Simon Cowell Pays Tribute to Regis Philbin: 'He Was a Big Reason' for AGT's Success

Simon Cowell is paying tribute to America's Got Talent's original host Regis Philbin, who died on Friday at the age of 88.

"What I learned about him was that he was an absolute total gentleman. Off-camera or on-camera, he always made you feel welcome. He really looked after you as a guest on his show. He was so fun and such a professional," Cowell, 60, tells PEOPLE exclusively.

Cowell created and executive-produced the first season of AGT in 2006, years before he became a judge in 2016 for season 11. Philbin was an integral part of AGT's inaugural season along with judges David Hasselhoff, Brandy and Piers Morgan. (In season 2, Brandy was replaced by Sharon Osbourne and Philbin was replaced by Jerry Springer.)

"When we had the opportunity to work with when we launched AGT, he was a big reason why we managed to get the show off the ground in the first place. The fact that he took a chance on something brand new, I said to him afterward, 'I'll always remember what you did for us,' " Cowell recalls.

"For him to agree to do it — it involved a lot of traveling — he was an absolute delight to work him. Every time I met him, he was always happy, gracious, a real gentleman and a total pro," says Cowell, who serves as a judge on the current 15th season alongside Heidi Klum, Sofia Vergara and Howie Mandel.

"When I got the news, I was really, really sad because I have so many happy memories of working with him and have a lot to be grateful for," he adds of learning about Philbin's death.

Before joining the NBC series, Philbin launched many successful shows, including Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee alongside Kathie Lee Gifford. Gifford left the ABC show after 15 years, but the pair remained close after her departure.

In 2001, the franchise became Live! with Regis and Kelly, co-starring Kelly Ripa. A decade later, in 2011, Philbin departed the show after 23 years and was replaced by former football player Michael Strahan, who later left for Good Morning America. In 2017, Ryan Seacrest, whom Philbin previously worked with, was named Ripa's co-host.

Along with Live!, Philbin was the original host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire from 1999 to 2002. His credits also include The Regis Philbin Show, The Joey Bishop Show,d A.M. Los Angeles and Regis Philbin's Saturday Night in St. Louis, among others.

"We are deeply saddened to share that our beloved Regis Philbin passed away last night of natural causes, one month shy of his 89th birthday," his family told PEOPLE in an exclusive statement on Saturday.

"His family and friends are forever grateful for the time we got to spend with him – for his warmth, his legendary sense of humor, and his singular ability to make every day into something worth talking about. We thank his fans and admirers for their incredible support over his 60-year career and ask for privacy as we mourn his loss," the Philbin family said.

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