One Live! to Live

UPDATED 08/14/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/14/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

Kathie Lee Gifford says that after an especially funny on-air exchange in the last days of Live! with Regis & Kathie Lee, Regis Philbin had tears in his eyes. "He squeezed my hand," says Gifford, 46, "and said, 'You were great today, baby' "—is then asked her to reconsider her decision to quit the show they've cohosted since 1985. Touched, Gifford gave her final answer: "Oh, Regis, it's too late now. It's over."

Philbin denies making the last-ditch plea—"I don't think that's the way it happened"—and says it was his agent who, with Regis's blessing, tried to get Gifford to stay. A fitting coda: "Without their he-said-she-said tension and edgy affection, the show (called The Morning Show until 1988) might well have had just 15 minutes—not 15 years—of fame. On Friday, July 28, after a week of breathless tributes, highlights, gifts, mystery guests and a musical send-off, the goddess of gab finally said, "Goodbye, thank you, everybody!"—barely mussing her mascara.

"I'm very much at peace," says Gifford, who quit to pursue a singing and acting career and to wake up each morning with her family in Greenwich, Conn. "For 15 years, no matter what's going on in my personal life, no matter what I've read in the papers, I have had to put on a happy face. I'm looking forward to not having to put on that happy face."

Gifford's ratings-heavy au revoir (Livel's audience during her final week was an estimated 44 percent higher than in May) marked either the end of an era or the end of an irritant, depending on your point of view. Die-hard fans like Tina Terzano, 39, of Northfield, N.J., support her move: "She's too talented to be held back." But New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser opined that Gifford has "nowhere to go but down." Obsessed radio nemesis Howard Stern provided Live! coverage: "They're doing more flashbacks. Oy vey, now I'm crying." (Executive producer Michael Gelman says there's no shortlist yet of prospects to succeed Gifford—just a parade of guest hosts such as Regis's wife, Joy Philbin, and Entertainment Tonight's, Jann Carl.)

All through the final week, the mood at Live!'s Manhattan studio mixes lockstep routine and heightened emotion. Monday morning finds Gifford perched as usual in the makeup room sporting huge Velcro hair rollers. Philbin leaves his fifth-floor dressing room and meets Gifford at her ground-floor digs just minutes before going on air. During breaks, the pair work the studio audience, shaking hands, signing anything thrust their way and kibitzing. "This is the longest week of my life! Philbin screams.

By Tuesday a rueful sadness can be seen behind his curmudgeonly mask. "It's one of those things you can't control," he says solemnly. "It seems to be building in my head and in my heart." Meanwhile, Gifford seems buoyant, despite—or perhaps because of—a withering schedule that leaves little time for reflection. Backstage she's belting out lyrics from songs on her pop album Heart of a Woman, due from Universal Records in October. Today's "mystery guest" Donald Trump says Gifford can perform at his casinos anytime: "She sells out immediately."

Fast-forward to dawn on Friday. The Giffords are drinking coffee together at home and discussing not The Farewell but the Mediterranean cruise with 10 other couples that Kathie Lee has been planning for a year as a 70th-birthday gift for her husband, Frank (she turns 47 the same day, Aug. 16). "She's tired," says Frank.

By 7 a.m., dozens of fans—many of whom have stood outside the studio all night for standby seats—wait groggily. Security men talk into watches, swap cryptic hand signals and study backstage passes. By 8 a.m., the show's greenroom fills with Gifford's relatives—her parents, Joan, 70, and Aaron Leon Epstein, 76; brother David, 50, and his wife, Saundra, 47; son Cody, 10; daughter Cassidy, 7; and Frank. (Sister Michie, 45, is home sick.) "We're sad," says David, a pastor in New York City. "They have such magic, she and Reege," Joan chimes in. "And I thought, 'Why interrupt it?' But like her dad said, we want what's best for her."

Gifford's finale goes off without a hitch. She remains determinedly upbeat until she hollers for makeup artist Michelle Champagne during a break late in the hour. As Champagne blots traces of tears, Gifford scolds herself: "I swore I wouldn't cry!"

After a brief press conference, Gifford appears on The View to pay "homage" to Barbara Walters, the mentor who first urged Gifford to quit Good Morning America to join Philbin. As her segment ends, Walters hugs her friend and says, "The best is yet to come."

So Gifford hopes. She decided to leave 13 months ago "to make different dreams come true." The weekend before her farewell, Gifford, an Oral Roberts University attendee who made gospel records and sang on Name That Tune in the '70s, flew a chartered Gulfstream IV jet to Nantucket, Mass., with her remix-producing team (Shania, Celine) of Bobby Guy and Ernie Lake. They bunked in the pool house, writing songs with Gifford on a deck overlooking the water and feasting on Maryland crabs with her family. "It was so down-to-earth," says Guy, 38.

If Gifford kept her composure through her final week, it was in part because she spent so much of it in recording studios. A bonus mystery guest: Universal Music Group chairman Doug Morris, who walked in on a session. After hearing her single "The Hardest Part," he told her, "A 10. I'm stunned." When he left, Gifford was euphoric: "Pinch me, baby!"

Gifford has penned, by her count, 100 songs in the past two years. Composing has provided catharsis for the 1997 sex scandal that nearly tore her marriage apart: "I'm able to write from those times when I was at my wit's end." Her home life now is "sweet and solid," says a friend. "Kathie's worked very hard to put it back together with Frank," says ET's Julie Moran, a pal.

She wants to spend more time with her parents too. "The only pang I've had," Gifford says, "is when my mom said, 'Daddy's going to miss seeing you in the morning so much.' That's when the finality hit me. I don't know how much time I've got with anybody I love."

Though Gifford has considered deals for everything from books to Broadway, her only immediate plans are to shoot a Will & Grace episode. But Kathie-baiters beware: Whatever her medium, you can't scare her away. "I've been accused of everything under the sun," she says, "but I've never been accused of not having courage. They might say, 'I hate her guts, but she has got guts.' "

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