Kathie Lee Gifford Says Goodbye

Thursday, July 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — Kathie Lee Gifford stood on the Ed Sullivan Theater stage this past winter after subbing for David Letterman and felt the applause washing over her.

``I thought, `this is the moment where your life changed,''' she recalls. ``I have to do different things now.''

Four days later, she told Regis Philbin she was leaving ``Live with Regis & Kathie Lee'' when her contract expired this summer. A day after that, she told the world.

Gifford's departure Friday after 15 years on ``Live'' takes one of television's outsized personalities off the air. While her loopy histrionics invited ridicule from the hip circles on both coasts, she was a favorite in many towns in between.

Her personal battles — the public humiliation of husband Frank Gifford's tabloid-fueled affair and attacks on alleged labor abuses connected to her clothing line — won her some sympathetic support.

``I've never done my show to convince somebody else to change their mind about me,'' she said. ``I've never been about that. I know who I am, I know what I am, and I just live my life. A long time ago I stopped worrying about what people thought.''

Gifford said she wanted to do more acting and singing, but the demands of a one-hour live show each weekday held her back. She had really made the decision several months earlier, but the well-received Letterman stint sealed the deal. (She also received good reviews this year in a fill-in role in the Broadway production ``Putting it Together.'')

Gifford already seems to have more than a foot out the door, rushing this week from the television studio to the recording studio, where she's making an album to be released in October.

In between takes of a song she wrote called ``Heart of a Woman,'' she entertains recording technicians with an Austin Powers imitation.

``If it had been a rash decision, I might have been regretting it,'' she said, settling into a control-room couch for a break. ``But it's not a rash decision. It's five years in the making. When people ask me why I'm leaving because it's been so long, it's really the wrong question. The right question is why did I stay so long?''

Easy money is the obvious answer. Gifford had a stake in her show's syndication profits, so her husband — and accountant — were always urging her to stick with it.

With Gifford's exit, the show will be renamed — at least temporarily — ``Live with Regis.''

Producers are turning the selection of a replacement into sport, bringing in women for on-air tryouts with Philbin. The process, an ideal attention-getting device, could take several more months. USA Today this week pictured 22 potential candidates — including Cybill Shepherd, Joan Lunden, Joan Rivers, Cindy Crawford and Darva Conger — and asked readers to vote on their favorite.

``This list is hundreds long,'' said Michael Gelman, the show's executive producer. He said he looks at about 30 tapes a day.

Gelman said he wants the victor to emerge on the air.

``I'm looking at this like, this relationship is coming to an end, this TV relationship, and now Regis is going to start dating again,'' Gelman said. ``You don't want to rush into a rebound romance too quickly. I think it's better to take your time.''

That's an interesting analogy for Philbin's wife, Joy, who has filled in for Gifford frequently and will be in the chair on Monday. She has publicly taken herself out of the running, although it's not clear whether that's completely her choice. Her husband said on the air this week that he wanted to work with Joy, but ``there's a lot of reluctance to have a husband and wife.''

Gelman said spending so much time together ``would be tough on anyone. She doesn't want the job and I don't think she would be a realistic person for us to be counting on.''

Gifford, of course, is eagerly watching the process.

``So many of my good friends are up for this job,'' she said. ``They are all great ladies and incredible professionals and I hope they'll be friends forever. But knowing the job as well as I do, I know that some of them aren't right for it.''

Her favorite is Joy. ``They've been married 30 years, and Regis and I have been together for 15 in our little marriage,'' she said. ``Joy and I intrinsically understand when to kiss him and when to kick him, in a loving way.''

Some of the tryouts — she won't name names — ``are coming in and trying to kick him. They haven't earned that yet. It's disingenuous. But if you fawn, it's not interesting television.''

Even for someone who makes things look effortless, Regis is facing a tough couple of months. Not only must he cope with the parade of women looking to be his on-air partner every morning, but he is taping four prime-time episodes of ``Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'' each week.

``He's tired,'' Gifford said. ``He's working a lot more than he used to. When Regis comes in in the morning, he wants to press the `play' button and let it be automatic. It should be. That's what the show has become. We were in such a rhythm and have been for so many years.''