"I'll always remember spending the mornings with all of you," the veteran show-biz personality said, ending his final appearance as host of "Live! With Regis and Kelly."
Philbin, at 80 years old, has logged more than 17,000 hours on television in a career that dates back to the 1960s. He gained prime-time fame as host of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" a decade ago. But his enduring impact was as a morning show host, and his way of weaving something from nothing, turning stories about a dinner out on the town into compelling viewing.
Philbin was dry-eyed, but co-host Kelly Ripa fought tears as she recalled how terrified she was on her first day as Philbin's partner and how he put her at ease.
"You always want to make me feel like a million bucks, always," she said.
The show had opened with cameras following Philbin's walk from his dressing room to the stage, the final step knocking on Ripa's door and walking out with her. "I love you," she said quietly as the lights went up.
Ripa's predecessor, Kathie Lee Gifford, was in the audience but had no role in the finale.
The audience was stacked with other celebrities, including Katie Couric, Donald Trump, Alan Alda, Meredith Vieira and Tony Danza. Others like Justin Timberlake and Anne Hathaway offered brief filmed tributes.
The show was otherwise devoted to emotion-filled clip sequences of hijinks with Ripa and celebrities like Dana Carvey trying their Regis impersonation. Earlier in the week, David Letterman and Vice President Joe Biden had stopped by to pay respects.
Philbin has been careful to say he's not retiring, and his immediate plans include a tour to promote his new book, "How I Got This Way."
"Where's Regis going?" he said. "Regis doesn't know. Stop asking me!"
The show will continue with Ripa. Similar to when she replaced Gifford, a succession of co-hosts will join her, some essentially trying out for the permanent job.
Philbin's parting gifts were a key and a plaque. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared to thank Philbin for making the city a big part of his show, and offered a symbolic key. Walt Disney Co. chief executive Bob Iger showed a plaque honoring Philbin that had been installed on the outside of the building where the show's studio is located.
"I wanted this to be a show where people would feel better about themselves, to look at life in a different way, a funnier way," Philbin said.