There was always something that I liked about Regis Philbin. Maybe it’s the nostalgic side of me because I watched his show during high school and college, or maybe it’s because I saw “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” strike it big with Philbin. But there was always something about his personality that connected with me.

As I read about the story of his life, I realized that his career had something that is easily overlooked today. While he was 88 when he died, Philbin spent many years working hard at what he loved to do. His ability to connect with audiences about the everydayness of life was in part due to his personality. But the other aspect of his connection came from moving along in his career one small step at a time before he got his big break. Philbin’s drive kept him working until he was 80 years old, doing a job that he loved and celebrating almost 60 years on television. In fact, in 2004, Philbin logged his 15,600th hour on television, setting a Guinness World Record.

Regis Philbin’s Beginning

Philbin was born in the Bronx to first generation immigrant parents, and he graduated from Notre Dame in 1952. He served in the Navy for just two years as a supply officer, but when he got out of the military, he decided that he wanted to work in the TV industry. Philbin’s conversation with one of his military leaders served as a catalyst for his career.

Philbin tells it like this:

“I’d like to go into television,” he said hesitantly, “but I don’t know what I could do. I’m not a comedian. I’m not a singer. I’m not a dancer. I’m none of these things but still I’d like to go into it but I don’t know if I have any talent. (His leader) said, ‘Don’t you know you could have anything you want in this life, you’ve only got to want it bad enough. Now do you want it?’ … and I said, ‘Yes, sir. I want it.’”

Regis Philbin’s Career Steps

So Philbin took those words to heart and reached out and got a big break. Nope. Maybe he dreamed about striking it big overnight, but his actions tell us that was not his expectation. Here’s what his military transition actually looked like:

  • Tried to get in at Hollywood but struck out so went home
  • Became an NBC page in New York City
  • Hired as a stagehand at KCOP-TV in LA six weeks later
  • Moved from LA down to San Diego to work in radio and local news
  • Got his own show “That Regis Philbin Show” in 1964, but after eight episodes, it was pulled
  • Became Joey Bishop’s sidekick in 1967, the show struggled with ratings and lasted 33 months, but Bishop quit before the end
  • Took over the late night show after Bishop quit, and the show went off the air a few weeks later
  • Became a co-host for KABC-TV’s “A.M. Los Angeles” for six years
  • Left “A.M. Los Angeles” and started on NBC with Mary Hart on “The Regis Philbin Show,” which was canceled after 4 months. During his time on the show, they were low on funds and writers, so Philbin learned to do his own ad libs
  • Started on “The Morning Show” in 1983. The show did well. Kathie Lee Gifford joined the set, and the show took off.
  • Renamed the show “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee” and got syndicated nationally, and the rest is history.

Lessons From Regis Philbin

I’m confident that there are other jobs that he had, but the list is long and spans many years. Even when Philbin’s show struck it big, he still went on to do more things in the TV world – not greedily, but rather steadily.

As I read through all of the stories about Regis Philbin in the days following his death, these are the lessons that stood out:

  1. Go after what you want. If you want to do something, you just need to keep aiming in that direction.
  2. Don’t be afraid of hard work. We seem to think that success is defined as either overnight or it’s a failure. We build a successful career by a lot of misfires and a lot of hard work.
  3. Do the next thing. You don’t have to plan out what you want your career to look like in the end because you can’t control everything. Sometimes, your next move is to just check out the job boards or move to a new city or just show up at the same job the next day. Maybe Philbin envisioned the end of his career and reverse engineered it, but it also seems like he just kept pushing forward with each failure and opportunity.
  4. Don’t be afraid of risk. Philbin took some leaps. He adjusted as he needed to, but when an opportunity was presented that looked good, he went for it.
  5. Find people who support your career. That might be immediate family or it might be a great mentor. But some of Philbin’s moves came from people’s encouragement in his life.
  6. Keep pushing forward. Sometimes, after things take off in our careers, we want to sit back for a bit. It is good to take breathers. However, actively watch and observe the state of play around you so you’re ready to jump back in at the next opportunity. You never know when you have something valuable to add.
  7. Care about the people along the way. One of the things that always stood out to me about Philbin was the way that he interacted with people. Even in small-talk or when he was talking about himself, he was setting up his co-host or his guest with an opportunity to contribute. Small talk in this sense wasn’t small at all.

Long time co-host and friend, Kathie Lee Gifford, commented on how Philbin was always grateful, which she attributed to the fact that he worked from the bottom up, and he never forgot where he started. Philbin entertained me during his life, but his career story encouraged me after his death. We have much to learn from this Navy veteran.

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Jillian Hamilton has worked in a variety of Program Management roles for multiple Federal Government contractors. She has helped manage projects in training and IT. She received her Bachelors degree in Business with an emphasis in Marketing from Penn State University and her MBA from the University of Phoenix.