The date was March 1, 2016 and the four of us were sitting in the lobby of an Uptown Manhattan apartment building, hoping that we didn’t get the times mixed up for our meeting. It was me, my writing partner Steve Quistgaard, our manager Justin Baez and Barry Bradford, an actor and a personal friend of the man we were waiting for, who was now running more than 30 minutes late. There was no way we could have missed him either. He was none other than the imitable — and highly excitable (I was half expecting him to announce himself to the whole lobby upon entry) — Regis Philbin, who even at 84, still looked pretty much exactly as he had when he hosted Who Wants to Be a Millionaire more than a decade earlier.
Barry had been friends with Regis for about 10 years, and even appeared on Live with Regis and Kelly in 2010. Meanwhile, both Steve and I were sweating profusely as we waited on the lobby couch, not only because we’d never pitched a TV show to anyone before — much less to a TV legend — but also because of the nature of what we were pitching. It was a rather raunchy, self-parody of Regis’ real persona, and we were praying that he’d be open to laughing at himself.
But when it reached almost an hour of waiting, we began to worry that the meeting wouldn’t happen at all. Barry kept checking in with the doorman, who, in turn, kept calling up to Joy, Regis’ beloved wife. Eventually, we found out that he was still at the Equinox next door, doing his daily routine on the treadmill and lifting weights. We were told to head over there and talk to him in that lobby instead.
Within a couple minutes of our arrival, Regis came out in his gym shorts and a sleeveless shirt, wearing a big pair of Nikes. We exchanged introductions and all sat down. Right away, Regis broke the ice by saying, “Alright, what do ya got for Regis!?!?” Still nervous, I started by explaining, “We want you to play a character named Chip Turner, an out-of-work game-show host who was on TV for decades and is still a beloved television personality.”
“This is starting to sound familiar,” Regis cracked.
He was, from start to finish, exactly the guy that you saw on TV — gregarious, lovable and constantly breaking balls (“I don’t think you guys like Regis very much!” he chimed in when we broke down exactly how we wanted him to humorously debase himself). Most surprising though, he was game. Game for the dirty jokes. Game for the humiliation. And game for all the mocking. Still, we were gingerly approaching one joke, fearing that it might tank the good vibes. “In the pilot,” we explained to him, “you have to eat a dead rat.”
“Is that it?” he responded immediately, easing the tension once more. “Can we go darker? Can I kill someone?”
He liked what we had for him enough that he told us was ready to go right then, saying with his trademark exuberance, “Okay, when do we get started?”
To make sure he wasn’t just being polite (or breaking those aforementioned balls), Justin confirmed with him one last time: “So you’re saying we can tell people that you’re attached to this project and use your name to push it forward?”
To which Regis replied, “What — are you hard of hearing? I’m ready to do this now!”
Alas, it would never come to be. After a year of pitching this outlandish mockumentary starring Regis Philbin to a variety of outlets, Regis dropped out. At that point, it was less than a month after the passing of his close friend Don Rickles, who Regis had been touring with at the time. It seems that once Rickles died, Regis really was retired and didn’t have much interest in big projects anymore, much less peddling in our brand of subversive gross-out humor.
Eventually, we found a new Chip in Seinfeld’s John O’Hurley, who was equally open to poking fun at himself (and to pretending to eat a dead rat). In the summer of 2018, we filmed a pilot for The Tramp, and in the closing credits, we made sure to offer a “special thanks” to Regis Philbin.
Rest in peace, Reege. It was an honor that you were willing to spend 15 minutes putting up with our bullshit.