NEW YORK — Within moments after Regis Philbin caught viewers off-guard with the news that he'll be leaving his talk show, the guessing game had begun: Who will replace him?
Maybe "Survivor" host Jeff Probst? Mark Consuelos, hubby of Regis' co-host, Kelly Ripa? Golden Globes bad boy Ricky Gervais? Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino from "Jersey Shore"?
You kidding? Who can ever replace Reege?
"I don't want to alarm anybody," he began on Tuesday before dropping the bomb: "This will be my last year on the show."
More specifically, he meant he will be stepping down from "Live! With Regis and Kelly" sometime in late 2011, though he didn't pin down a departure date.
"We'll have a lot of fun between now and then," he promised his audience.
According to the syndicated show's distributor, Disney-ABC Domestic Television, "Live!" will carry on, with a new co-host to be named to join Ripa, who marks 10 years with the show next month.
"There is a time that everything must come to an end for certain people on camera — especially certain old people!" cracked the 79-year-old Philbin.
True enough for certain people. But no one was expecting this acknowledgment from Reege, whose energy, good-natured feistiness and gift of gab seem limitless, even now, after more than a half-century in television.
Tuesday's show had started typically enough, with him and Ripa batting the breeze about the Golden Globes broadcast, postseason football and the icy weather outside. Guests included Angie Dickinson and Steven Tyler, there to plug his new role as a judge on "American Idol."
Then, with surprising calm for such a famously excitable guy, Philbin changed the subject and said, "Well, I've got one of those announcements to make."
Did he ever!
"It's been 28 years," Philbin said reflectively, speaking of his current Manhattan-based show. "It was the biggest thrill of my life to come back to New York, where I grew up as a kid watching TV in the early days, you know, never even dreaming that I would one day have the ability, or whatever it takes, to get in front of the camera and talk to it."
The Bronx-born Philbin has been in front of the camera and talking to it since the 1950s.
But for a long time, his career took him on an uncertain, often rocky road.
He began in local TV, then found national exposure as the announcer and sidekick on comic Joey Bishop's short-lived ABC late-night show. More local TV followed on the West Coast, notably as a co-host of a morning show in Los Angeles.
Then he returned to New York, where he landed a local morning show in 1983. The ratings grew. Two years later, Kathie Lee Johnson joined him as co-host.
In 1988, he and Kathie Lee (who by then was married to sportscaster Frank Gifford) went national.
Gifford left the show in 2000. After a tryout period for a replacement, soap star Ripa ("All My Children") won the job as his female foil.
Philbin clicks with daytime audiences as a common man who loves to sound off about familiar frustrations, even as he lives a life rubbing elbows with fellow celebrities.
During a typical "host chat" — the unscripted segment at the top of the show that's at least as popular as the interviews with guests — Philbin might share details of a night out with wife Joy at a super-exclusive Greenwich Village bistro. Then, by way of paying homage to the Oreo cookie, he might sound off about newfangled Oreos made in different colors and flavors.
One moment, the world is his oyster. The next, he's the little guy against the world.
Philbin had clinched star status in the world of daytime TV when, a decade ago, he conquered prime time as host of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," which resurrected the big-money quiz shows that had largely been extinct for 30 years. It became a ratings sensation for ABC. He made "Is that your final answer?" a national catch phrase.
As Philbin prepares to exit "Live!" it remains strong, averaging about 4 million viewers daily. It's the No. 2-rated daily talk show after "Oprah Winfrey."
His leave-taking will occur not long after Winfrey ends her syndicated show to concentrate on her new cable network. A Philbin contemporary in the broadcasting world, 77-year-old Larry King, retired from his prime-time CNN talk show last month.
Meanwhile, Philbin continues to add to his record for most hours logged (15,662, as certified by Guinness World Records back in 2006).
"EV-ry DAY, you see the RECord SHATtered, pal!" Philbin boomed during an interview three years ago, his rhythmic rant at full rev.
On that occasion, he was asked how much longer he expected to keep doing "Live!" He answered that he still enjoyed doing it, that he was "very happy."
"I guess there's gonna have to be a sign somewhere along the way telling me enough's enough," he said then.
It's unclear if a particular sign — apart from Philbin's 80th birthday this August — led to Tuesday's bombshell. But it is already clear that, whoever is tapped to take his seat beside Ripa, no one can replace him.