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REGIS PHILBIN is finally making a big name for himself.
Of course, some people think he made up the name itself, too.

"They think I took that name as an adopted show business name," Philbin said as he relaxed at a Buffalo hotel during a recent visit. "Can you believe that?"

Changing his name would have been out of character.

The co-host of the syndicated show "Live With Regis & Kathie Lee" has discovered that the secret of success is being himself.

For instance, he charms audiences by calling himself ugly. "I can't stand to look at myself," he says.

But he's sitting pretty now.

His show, carried locally at 9 a.m. by Channel 7, is a smash. In May, it captured 35 percent of the Buffalo viewing audience -- more than one-third higher than the audience Channel 7 gets for its talk show, "AM/Buffalo."

In fact, the success of "Regis & Kathie Lee" might have been responsible for the recent firing of Cindy Abbott and the cry for changes on "AM/Buffalo."

As relaxed and at ease as he is on his show, Philbin talked for about 45 minutes.

He works only about eight blocks from where he grew up in New York City. Yet the fifty-ish Philbin has come a long way.

Despite many local successes and national failures on his resume, Philbin says: "I'm kind of an unknown quantity. I never had a press agent."

After graduating from the University of Notre Dame and doing a stint in the armed forces, Philbin began his TV career as an NBC page.

Six months later, he saw his future. "I went to a gypsy fortuneteller, who told me, 'You are going on a trip,' " said Philbin. He was hired as a stagehand at a Los Angeles station.

"I wanted to work on camera, although I never thought I would have enough talent or guts," he said.

"I worked as a stagehand and I would write reviews of programs. I'd tack them on the bulletin board and sign them 'The Phantom.' The general manager chewed me out and gave me a job as a newscaster because he saw some talent."

He became a radio and TV newscaster in San Diego and signed to do his first of a dizzying number of talk shows. He was working on a similar show in Los Angeles when he was hired as a second banana by Joey Bishop for a 1967 to 1969 ABC late-night talk show.

"I went to see him reluctantly," Philbin said. "I'd always been my own host. We hit it off, and I said to myself, 'Look what happened to Ed McMahon and Hugh Downs.' "

After a three-year run ended, Philbin returned to host more local daytime shows in Los Angeles. When Grant Tinker became the head of NBC, he asked Philbin to go national for a second time, in 1981.

"What an honor. I was Grant Tinker's first choice at NBC," Philbin said. Already unamused by a daytime failure featuring a toothy comedian named David Letterman, NBC affiliates didn't share Tinker's enthusiasm. The show was called pabulum by critics and quickly died.

"They tried to script it for me," said Philbin. "It wasn't live. It wasn't an hour."

"Right now, I do 14 minutes at the top of the show," Philbin explained. "A half-hour show was only 22 minutes without commercials. If I went over 3 1/2 minutes, guys were going crazy."

The show introduced Mary Hart to a national audience. Philbin saw her working on a Los Angeles show and saw the attribute that he looks for in co-hosts.

"What general managers don't seem to understand is the co-host should be a broadcaster, not a movie star or a starlet. It has to be someone who is willing to give of themselves in conversations and talk honestly about what they did last night, whether it be nothing or a ball they attended."

After the NBC debacle and a stint at Lifetime cable, Philbin returned in 1983 as a morning show host in New York that was a forerunner of today's program. Kathie Lee Gifford, who was working at "Good Morning America," is his third co-host. (Philbin's wife, Joy, is a substitute co-host.) The show went national in 1988.

Unlike the NBC show, this version arrived at the right time -- when some viewers had tired of being educated by Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey about issues, and others had been turned off by sleazy talk shows like Morton Downey Jr.'s.

"I didn't mean it to be an antidote," said Philbin, whose show nonetheless premiered with an ad campaign that promised "Fun Without Controversy."

"This is the same show that I started doing in San Diego in the '60s," said Philbin. "Two stools and a guest and you do it. Every time I had a local show by myself, it was No. 1 in the time period in the market. Twice I was offered a national show and they changed the format and doomed it to failure. This time, I was insistent on its remaining the same show."

With the birth of her first child, Kathie Lee Gifford has had much to talk about with Philbin during the first 15 minutes.

"I absolutely hate to use the word 'communicate,' but that is what the show is," said Philbin. "It is on a less intense but more familiar level.

"You almost become one of the audience. There are people who say, 'Who's going to sit around and listen to that?' But after a while people want to go back to hear more of it, and will come back the next day just to hear it."

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