Over the years, about 110 people have had their own daytime talk shows in the United States, but most did not last long enough to become household names. Before Sally Jessy Raphael, Geraldo Rivera, Montel Williams and Ricki Lake—even before Oprah—there was Phil Donahue. "I have said this many times before," Oprah says. "If it weren't for Phil Donahue, there would never have been an Oprah Show."
From its very first episode in 1969, broadcast from a station in Dayton, Ohio, The Phil Donahue Show was different from anything else on TV. "We were competing with Monty Hall [on Let's Make a Deal] who's giving $5,000 to a woman dressed like a chicken salad sandwich," Phil says. "We knew that in order to get attention, we had to be controversial."
From his home base in the Midwest, Phil had no access to celebrities or power brokers, but he turned this liability into an opportunity. His first guest was outspoken atheism activist Madalyn Murray O'Hair. When Madalyn started mocking the tenets of Christianity, the phones started ringing. "I mean, sponsors canceled. We were on the air like 10 minutes and people were scrambling," Phil says. "But everybody knew there was a talk show in Dayton, Ohio, at 10:30 in the morning."
In 1996, after 20 daytime Emmys and 26 seasons in syndication, the king of daytime talk ended his reign.
Today, Phil's new role is that of supportive husband. He has been accompanying his wife, actress Marlo Thomas, on a book tour for her new memoir, Growing Up Laughing. Phil and Marlo say they've been in love since the moment they met in 1980 when he interviewed her on his show. "The women of this country were in love with him," Marlo says. "When we got married, I got a lot of mail saying, 'How could you have taken him from us?'"
Phil says he doesn't miss the fame he once had. "I now carry Marlo's trophies. People knock me over to get to 'That Girl,'" he says. "And sooner or later they'll look at me and say, 'Oh, we like you, too, Merv.' Fame is fleeting—I ought to know—but it was a wonderful ride."
For 19 years, Sally Jessy Raphael, with her signature red glasses, talked the talk with more than 10,000 guests. In 1983, she became the first woman to host a syndicated daytime talk show. She started in radio and got her big break on television at the urging of one famous fan—Phil Donahue. Her final show aired in 2002.
In the eight years since Sally signed off the air, she has traveled the world, but she says she's most at home on her 18th-century farm in New York state. She spends her time with her husband, Karl, and her chickens, cats and horses.
At first, Sally says she loved the feeling of being off camera. "It was two weeks—great, I don't have to get up. And then it was seven years—why doesn't anybody call me?" she says. "So I'm doing a show now about a talk show host who is asked to leave the air and what happens to her after that."
Geraldo Rivera was already a popular, Emmy-winning TV reporter when he jumped into the talk show ring in 1987 with Geraldo.
His show distinguished itself with a brash attitude and in-your-face guests that led Newsweek to feature him on the cover under the headline, "Trash TV." Geraldo says there once was even a public decency campaign against his show.
After 11 years on the air, he called it quits to focus on reporting.
Now, in his 40th year on television, Geraldo is a fixture on the FOX News Channel. He reports on everything from immigration and the war in Afghanistan to the death of Michael Jackson.
His personal life has changed as well. In 2003, Geraldo married for the fifth time, and in 2005, he became a father for the fifth time. At 67, Geraldo says he's finally settled into life as a family man. "It's the most important thing in my life, bar none. I'm not a club person anymore. I don't care about any of that kind of stuff anymore," he says. "I care about being a good husband and a good dad."
Montel Williams joined the talk show ranks in 1991 after an 18-year career in the U.S. Navy. The Montel Williams Show tackled everything from reunions and psychics to racism and child abuse.
When a tabloid threatened to reveal that he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2001, Montel decided to go public with his secret.
After 17 years on the air, Montel's final show aired in 2008.
Today, Montel is excited about his participation in a new experimental study to treat his pain. "My life is 180 degrees in the other direction," he says. "My pain in my body is now down by almost 80 percent."
Montel says his experience with multiple sclerosis has turned him into a devoted activist for patients, especially injured veterans. "I go to see our troops at Bethesda and Walter Reed every three to four weeks, stand bedside every three to four weeks," he says. "A lot of celebrities aren't showing up anymore. A lot of people aren't going down there to say hello. And every single day we have guys coming back here who have lost limbs, left them over there, for us. So when you talk that trash about 'I support the troops'—put your money, your mouth, your face behind it and go down there and do something."
In 1993, 24-year-old actress Ricki Lake became the youngest daytime talk show host on the air and used her perspective to appeal to a new generation of viewers. While other talk show hosts would focus on subjects like, "I Don't Know What to Do with My Daughter," Ricki says a typical title for one of her shows would be, "My Mom Thinks I Dress Like a Tramp." "We were always taking it from the younger person's voice."
Her final show aired in 2002.
Now a 42-year-old single mother of two boys, Ricki made big changes after her show ended. "9/11 happened, I watched it firsthand in New York. I realized at that moment that I watched the plane hit the building, 'I'm getting out.' Like, I'm getting out of New York, I'm getting out of the marriage that I was in, and I'm going to get out of the show," she says. "So I finished my contract and moved to California."
She produced the 2008 documentary The Business of Being Born, which advocates the use of alternative birthing methods. Her latest project is fighting childhood obesity. It's the subject of her book, Too Small to Be Big, and her AllStride program.
"I'm reinventing," she says. "It's all about changing it up and putting myself out there in a way people haven't seen before."