IT'S NOT EASY BEING MICHAEL GELMAN. First, there are those death-defying stunts that the 33-year-old executive producer of Live with Regis & Kathie Lee is occasionally asked to perform on-camera. Like getting shot out of a circus cannon on New York City's West 67th Street, just a producer's throw from the studio where the syndicated talk show is taped each weekday. Or bungee jumping from a crane 15 stories high—while wearing a radio mike to record his thoughts on the way down. "I was worried I was going to scream out some expletives," says Gelman, who managed to keep it clean.

Then there are the personal indignities, such as allowing his beloved pony-tail to be snipped off—on the air—by a stylist from Vidal Sassoon last February. Hairiest of all, perhaps, are the questions about his love life, as posed by two of TV's dishiest inquisitors: Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford.

"So, Gelman," Regis begins a typical ribbing. (He and Kathie Lee always refer to Gelman as Gelman, as if he were the butler and not their seasoned producer of eight years.) "Where did you and your girlfriend go on vacation?"

"The Ocean Club in the Bahamas," replies the never-wed producer. Then, under further grilling, he confesses that he and Laurie Hibberd, 31, cohost of the Fox cable show Breakfast Time, wound up splitting the bills.

"A typical '90s couple!" gibes Kathie Lee.

"Go for the whole lunch!" Regis advises with mock bombast. "You know what I mean? Be a big shot!"

In fact, among his talk show peers, Gelman is a big shot. "Anybody who works in television and sees Michael doing his job has been jealous," says Stuart Krasnow, supervising producer of The Ricki Lake Show. "When a guest falls through, Michael deals with it on the show. When he's having a fight with [Regis or Kathie Lee], he's having it right there on TV"

Most of their jousting is in jest. But not always. During the show, Gelman stands just off-camera, 15 feet from his hosts, and the proximity can be unnerving—at least to Gifford, 41 (who often refers to their producer as Gelmonster). "His body language!" she says. "Oh, please. The minute I mention Cody [now 5 and the older of her and husband Frank Gifford's two oft-discussed offspring], it's like...." She tenses up to mimic her producer's reaction. "What I give Michael credit for is how hard he works and how much he cares," says Gifford. "Regis likes the whole buddy thing."

In fact, the buddy thing is key to Gelman's success. "I consider him to be one of my closest friends," says Philbin, 61. So close that, briefing Reege before each show, Gelman even follows him into the men's room. After taping, the two have lunch, at least three times a week. Then, every night between 10 and 11, at his pied-à-terre on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Gelman phones Philbin at his Park Avenue flat to discuss the next day's Live.

But Gelman is more than just Regis's main man. "His first priority is the show," says Mary Kellogg, an executive for Buena Vista Productions, which syndicates Live. "He eats, breathes and sleeps this show."

Gelman began dreaming of a TV career as an eighth-grader in Highland Park, Ill., where he would train his Super-8 camera on his parents, Ron, now 59 and a printing executive in Boca Raton, Fla., and Rhoda, 57, a case-worker for senior citizens, and his sisters Marci, now 36, and Dana, 32. "It was a lively place," says Gelman. "We'd have a lot of people over, a lot of laughs." Kind of like a talk show.

In 1982 Gelman, then a broadcast management major at the University of Colorado, landed a summer job at WABC in New York City. "I was probably one of those obnoxiously overzealous interns," he says. But, logging 50 hours a week, "I made myself indispensable."

Philbin first met him in 1983 when Gelman, a cocky 22-year-old, signed on as a production assistant for Philbin's New York City-based The Morning Show. He soon moved up to associate producer, and by 1986 he was producing The Regis Philbin Show, a daytime program on Lifetime. A year later—following a brain drain of Regis & Kathie Lee producers to other talk shows—Philbin tapped Gelman to take over. He was 26. "In some ways Regis has been a mentor," says Gelman. "But in other ways"—as when he helps Philbin pick out stylish suits—"I'm like the father, and he's the child."

Says Philbin, with paternal pride: "He's one of the smartest young people I've ever known." And, until he met Hibberd, one of the most eligible bachelors. Though there are no wedding plans, the two have been dating for nearly a year and spend a lot of weekends together at Gelman's three-acre, four-bedroom weekend retreat on Long Island, where he shows off his culinary skills. Thai seafood stew, spicy catfish and broccoli rabe are among his specialties. "Dinner for 14, you wouldn't bat an eye here!" says Hibberd. "What a bonus in a boyfriend!"

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
NANCY MATSUMOTO in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Nancy Matsumoto.