After 15 years alongside Regis Philbin in the morning talk-show arena, Kathie Lee Gifford stepped down yesterday, of her own volition and after a week of on-air tributes and farewells.
She deserves to be saluted for two things above all else: her longevity in the job and her spontaneity on the job. The longevity, in and of itself, is impressive in a medium that chews up and spits out talent so quickly. Gifford co-hosted "Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee" since its national syndication debut in 1988 and shared hosting duties with Philbin on its WABC-TV New York precedessor, "The Morning Show," since 1985. (Philbin started that show two years earlier, and in the career-longevity sweepstakes, his own resume stacks up favorably against just about anyone's but Mike Wallace's.)
Before she was a "Good Morning America" co-host in the '80s, when she was a young woman named Kathie Lee Johnson, she played a singing waitress named Kathie Honey in "The Hee Haw Honeys," a syndicated comedy. That was where I first saw and reviewed her; neither that first impression, nor that first review, was at all favorable.
Even today, Kathie Lee Gifford is a polarizing personality, with fans and detractors in seemingly equal measure.
Oddly enough, those who love her cite the same reasons as those who don't: her singing style, her constant stories about children Cody and Cassidy, and her many commercial endorsements.
On one point, though, there is little polarization. In the first 20 or so minutes of their morning show, when the conversation is unscripted, Gifford managed each day to bring out the best in Philbin and vice versa.
Part of it may be the thinly veiled exasperation on Philbin's part. Whatever the reason, it's been fun to watch and has been widely copied though rarely approached by local and national morning shows for more than a decade.
All this week, Philbin registered more than a little delight as his co-host failed, for three days running, to identify the day's mystery guest - supposedly a person near and dear to her - despite being given a lengthy clue and five questions.
He tossed some unusually sharp barbs at her this week --jokes about her plummeting into oblivion after leaving the show or not getting through the switchboard after Monday.
The audience laughed at each of these jokes, and so did Gifford, but the twinkle in Philbin's eye suggested that he was getting away with something, revealing a glimmer of his true feelings without repercussions. And why not? He's so hot right now, he's in no hurry to name a co-host.
Yet Gifford, seated next to the one of the most popular (and increasingly powerful) guys on television, is leaving TV - this job, anyway - to pursue other interests. David Letterman, who said goodbye to her on his own show Wednesday and applauded the gutsiness of her voluntary move, saluted her as "a television institution."
In terms of time served, that's definitely true. She sat for 15 years in the same chair - more than any national morning-show host on the air now, and only a few years less than the troika of white-male evening news anchors. The year she and Regis began their glib morning act about who did what the night before, TV's prime-time lineup was filled with the likes of "The A-Team," "MacGyver," "The Cosby Show," "Miami Vice" and "Dallas."
Her weaknesses, however, made her less complete as an icon. When she latched onto a borrowed catch phrase ("Yeah, baby" from "Austin Powers," say), she never let go; sometimes, during her interviews or even her conversations with Philbin, she appeared to be the only one who didn't get the joke - or the only one who found something funny.
When she was genuine, though, she has been genuinely interesting to watch. She could express as much undisguised boredom when Philbin talked about Notre Dame as he did when she talked about her new album.
He stirred her up, and she stirred him; most mornings, their cauldron bubbled effortlessly, and it was a chemistry that won't easily be replaced.
Will it be missed? Yes. Was yesterday's departure on a par with the farewell of Johnny Carson from "The Tonight Show," after 30 years? Of course not.
Will the final "Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee" be a ratings smash? Absolutely.
But so will Monday's, when it's just "Live! With Regis" and at least for one day his wife, Joy, is sitting next to him.