Looking Like a Million Bucls' Fans swooned when America's biggest TV star hit town yesterday. It's not his money, they say. It's his magnetism.

February 12, 2000|By TAMARA IKENBERG | TAMARA IKENBERG,SUN STAFF

The big black Lincoln glides to a stop in front of the Montgomery Wards store in Towson. A well-baked man clad in autumn tones, with star power to spare, emerges.

The women take notice.

Is it:

A. Leonardo di Caprio?

B. Jude Law?

C. David Hasselhoff?

Close, but not quite.

The answer is Regis Philbin, sexagenarian sex symbol and host of game-show phenomenon "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire."

The ladies love Regis.

"I think he has gotten more sexy," said Connie George, 70. "He seems so much more sure of himself."

George, from Parkville, wasn't the only one smitten with the tiny, tanned icon.

"Why do they always put him in dark suits [on `Millionaire']?" asked Theresa Taylor, 43, from Pikesville. "He looks good anyway, don't get me wrong."

About 20 mostly mature women were drawn in by Philbin magnetism at the Towson Marketplace store. The prime-time Santa Claus was taking a few moments from his frenetic TV schedule to plug Wards' new "Win a Fortune" promotion, for which he is spokesman and check-presenter.

"Let's face it, he's a pro at what he does," said Wards Chief Executive Officer Roger Goddu, who was also on hand to greet Philbin. "We just want to get a little piece of it."

Who doesn't?

Philbin arrived to a throng, well, a group of about 20 fans (the appearance wasn't announced).

He shook hands, gravitated to the microphones, caught every camera flash, and endured an infinite battery of television and radio spots as if he'd been doing it forever. Which he has.

"Hi, everyone, Regis is here," he said, rather obviously. "I didn't bring any money with me."

Ever since he made "Is that your final answer?" into the last word in TV catch phrases, Philbin has gone from entertainment cubic zirconium to Hollywood gold.

Still, "he's not the president or anything. He doesn't need the Secret Service," said Cockeysville resident Terry Wilson, 42, who vigorously took her dose of Regis along with daughter Lauren, 6, and mother Elaine Denmyer, 64, from Lutherville.

But apparently he's important enough for Wilson to watch every morning (on his daytime talk show, "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee") and evening (when "Millionaire" airs).

Onlookers yesterday learned that importance and height do not always coincide. Regis Philbin is short.

"I thought he was going to look taller," said Crystal Barnes, who works in the fine jewelry department. Barnes, who said having Regis in the room wasn't distracting her from her job too much, was debating with Diana Shiel, 75, about whether Regis is closer to 5-foot-4 or 5-foot-6.

The debate was academic, though. The women eventually admitted to their love for Regis, stature notwithstanding.

Alas, their Philbin fantasies aren't likely to come true.

"I'm married," admitted Shiel, a Northeast Baltimore resident, blushing.

"So am I," said Barnes.

As Regis was interviewed in a living room set-up plunked right in the middle of the Juniors section, the women eagerly leaned over the jewelry counter to keep him in their sights.

In person, when he kept his genial mania under control, Philbin seemed more the collected, occasionally quipping host of "Millionaire" than the combustible menace of the talk show. At no point did a wild Philbin-esque hand gesture threaten the stability of a mannequin or other vulnerable display. There was a small spasm here and there, just not as hyper-Philbin as one might expect.

At a mini-press conference, Philbin valiantly tried to keep the focus on the store promotion and off himself. With no luck.

The reporters on hand bombarded him with questions about his runaway hit on ABC.

What's it like to give away a million dollars?

"I have people sitting opposite me, sweating, going nuts. ... I look in people's eyes when they're going for the million."

Who would you choose as a lifeline?

"A doctor, a lawyer -- maybe Rosie O'Donnell." (O'Donnell will be "Millionaire's" first celebrity lifeline -- a person a contestant can call for help -- on tomorrow night's episode.)

Do you know the answers to the questions?

"Once I got up to $250,000."

A grandmother yells out to Regis, telling him that every morning, when she watches "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee," her grandson thinks that she's Kathie Lee.

"You're much prettier than Kathie Lee," Philbin responded.

Philbin took every free moment to put on a mini-Regis show.

Tyler Spittel, 6, clad in a Pokemon T-shirt, enrolled Philbin in an impromptu "Millionaire" quiz of his own. "Who was the first president to live in the White House?" Tyler asked. "Can I get an answer here?" Philbin squawked, becoming threateningly animated. "Help Regis out!

"I give up, I want to use a lifeline," he continued. "I want to call your mother."

But Pam Spittel, 45, of Chase, could offer no assistance. So Philbin, arms crossed, asked instead to go 50-50. As on the show, Tyler had to narrow the possible answers to just two choices.

"John Adams and George Washington," said Tyler, a student at Oliver Beach Elementary School.

"John Adams," Philbin replied, adding, of course: "Final answer."

Perhaps revved up by his victory over the tot, Philbin then grabbed the tie of a Wards' executive standing nearby, checking it to make sure he had purchased the accessory at Wards.

If only one of his female admirers had been so lucky.

But then, it's not only the women who love Regis.

Just ask Robert George, 85, at Ward's with his wife, Connie.

"I think he's physically attractive," he says.

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