Inside Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford's Incredible 35-Year Friendship

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Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford weren't just co-workers for 15 years, they remained extremely close friends until the iconic television personality died on Friday of natural causes. He was 88 years old.

Philbin and 66-year-old Gifford first started working together in 1985, when she became his co-host on The Morning Show on WABC-TV, which later went into national broadcast in 1988 as Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee. The show was a massive hit, thanks to Philbin and Gifford's natural chemistry. A beloved part of the show became the first 15 minutes, when the two would banter not just about current events, but poke fun at one another over their personal lives, like Gifford's relationship with her husband, the late Frank Gifford, and their two kids -- son Cody and daughter Cassidy.

Philbin talked about their iconic opening bit in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 1988.

"Everything on television these days is either written or over-rehearsed and there isn't room for the smaller things in life that everybody goes through, like visits from your mother-in-law or the kids bringing home stray cats," Philbin said. "TV usually thinks those things are too insignificant to be interesting to anybody. But that's all I've got. And it may sound a little hokey, but people relate to that, and they find those small little stories so appealing that they want to tune in the next day to find out what happened last night."

Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford on the set of "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" on WABC television in New York on April 25, 1988.
J. Michael Dombroski/Newsday RM via Getty Images

In a March 2019 interview with AARP The Magazine, Gifford also talked about hosting with Philbin.

"I knew it was the beginning of something huge because I met my doppelganger when I met Regis," she recalled. "I knew it. I met my creative equal. I felt that a few times in life. I felt that with Regis, I felt it with Hoda [Kotb], although that took much longer. Regis and I were instant. But he'd been in the business, he was a performer like I was. Took longer with Hoda because she had to learn to trust her instincts."

Kathy Lee Gifford and Regis Philbin attend the taping of "Good Morning America" on April 26, 1988 at NBC TV Studios in New York City.
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

In a 2017 interview with Larry King, Philbin said the show worked because he and Gifford "enjoyed each other." He noted that they were still great friends to this day, although he lost touch with his second Live! co-host after Gifford's departure -- Kelly Ripa.

Gifford even wrote the introduction to Philbin's 1995 autobiography, I'm Only One Man!, and talked about her co-host always remaining true to himself.

"The charm of Regis is he is still the same scared and shy little Catholic boy afraid to knock on the door of the radio station at Notre Dame to ask for a job," Gifford wrote. "He's still the same kid who got dumped after the prom. He's still the same young man from the Bronx whose mother used to tell him, 'The poorhouse is just around the corner, Mr. Big Shot' (even though the street is now called Regis Philbin Avenue)."

Gifford eventually left Live! in July 2000 and ended up joining Today in 2008 as co-host of the NBC morning show's fourth hour, titled Today With Kathie Lee and Hoda, alongside Hoda Kotb. Still, she and Philbin remained close friends, and have been photographed going out to dinner together.

Kathie Lee Gifford and Regis Philbin are seen on January 24, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
gotpap/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Philbin even had an on-screen reunion with Gifford on the Today show in January 2012, and once again reflected on their unconventional time working together on Live!

"Because the show that we did, and I continued to do after you left, and I've always done, is all ad-lib," he said. "It's spontaneous, I don't have meetings with all these people, 'Who are all these people? I want them out of here.' But it was all spontaneous, and I wanted to keep that element going."

In an April 2015 interview with Closer Weekly, Philbin said he and his wife, Joy, frequently visited Gifford and her husband at their Connecticut home.

"[Kathie Lee and husband Frank] live up in Greenwich, Connecticut, and we are weekenders up there," he told the magazine.

He also said he was very much open to working with her on TV again.

"She's very funny, and she's a lot of fun," he said. "We had a great time -- great feelings, and she's smart. We enjoy it."

Meanwhile, Gifford shared, "I don't miss working with Regis, because I see him actually more now than I ever did."

In August 2015, when Frank died, Philbin talked with ET about getting close to the NFL Hall of Famer through Gifford and shared that he got to see him shortly before his death.

"Kathie Lee and I were working together on our Live! morning show when she started dating Frank," Philbin shared. "I always loved trying to get her to tell me about her new romance and it wasn't long before we were watching them take their vows in front of close friends in Southhampton. Frank had a great life and he and Kathie Lee raised two beautiful children, Cody and Cassidy. All of us will miss him terribly."

Regis Philbin, wife Joy Philbin, Kathy Lee Gifford and Frank Gifford attend Irish Chamber of Commerce Gala Honoring Regis Philbin and Kathy Lee Gifford on October 10, 1990 at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City.
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Philbin was once again there for Gifford when she was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame in October 2015, co-hosting the event with Kotb at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.

"She's one of those ladies you don't meet in this business," Philbin, himself a B&C Hall of Famer, said at the event. "She's smart. She's beautiful. She can handle anything that comes her way, and I just think she's terrific."

ET was backstage with Philbin, Gifford and Kotb at the event, and Philbin and Kotb playfully fought over their close friend.

"Fifteen years together, she was incredible," Regis told ET of Gifford, before teasing that she might have downgraded by pairing up with Kotb.

"Now eight years with this one, and so-so, you know?" he cracked.

Gifford decided to leave the Today show in December 2018, and during her final Today show last April, Philbin made a rare appearance when he shared a heartfelt video message for her.

"Kathie Lee, you want to know the best part of my life, my TV life, was in the 15 years I spent with you from 1985 to 2000," he said. "We stayed friends through the entire game and it was a lot of fun."

"Where you are right now, I know you're going to be moving on to a great new career," he continued. "I want you to know that I will always remember the great times that we had working together, and how you are as person -- just great."

On Sunday, Gifford shared a sweet picture of her and Philbin on Instagram following his death, and reflected on their one-of-a-kind friendship.

"There are no words to fully express the love I have for my precious friend, Regis," she wrote. "I simply adored him and every day with him was a gift. We spent 15 years together bantering and bickering and laughing ourselves silly -- a tradition and a friendship we shared up to this very day. I smile knowing somewhere in Heaven, at this very moment, he’s making someone laugh."

"It brings me great comfort knowing that he had a personal relationship with his Lord that brought him great peace," she continued. "I send all the love in my heart to Joy, to his children, to the rest of his family and to the innumerable people he touched over his legendary life. There has never been anyone like him. And there never will be."

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There are no words to fully express the love I have for my precious friend, Regis. I simply adored him and every day with him was a gift. We spent 15 years together bantering and bickering and laughing ourselves silly—a tradition and a friendship we shared up to this very day. I smile knowing somewhere in Heaven, at this very moment, he’s making someone laugh. It brings me great comfort knowing that he had a personal relationship with his Lord that brought him great peace. I send all the love in my heart to Joy, to his children, to the rest of his family and to the innumerable people he touched over his legendary life. There has never been anyone like him. And there never will be.

A post shared by Kathie Lee Gifford (@kathielgifford) on

Gifford appeared on the Today show on Monday, and shared that the last time she saw Philbin and his wife, Joy, was just two weeks ago. The group sat on Gifford's screen porch where they "laughed [themselves] sick" and "picked up right where" they left off.

"We became dear friends through the years since then," she noted of Philbin. "Always, always getting together every chance we could and just picking up right where we left off. We just had the best time."

"After they left, I thought to myself, 'Lord, is that the last time I am going to see my friend?'" she continued. "Because he was failing. I could tell."

Gifford said she was grateful for the final time she got to see Philbin.

"It was so precious," Gifford said. "When I talked to Joy the day I found out, right after he passed, she said, 'Kathie, he hadn't laughed in a long, long time.' She said, 'I was so worried about him.'"

"I think just like Frank, he was just ready," she continued. "So many of his friends had died... He was ready to go. "[Joy] said, 'The day we came to have lunch with you was the last time I heard him laugh.' That will forever be a precious gift the Lord gave me, that I got to laugh again with one of my best friends in all of my lifetime."

She also reflected on her working relationship with Philbin, sharing that they "always respected each other's opinions so highly" and "never had one cross word" when they worked together.

"He was an entertainer in his guts and so was I," she shared. "So when we came together, although we didn't have a friendship yet, we had a mutual respect for what we had accomplished already in our careers and we had the same sense of humor. I wasn’t afraid of him and he sure as heck was not afraid of me. We just took off like a rocket."

egis Philbin (L) and Kathie Lee Gifford attend the Greenwich International Film Festival's Changemaker Gala at L'Escale Restaurant on June 6, 2015 in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Mark Sagliocco/WireImage

Gifford's children have also shared tributes to Philbin since his death. Cassidy, 26, shared a photo of her late father and Philbin together on Instagram.

"The laughter I know you two are sharing together again in heaven is palpable... love you forever, Reeg ❤️," she captioned the photo.

Cody, 30, shared the same photo on Twitter, writing, "Gone, but not forgotten. Rest in paradise, cherished friend. #regis."

For more on how Gifford and Ripa have been paying tribute to their beloved co-host, watch the video below:

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