Jon and Regis-2001

Regis Philbin talks with Jon Futrell on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” in 2001.

As I was working last Saturday at The Paducah Sun, I learned Regis Philbin had died.

Since he has logged more hours on television than anyone else, the news hit us all pretty hard. He hosted “Live” with either Kathy Lee Gifford or Kelly Ripa and made many great appearances with David Letterman.

But one gig in particular stands out. It dominated ABC primetime and gave several viewers, including me, a chance at the ultimate payday.

“Who Wants to be a Millionaire” had flashing lights, nerve-racking music, trivia questions and emotional moments for those in that Hot Seat. Of course, Regis asked the questions, provided some comments, reminded the players of their lifelines and always asked “Is that your final answer?” Regis asked me that on two separate occasions in what proved to be the lowest and highest moments of my life.

In March 2000, I finally got to try out for the show after months of calling the toll-free number. After correctly answering five fastest-finger questions about the movies, I had qualified for a special Oscar-themed version of the show.

One all-expenses-paid trip to New York later, I was in the studio with nine other contestants. Regis walked by in his trademark shiny suit. A staffer introduced us and he shook our hands. It was as if a king was gracing us with his presence, but he was calm and smiling through the whole thing.

Regis asked the fastest finger question twice with one reading removed for air. I did well in practice and here as well. When he called my name, I cheered and got up to approach him. They stopped tape and Regis made some small talk and told me to relax. He asked about covering high school sports and my love of drive-in theaters. After I mentioned my recent trip of seeing seven drive-ins over seven days, he joked that I was the one who went for the movies.

Soon, it was time for the game. For the first five questions, the music is added later so it was quiet in the studio. For $200, they asked who had hosted the Oscars the most times. With all the times Billy Crystal had hosted and would again, I went with him. After I said “final answer,” Regis said “No, it was Bob Hope.”

I was instantly crushed. Regis asked what happened during a break. I told him I did not know, still dazed. The next morning, I saw him on “Live” looking worn out. I felt somewhat responsible for this and really wanted another chance.

In May 2001, I got it. They were bringing back their “Zero-Dollar Winners” for two shows. We all knew the routine from before, but we were much more cautious. The first contestant up joked about walking away on the first question and Regis chuckled. This was a great thing about him here. He could adapt to any situation the contestants presented and make us more comfortable. When he finally stopped with $16,000, Regis said it was OK to take the money and run.

The next fastest-finger question was about putting MLB teams in geographic order starting in the west. I punched them in the fastest and soon shouted, “Yeah, I’m back!”

“We’re gonna get ’em this time, aren’t we?,” Regis asked.

“You bet!” I replied.

They showed the clip of last time. Regis said it was tough and asked if I’d become an Oscar expert since. I mentioned my picks last year were a little shaky. He then asked the burning question: “Are you wearing the same shirt?”

When I said yes, the audience chuckled. Regis asked if there was a reason. I told him I always liked red and mentioned the Mayfield Cardinals.

“Not a lucky shirt?” Regis asked.

“Hopefully, we’ll get some this time,” I answered.

“Fine, let’s expose that myth. It’s not what you wear ...” Regis said. “It’s what you’ve got up here,” I finished, pointing to my head.

Off we go again. For $200, I jokingly told Regis I would need a couple of hours on it. He laughed and told me to take my time. For $1,000, I’m unsure about the narrow end of candy corn. Regis told me to think of Halloween, but I’m still not sure so I ask the audience. Just over half say “white,” so I go with it and lock up some cash. Regis acknowledges the whoop I let out and next asks a question about Mr. Bill on “Saturday Night Live.” I do my best impression of “Oh nooooo!!!” and Regis says I’m “absolutely riiiiight!!!”

Later, Regis said how great it is to have all these players back and doing well. He mentions my love of drive-ins again and my desire to buy one with the million dollars. Back to the game, I use 50:50 to win $4,000. Later, I guessed Mount Rushmore would need the original artist’s son to finish it upon his death. When Regis said I just won $16,000, it was the most relieved I’d ever been.

“Here we go now, $32,000, a must win,” Regis continued. As soon as I saw the title “And So It Goes,” I knew the author was Linda Ellerbee. I acknowledged that it was her sign-off line as I made it my final answer. When he called me right, I cheered and smiled.

“All those months of wondering what might have been are paying off,” Regis said after the music finished and I saw the next question.

“I would get a sports question, and I don’t know,” I said.

“You’re a sports writer!” Regis replied.

That snapped me out of it and got me thinking about what sport a kegler plays. Since no golf or tennis coach I talked to called their athletes that, I narrowed it to bowling and volleyball. Believing a keg had something to do with it, I go for bowling. Regis calls me right and I breathe a sigh of relief. “Just had to talk it out.”

During the time out, Regis complained about the lights squeaking as they spin around. I recommend some WD-40 to no avail. Back to taping, Regis reminds me I’m only four questions away from my drive-in dreams.

“Just picture yourself all alone in your own drive-in theater!” he exclaimed. I mentioned opening it for business and selling concessions with help at the snack bar. Regis smiled as it was time for the $125,000 question.

Since I did not know the specialty of Dr. Sylvia Earle, I used Phone-A-Friend to call Berry Craig, the teacher and writer whose wife, Melinda, was my high school academic team coach. After I read it to him, Berry proclaimed himself stumped. His best guess was mathematics, but he had told me before not to pretend that you know something. I soon thank the producers, writers and Regis and quoted then-Monday Night Football announcer Dennis Miller, “That’s the news and I am out of here!”

Regis told me the answer was oceanography; I never would have thought of that as I got up. He then handed me that cardboard check for $64,000.

Whether it was a wonderful high or a devastating low, Regis was there for encouragement, advice and a funny quip. He was on so much television, but he was most skilled at making us the stars.

Thank you, Regis, for the times of my life and, yes, that is my final answer.

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