he said you, you are a great listener. And I said well, you know, I'll take anything I can get but that at least that's good for what I'm going to be doing here with you. And when I came back to see him after he told me to go out and get a cup of coffee at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in the drugstore there and I did, came back and all his people were there and they were telling him, are you crazy? This guy is a TV host. He's not going to sit around and listen to you. He's going to try to take over your show. And he got Bishop very concerned and very upset and because I know Joey liked me. And so he said how do I know you're not going to sit there and mind your own business? How do I know that you're not going to interrupt me? How do I know that you're not going to do all these things? And I said you know how you know Joey, because I am a great listener.


PHILBIN: And he looked at me and I said, my god, he doesn't remember saying that because they've aggravated him so much. But I left and two days later he called and I got the job. Now we're doing the job and, you know, we're on ABC and ABC isn't as strong as NBC in those years. It began after NBC. Johnny had held the show down for a while. He had a great following. It was tough to crack the code there at 11:30 at night. And so one day as we were walking up the street there taking our walk every afternoon, Joey said, you know, I have a great idea - a great idea, yeah, but it involves you. I said really Joey, what, what can I do?

And he says here's what we're going to do. You're going to walk off the show. You're going to be angry. What you heard in the hallway that ABC doesn't like you and that, you know, you're not doing the job. But I'm going to bring you back because I think you're doing the job. In other words, Joey was, you know, making himself a hero and also getting some attention to the show and maybe people would tune in to see what happens to this young guy who walks off the show. Well, look, I'm working for Joey Bishop. I'm trying to do my job. He said he would bring me back and so I didn't want to do it but I did it. And I walked off the show and every night Joey would say I went out looking for Regis today. I went down to the beach. I mean he would say incredible silly things.

BIANCULLI: You're very diplomatic about it, but reading between the lines, it really seems as though Joey Bishop hung you out to dry on that thing.

PHILBIN: Well, when I reread it and when I think about it he did, but he did bring me back. So it's just a show business stunt to attract attention and build a rating. That's what it comes down to.


PHILBIN: But maybe he did, by the way you look at it, you could read that into it. Sure.

GROSS: Regis Philbin will continue his conversation with our TV critic David Bianculli in the second half of the show. Philbin's new memoir is called "How I Got This Way." Friday is his last day as co-host of "Live with Regis and Kelly." I'm Terry Gross and this FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that our TV critic David Bianculli recorded with Regis Philbin. Friday is Philbin's last day as co-host of a live, syndicated morning TV show - talk show - first with Kathy Lee Gifford and currently with Kelly Ripa. Philbin also has a new memoir called "How I Got This Way."

BIANCULLI: I have one more clip that I want to play, but this one showcases you, which I'm sure you're happier about. And...

PHILBIN: No, not at all.


BIANCULLI: No, but it exemplifies what I think makes you such a singular TV talent.

PHILBIN: All right.

BIANCULLI: I put you right up there with Jack Parr...

PHILBIN: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: terms of when you are honest and unchecked and you just do it in front of the entire audience. And in this clip, this is from last week, you're talking to your co-host Kelly Ripa, and the subject comes up of Andy Rooney, who retired from "60 Minutes" just recently, and then died a few weeks after that.

PHILBIN: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: So here is how you bring it up suddenly in the midst of the audience, all warm and excited about your, you know, announcing your impending retirement and the celebration that's going on.



PHILBIN: You know what's scaring me a little bit is Andy Rooney passed away two weeks after he left - after he left.

KELLY RIPA: Okay. Now, first of all...

MICHAEL GELMAN: Apples and oranges.

RIPA: Let's - right. Let's not compare apples...

PHILBIN: Andy's gone, as a tough little guy he was.

RIPA: That's not going to - okay, that's not going to happen to you.

PHILBIN: I don't know, but Andy used to say to the gal, Mika...

RIPA: Right.

PHILBIN: know Mika, who works on - with what's-his-name?

GELMAN: "Morning Joe."

PHILBIN: "Morning Joe." Yeah.

RIPA: Joe Scarborough.

PHILBIN: Who, I think they're terrific. But anyway, we've talked about that. But anyway, Mika had said she once worked with Andy over at CBS. And he said, when I leave my job, I'll die.

RIPA: Yes, but you have never said that.


RIPA: You go, when I leave this job, I'm going to be a movie star.

GELMAN: Right.

RIPA: That's kind of what you said.

BIANCULLI: Did I say that?

RIPA: Yes.

PHILBIN: Or you said you're going to be a sports...

GELMAN: Move on.

RIPA: ...broadcaster or something, or a Broadway star.

PHILBIN: No, no, no. No, no, no, no - movie star.

RIPA: Movie star.


RIPA: Movie star. Whatever. I mean, you've said a lot of things, but death has never been an option. So let's not get...

PHILBIN: Yeah, but it scares me a little bit, you know?

RIPA: Stop being competitive with Andy Rooney. Stop.


BIANCULLI: I just think that's such an honest exchange. Are those the sorts of things that you plan at all to say beforehand, or regret afterwards?

PHILBIN: No, not really. You know, there have never been any writers, so neither one of us know what the other one is going to say. That's the whole point of working with me. I think I function better like that. And so whatever flashes through your mind, and I forget what preceded it, you're right. The audience seemed to be in a good mood, and - but, you know, that thought came to me because Andy, I met him a couple of times, and my father was a CBS press agent who worked for Arthur Godfrey and a little bit for Edward R. Morrow over the years, and that's how Andy heard me once refer to his name, Mike Marcia(ph). And he said: Is this the Mike? And I said yes. And he said, oh, I knew him, because I, too, worked in CBS News as a writer, not as a publicist.

But anyway, Andy's passing two weeks after he left his job after so many years did flash through my mind and it just popped out, and I got Kelly handled it very well.

BIANCULLI: In these last few weeks, when the show has been making such a big deal about your departure, do you have a lot of input into what guests are allowed on and not on and what segments? Or do you like to stay away from that so that you're not culpable?

PHILBIN: No. I don't have much input into it. I know what Gelman is trying to do. He's been with me better than half his life, and he kind of knows what it is that I guess he thinks I like. I like surprises, and in the last week, he's come up with a nice assortment of surprises as guests. I think though, you know, I'm kidding around with him now, saying, you know, Gelman is there - is there may be too much of farewell to Regis that people are subjected to with all this? It wasn't my idea to even say this long. I thought I was going to get out at the end of my contract in August, but ABC asked if I wouldn't mind spending a few more months. I don't know why, but...

BIANCULLI: For the last ratings month of the year, perhaps, Regis.

PHILBIN: Thank you very much. There you go, David Bianculli.


PHILBIN: You're probably right, and that's all part of our business. I - fine I'll do it. And so that's what we're doing. But no, I have very limited input, but I'm kind of pleased with the way it's going and I hope it - you know, it couldn't go much longer than the two weeks we're on doing it. But other than that, everything is good.

BIANCULLI: All right. I cannot let an interview end without asking you about your relationship with another person I consider to be a natural broadcaster and a really prickly one, David Letterman. And we're talking now, and you have yet to do your final shows where he's going to come on one of your shows, you're going to come on one of his. I remember such things as your being on his show in the first live program he did after 9/11...


BIANCULLI: ...because he depended on you so much. What is your relationship at this point?

PHILBIN: We'll, it's a relationship, that it only takes place on the air. But I enjoy it very much. I think the world of him. I think he's the best late-night show we have. And you know what, David? I think maybe he's the best we ever had. He has just captured the whole essence of late-night broadcasting. I don't know...

BIANCULLI: That is really high praise from you.

PHILBIN: No, it really is. I know. I know, and believe me, I loved Jack Parr and I thought Johnny was great, but this is our guy now. And when I weigh him against the other guys, I see his value in our business. He is as good as it's ever going to get. So how did I get there with him? I really don't know. You know, Peter LaSalle was his executive producer, and he would say to me, you've got to be on with David. We just want to see what it's going to be. So I would accept jobs running down the aisle and throwing things out to the audience and...

BIANCULLI: Oh, they ran you through several ringers.

PHILBIN: Oh, yeah. It was for several years, because that's what I wanted. I was afraid to go on, because I had nothing to say. All I've got to say is what I said that morning. I've got nothing left. I haven't made up tomorrow morning's show yet, much less tonight's show. But anyway, eventually, I did go on, and gee, it went well. And that it just got better and better and better, to the point where I even enjoyed it. And I think he did, too. But that's the relationship. It's all on the air, but I think we do enjoy each other.

BIANCULLI: I have one question for you about "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," and you don't have to phone a friend or anything.

PHILBIN: There you go.

BIANCULLI: All right. Do you think that ABC killed that show by overexposing it just out of network corporate greed? Can you - if you can talk about Joey Bishop, can you now talk about ABC and what they did in primetime to "Millionaire"?

PHILBIN: Oh, yeah. I think in that year, the last year of the show, which became the last year of the show, I think ABC may have been hurting financially, and yet this show was the only thing they had on their schedule that was drawing an audience, that was getting a rating, that was getting the commercials, that was a big hit. It really was.

I was sorry to see them - I mean, it was a tribute, I guess, to the show that they wanted to run it so much, but I was sorry to see it happen, because eventually, you can't run something four nights in a row on primetime and expect it to hold up. And that's exactly what they did, but they did at the cost of a great show that I thought should still be on today at eight o'clock at night on Sunday nights - a perfect family show for Sunday night. Eventually, it burned out, though, and so they made a little syndicated show out of it that's on every afternoon, and doing quite well. Other than that, I mean, I don't know why we had to do that, but I assume they had to do it, or they wouldn't have done it that way.

BIANCULLI: Who does the best Regis Philbin impersonation?

PHILBIN: You know, there are so many guys, and we've gone through this on the show. It all began with Dana Carvey.


PHILBIN: You've got to give Dana Carvey credit. And he does it - still does a great. Ben Affleck loves to do it - I mean, the strangest people. Of course, the guy that used to do me right on the "Saturday Night Live" show.

BIANCULLI: Oh, Darrell Hammond.

PHILBIN: Darrell Hammond is excellent at it. But through the years, people have taken a swing at it, and it's been a lot of fun. Frankly, I don't think I sound like that, although, even now, because of them, I'm finding myself trying to be that.


PHILBIN: Well, you know, I did something on the Fox Sports thing the other day just before the pro football game on Sunday with Frank Caliendo...


PHILBIN: ...who does a great Madden, you know?


PHILBIN: And so he was duplicating - he was impersonating me. And so I go out there to say, what's going on here? You know, why are you people talking like this? And it was very, very funny. But he's another one who can do it very well.

BIANCULLI: All right. Listen, thank you...

PHILBIN: How about you? How about you Dave? Let's hear you do it.

BIANCULLI: Oh, no, no. No, no, no, no.

PHILBIN: Come on.

BIANCULLI: No. No. I can't, Regis. I...

PHILBIN: Come on.

BIANCULLI: I can't do it. I can't.

PHILBIN: Come on.


BIANCULLI: Oh, listen. My last question is about something else from your book. You end each chapter with little morals or fables or epigrams. I don't know...

PHILBIN: Yeah. Life's lessons, they call it.

BIANCULLI: Well, the one that I want to quote to end our conversation is - one chapter says - ends with one that says: If you are grateful to someone who's brought your life, you know, even a little joyfulness, and if you have the chance to tell them so, do it. It just takes a second, and you'll never regret it. So, thanks.

PHILBIN: Well, thank you very much. And I agree with what you just read, because that pertains to Bing Crosby, who I never called, who I was afraid to call, who I didn't think I was important enough to call. He never did know what he meant to me as a little boy growing up in the Bronx and as a guy trying to break into our business.

BIANCULLI: Well, I'm glad I got a chance, on your final week on this show, to say thank you for - I remember when I came to New York, I wrote about your program and identified it as a guilty pleasure, and you complained, like, what is there to be guilty about? And I never forgot that. That was very funny.

PHILBIN: Well, you know, people have said that, like they're ashamed that they spend any time watching the show. In the early days, I used to hear that. But nevertheless, they were watching, and I was glad to hear it, whether it was guilty or innocent.


PHILBIN: Glad you were with me, Bianculli.

BIANCULLI: I still am. Listen, Regis Philbin...

PHILBIN: Thanks David.

BIANCULLI: ...thanks for being on FRESH AIR.

PHILBIN: Thanks, buddy.

GROSS: Regis Philbin spoke with our TV critic David Bianculli. Friday is Philbin's last day as host of "Live with Regis and Kelly." He has a new memoir called "How I Got This Way." You can read an excerpt on our website:

Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews the new DVD release of the 1937 Fred Astaire musical "A Damsel in Distress," with songs by the Gershwins. This is FRESH AIR.
12:00-13:00 PM

TERRY GROSS, host: George and Ira Gershwin wrote some of their best songs for the movies. One of these films, "A Damsel in Distress," which was released in 1937, four months after George died of a brain tumor, is now on DVD. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says it may be the oddest among their films.



FRED ASTAIRE: (as Jerry Halliday) (Singing) Bad news, go away. Call `round someday, in March or May. I can't be bothered now. My bonds and shares may fall downstairs. Who cares? Who cares? I'm dancing, and I can't be bothered now.

LLOYD SCHWARZ: "A Damsel in Distress" was the third of only four films on which George and his brother Ira Gershwin collaborated. The star is Fred Astaire, but without Ginger Rogers. Their previous film together, "Shall We Dance?", also with an unforgettable Gershwin score, hadn't lived up to studio expectations, and the now-famous stars were taking a break from each other.

This film has two substitutes for Rogers, one of the best and maybe the worst. Two songs from it became standards, and Astaire's longtime assistant, choreographer Hermes Pan, won an Oscar for dance direction for one of the most delightful production numbers in a Hollywood musical.

The story is based on a novel by P.G. Wodehouse, who also co-authored the screenplay. It's a mild satire on the snobbery of the British aristocracy. The heroine, the rebellious Lady Alyce Marshmorton, is played by 18-year-old Joan Fontaine, three years before she won an Oscar for "Suspicion," the only actor ever to win an Oscar in an Alfred Hitchcock film.

Her family thinks she has fallen in love with Astaire, who plays an American dancer visiting London with his publicist and his dizzy secretary, George Burns and Gracie Allen. It's directed by George Stevens, who's better known for such high dramas as "A Place in the Sun," "Shane" and "Giant," but who had previously directed Astaire and Rogers in what many people consider their very best film, "Swingtime." Here's one of the most famous songs from a "Damsel in Distress," maybe the best song ever written about England.



ASTAIRE: A foggy day in London town had me low and had me down. I viewed the morning with alarm. The British Museum had lost its charm. How long I wondered could this thing last. But the age of miracles hadn't passed, for suddenly I saw you there and through foggy London town the sun was shining everywhere.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: The British setting gives the Gershwins a chance to experiment; the score actually includes two madrigals. But the great number is an eight-minute sequence in a funhouse in which Fred and George and Gracie slide down a chute and dance on a double turntable turning in opposite directions, and in front of a series of funhouse mirrors that stretch them and shorten them and make them all legs with no bodies, a marvelously ironic image of Astaire.

Burns and Allen are veteran vaudevillians, and their dancing is light as a feather, especially Gracie's hilarious nonstop trotting around that turntable, like some wonderful wind-up toy. Here's the song that begins the number, deliciously introduced by Gracie.


GRACIE ALLEN: (Singing) What made good Queen Bess such a great success? What made Wellington do what he did at Waterloo? What makes every Englishman a fighter through and through? It isn't roast beef, or ale, or home, or mother. It's just a little thing they sing to one another. Stiff upper lip, stout fella. Carry on, old bean. Chin up, keep muddling through.

ALLEN: (Singing) Stiff upper lip, stout fella. Dash it all, I mean, pip, pip to old man trouble and a toodle-oo too. Carry on through thick and thin. If you feel you're in the right, does the fighting spirit win? Oh, quite, quite, quite, quite, quite. Stiff upper lip, stout fella. When you're in a stew, sober or blotto this is the motto: keep muddling through.

SCHWARTZ: The main problem with the film is that Fontaine was not a dancer. So the only romantic dance number in the film takes place in a woodland setting, and whenever possible Fontaine is hidden by trees. It may be the only Astaire musical that doesn't end with a duet. The other great song in the film is "Nice Work If You Can Get It," with Astaire simultaneously dancing and playing drums with his feet. Here's the song before he starts tapping.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Holding hands at midnight, 'neath the starry skies.

ASTAIRE: (Singing) Nice work if you can get it and you can get it if you try.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Strolling with the one girl, sighing sigh after sigh.

ASTAIRE: (Singing) Boy, it is nice work if you can get it and you can get it if you try...

SCHWARTZ: Imagine a time in Hollywood when there were so many good movie songs that neither "A Foggy Day" nor "Nice Work If You Can Get It" was nominated for a best song Oscar. In fact, George Gershwin's only Oscar nomination was from the same year, another song introduced by Fred Astaire: "They Can't Take That Away from Me," from "Shall We Dance?"

But it lost to a Hawaiian number called "Sweet Leilani" that Bing Crosby made popular. It would be my nomination for the worst decision ever made by the Motion Picture Academy.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix, and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the new DVD of "A Damsel in Distress." Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward talks about hillbilly boogie, a hybrid of boogie woogie and country that caught on after World War II and was a precursor to rock and roll. This is FRESH AIR.
12:00-13:00 PM

TERRY GROSS, host: Boogie-woogie was a piano style that started sometime in the early 20th century and by the 1930s became a huge pop-music fad. After World War II, it re-emerged in country music, where it was an important precursor to rock 'n' roll. Rock historian Ed Ward has the story.


ED WARD: We know now that starting with Western swing in the 1920s, country-music reflections of popular black music has a long history, so that claiming that Elvis Presley was the first successful fusion of the two is just silly. The hillbilly boogie fad, however, has been largely overlooked in that history, although there were hundreds of records made in that style. It started with a guy named Arthur Smith in 1945.


WARD: "Guitar Boogie" is by Arthur Smith's Hot Quintet, a band which had backing the singer and recorded it as a goof when there was some time remaining in a recording session. A straight-ahead boogie-woogie performed on guitar, it became a hit, and for the rest of his life Arthur was billed as Arthur Guitar Boogie Smith. Postwar country music must have been ripe for guitar virtuosos, because suddenly they were everywhere.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) About 12:00 gonna close the door. Can't nobody come or nobody go. I've got a boogie woogie feeling, had it all night long. When I get that feeling, my mamma won't let me come home.

WARD: One of the most influential was Merle Travis, who was from Kentucky and learned a lot of his guitar style from his barber, Ike Everly, who had a family radio show featuring his sons. Travis was not only a solo performer; he was also in demand as a studio musician.


DELMORE BROTHERS: (Singing) I love that Mobile Boogie. I like to travel when I'm heading for home, way down in Dixie where I'm never alone. I know a gal who's been a waiting around. She likes to boogie woogie when I'm in town. I'm in Mobile, down in Alabam where the breeze is blowin'. That's where I'm bound.

WARD: It's hard to tell, but it's likely Travis is the third guitar behind Alton and Rabon Delmore, the Delmore Brothers here. The Delmores recorded dozens of boogies, which revived a career they'd started in the '30s. With the addition of Travis and banjo player Grandpa Jones, they became the gospel-singing Browns Ferry Four and Travis' ability to play the bass with one finger while picking a melody at the same time, called Travis picking, came out of his boogie period and revolutionized American guitar playing. By the end of the '40s, Travis had moved to Hollywood and joined the new Capitol label, which was recording West Coast country talent, and the boogie craze was in full swing. Travis was in the studio band for the genre's biggest hits, including this one.


TENNESSEE ERNIE FORD: (Singing) There it stands in the corner with a barrel so straight. I looked out the window and over gate. The big fat rabbits are jumping in the grass; wait'll they hear my ol' shotgun blast. Shotgun boogie. I done saw your tracks. Look out, Mr. Rabbit, when I cock my hammer back. Well, over on the ridge is a scaly bark, hickory nuts so big you can see 'em in the dark.

(Singing) The big fat squirrels, they scratch and they bite. I'll be on that ridge before daylight with the shotgun boogie. All I need is one shot. Look out, bushy tail; tonight you'll be in the pot.

WARD: "Shot-Gun Boogie," sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford, was a No. 1 country hit at the end of 1950, and pretty much represented the height of the hillbilly boogie craze. But it also pointed out a growing division in country music. The war had brought lots of people from Texas and Oklahoma to California, and Capitol was only one of the labels recording a new kind of country music.

In fact, the music-business term Country and Western was accurate. This music was at least as much Western as country, which was Nashville's specialty. Capitol's studio musicians were second to none. Along with Merle Travis, they had Telecaster virtuoso Jimmy Bryant and steel guitarist Speedy West, whose instrumental albums wowed other musicians, as well as more open-minded jazz fans.


WARD: Nashville stayed more traditional and more acoustic during the early 1950s, and the gap between the two coasts just widened as time went on. By the time Elvis came along, making his first records with an acoustic guitar in Tennessee, hillbilly boogie was history, and Los Angeles was mixing country and pop, waiting for a new country generation to come along. But that's a story for another day.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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