Two weeks ago, Kathie Lee Gifford saw her former co-anchor and longtime friend, Regis Philbin, for the last time. The two co-anchored Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee for 15 years, and had stayed close ever since. While visiting from Tennessee, Gifford says she got lunch with Philbin and his wife, Joy.
“I sensed much more fragility than I’d seen in him since the last time in January out in Los Angeles,” Gifford said during an emotional interview on Monday’s Today show. “We just had the best time, and after they left, I just thought to myself, Lord, is that the last time I’m going to see my friend? Because he was failing. I could tell.”
Regis Philbin died last Friday of natural causes at the age of 88. During their run together on Live! from 1985 to 2000, he and Gifford became known for their crackling chemistry and off-the-cuff comedy. During her Today appearance Monday, Gifford grew tearful at times as she discussed her final meeting with her friend of several decades, as well as how they changed daytime television together.
“When we first started we had no idea what we had, but we knew what we didn’t want,” Gifford said. “We didn’t want writers. We didn’t want a million producers. We didn’t want it overproduced; we just wanted to sit there and have fun together.”
The two never discussed how their on-air banter would unfold, Gifford said. “He’d hold up the newspaper and we’re off to the races. I’d say, ‘Cody threw up,’ and we were off to the races. We never planned it. And it’s kind of like life. We never know what's going to happen next in life, so let it happen. Let it be.”
During her final get-together with Philbin, Gifford said, “We sat here on my screen porch and we laughed ourselves sick. We always just picked up right where we left off. You know, I was with him 15 years [on Live!], but it’s been 20 years since I left the show. And we’ve become dear friends through the years.”
Joy Philbin told Gifford that by the time he passed, her husband had seemed “just ready.”
“So many of his friends had died,” Gifford said. “His dearest friends had died the week before of [COVID-19], actually. He was ready to go.”
Gifford said she learned about Philbin’s death almost immediately after it happened. On Sunday she visited Philbin’s family with food and “one of every gift wine I had.”
“They were in their living room going though pictures,” Gifford said. “There were thousands of pictures and we reminisced for a little while.”
It’s been almost five years since Gifford’s late husband, Frank, died, she said—so while she made sure to visit, she also avoided intruding on the family for too long. “You love your friends reaching out,” she said, “but you also desperately need that private time as a family... I was just grateful to have the time with them and comfort them a little bit, let them know that I believe with all my heart that I know where Regis is and I know who he’s with.”
Gifford said she and Philbin discussed faith and the afterlife several times over the years—and that during those conversations, Philbin “was very curious as always. Listened. We always respected each other’s opinions so highly. You know, in all the years we were together we never had one cross word.”
Before Gifford ended her appearance, her former Today co-anchor Hoda Kotb asked what she would miss the most about Philbin. Gifford’s voice cracked as she replied, “Everything.”
“I’m just so grateful the lord gave me that final time,” Gifford said. “And it was so precious, because when I talked to Joy the day that I found out right after he had passed, she said, “Kathie, he hadn’t laughed in a long, long time.” The afternoon the three had lunch weeks ago, Gifford recalls Joy told her, was “the last time I heard him laugh.”