Kathie Lee Gifford says she will stay on NBC’s “Today” show until April.
Let’s raise our wine glasses to Kathie Lee Gifford, who’s exiting the fourth hour of NBC’s “Today” April 5 to turn her attention to movies.
“It’s not that I wanted to leave the ‘Today’ show,” she tells USA TODAY. “I just had to leave if I wanted to actually fulfill lifetime dreams I have that I’m running out of time for.”
Dreams she’s had since she was a child.
“I’ve wanted to be in writing and producing and starring in movies since I was a small girl when I wrote a letter to Walt Disney and said, ‘I want to make movies with you.'”
Gifford, 65, has been at Hoda Kotb’s side for nearly 11 years, a decade longer than she’d planned. She says she “came kicking and screaming” to the morning show she revealed she’d be leaving in December. Her late husband, football player turned sports commentator Frank Gifford, persuaded her to give it a year.
“By that time I’d fallen in love with Hoda, and a couple of years in I was in love with everybody that I worked with there,” Gifford says. “Nicest group of people I’ve ever, ever worked with.”
She hesitated because she feared her best TV years were captured on the syndicated “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee,” which she hosted with Regis Philbin from 1985-2000.
“I thought I’d done the best television I could possibly do. Regis and I did 15 years together, and we changed the face of daytime television forever,” she says. “We really did…(Philbin is) a master at it, and I felt very grateful to be a part of history.”
For her second morning show exit, Gifford predicts she won’t be crying hysterically.
“I certainly won’t bawl like a baby,” she says. “I’ve been in this business too long, and it’s not like I’m dying, and it’s not like I’m never gonna see these lovely people ever again. I’m leaving one particular job and one particular building for something that I’ve been wanting to do my whole life, and I have so much to look forward to. So it’s not a sad thing for me.”
That is not to say she doesn’t treasure the co-host she leaves behind, whom she describes as “liquid sunshine in a bottle.”
“There’s not a false bone in her body. There’s not a mean bone in her body,” Gifford says of Kotb, 54. “She’s incredibly smart and brilliant, but she’s childlike, too, in the best sense of the word: about life, about wonder, the wonder of life, especially since she’s become a mother. She’s an amazing mother.”
Though Gifford says she “would like to think that Hoda and I built something that will last,” she understands her replacement Jenna Bush Hager and Kotb will “make the show completely their own.”
“Everybody’s replaceable in this world, and I have no delusions about that,” Gifford says.
Her advice for Bush Hager is more of an affirmation. “One day I just said, ‘Jenna, I know you haven’t asked me for any advice, but I just want to tell you one thing: You got this job because you earned it,’ ” she recalls. ” ‘You showed up here every day an authentically beautiful human being. Everyone fell in love with you, and then you did the work.’ “
Gifford vows Kotb will remain a dear friend (as Philbin is) “until the day I die.” In fact, after their final show, the two (with others) plan to fly to Gifford’s new Nashville home for “a girl’s weekend.”
While Gifford says her primary residence will be the Connecticut home where she raised her kids – Cody, 29, and Cassidy, 25, who know live in Los Angeles – her new home keeps her from “mooching off my lovely friends.”
She describes Nashville as the “most delightful place in the whole world,” where a dinner party can turn into a “jam session.”
“The next thing you know, we’ve written a song, two days later we’re in the studio recording it, a week later I’m putting it in one of my movies,” she says. “It’s so kinetic; it’s just exciting.”
Gifford says she filmed three movies this past year, including “Then Came You” and “A Godwink Christmas,” which aired on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries last November. She says she has seven more in development. Four are follow-ups to “Then Came You,” a movie she wrote and stars in with Craig Ferguson filmed in Scotland.
Gifford describes “Then Came You” as a “romantic comedy for people who’ve given up on romance.” She began Widow’s Peak Pictures to make movies for people who’ve lost their spouses, an audience she feels is being overlooked.
Will life imitate art for Gifford? Does she see love in her future?
“Well, dating doesn’t excite me. Who wants to date?” she says, “I’m open to love in any way it comes to my life, sure.”
She says she’s looking for something different from her past.
“You know, I was married to a man (who) is intimidating to an awful lot of men. Frank Gifford was 10 men. He’s in eight halls of fame,” she says. “I’ve been told by certain people through the years, ‘Who could ever fill Frank’s cleats?’ And my answer always is, ‘No one can, and that’s not what I’m looking for.’ I’m certainly not looking for a repeat of what I’ve already had in life.”
Gifford’s life is still filled with passion, she says, and she “can’t imagine” a day when she’d actually retire.
“I’ve been working since I was 10 years old in this business,” starting out as a singer, she says. “It’s not that I’m a workaholic. It’s just that I follow my passion, and I do so many different things in this business,” she says. “If I was just doing one thing every single day, then maybe I’d say I want to retire.”
She calls her directorial debut, short film “The God Who Sees,” filmed in Israel and also to be released on April 5, the same day as her “Today” exit via GodWhoSees.com, a career highlight.
“I always used to say to people, I know two things in life: I know Jesus loves me, and I know morning TV,” she says. “And hopefully I’m learning about movies.”
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