Kathie Lee Gifford Talks Moving on From 'Today' and Her Advice for Jenna Bush Hager
On April 5, Today's popular fourth hour celebrates its 11th anniversary — and also loses one of its irrepressible hosts, Kathie Lee Gifford. After a decade-plus of sitting side-by-side with Hoda Kotb, as well as 15 years (1985–2000) on Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee, Gifford is signing off from daytime TV.
The energetic 65-year-old decided to leave the NBC morning show to focus on films, a series of Hallmark movies and songwriting, her self-described "greatest passion." She's already started a film production company that's wrapped Then Came You, a romantic comedy with Craig Ferguson in which she stars as a widow.
"The films will be honest, hopeful, hysterical and heartfelt," she promises. We talked to Gifford about her long-reaching career.
Why leave now?
Kathie Lee Gifford: Two years ago, I told NBC I'd stay one more year and leave on our 10th anniversary. We were crushed when everything happened with Matt Lauer, and [NBC News chief] Noah Oppenheim asked me to stay a little longer. I said, "I'd be delighted to stay during this critical period, but you have to give me time to work on two movies that are well into preproduction." He said, "Deal!" I will miss the people here, but I am ready to make my dreams come true. I've waited enough!
It seems you've had a lot of professional fulfillment already.
I think I'm the only person who has been on daytime television on two different networks, on two different times of the day, with two different cohosts. And it's worked. So I'm very, very blessed.
What's the magic ingredient in your talk show longevity?
It's in the partnership. I was on Good Morning America before Live!, but journalism wasn't my passion. I couldn't wait to sit next to Regis [Philbin] and be goofy. What worked [with him] is that we were ourselves. He was the cynic; I was the sunny one — way too perky for some people's tastes, but we were real.
Were you eager to work with Hoda on Today?
When NBC asked me to return to TV, I said, "I don't know who she is, and I don't want to come back to television." I did agree to lunch with Hoda, which lasted four hours. We clicked on every level, but I still said no. Finally, I told [then–Today producer] Jim Bell that I would sign for a year and I wanted to do a feature where viewers send in their stories; my partner David Friedman and I would write a song about it, and we'd invite a Broadway star to sing it on the show. The day before I leave, my good friend Kristin Chenoweth is going to sing out the 100th "Everyone Has a Story."
Was your on-air chemistry with Hoda instantaneous?
Privately, nobody's more fun, but Hoda was an award-winning journalist. It was months before she could trust her instincts enough to get rid of her IFB [the earpiece connected to the director]. It's so phony — I refuse to wear one. They said, "It can't be done." I said, "Watch me!"
What do you remember from your first shows together?
We were out on the plaza in April. It was frickin' freezing and the wind was blowing. The wind ended up being our friend because one day all of the cards blew away and I said, "It's a miracle!" She got rid of the IFB, and that's when we started to click. Now she's a master at it.
When your husband, Frank, passed in 2015, was it helpful to have Hoda close by?
Hoda was on a plane from New Orleans when it happened; I left a message so she wouldn't hear it from anywhere else. She called to say, "I'm coming over." I said, "You don't have to, honey. I'm fine. He's with Jesus." And she showed an hour later. Her heart matches her huge smile.
Have you given your replacement, Jenna Bush Hager, any tips?
I did give sweet Jenna and Hoda a bit of advice recently. I used to get creamed for talking about my kids [Cody, now 29, and Cassidy, 25] on Live!, but my job was to talk about my life, and I wasn't doing anything except getting barfed on and losing sleep every night. We were hugely successful because when I talked about my kids, Regis was there to stick his finger down his throat.
If Jenna and Hoda are both talking about how adorable their kids are, it's not going to make great TV. They should take turns and save those conversations for when something so freakin' funny happens that everyone without children will be delighted.
Please share some Today secrets. Like how much wine do you and Hoda really drink on air?
Too much has been made about that! We have a sip now and then – usually for comedic purposes. It's a prop that says, "We're having a party and you're welcome to join us."
What can we expect on your last show?
I am hoping with all my heart that Michael Bublé is going to sing the title song of the movie I wrote with Brett James, "Then Came You." Michael liked it when I played it for him. A girl can dream.
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