He is the Gelmonster no more. There was a time, during the early, halcyon days of the syndicated daytime chat fest Live With Regis & Kathie Lee, when lovely cohost Kathie Lee Gifford would bat her eyes at Michael Gelman, 32 the strapping wunderkind who has been the executive producer since 1987 and call him, sweetly, ''Gelmonster.'' If the show's irascible patriarch, Regis Philbin, scolded him on camera because the phone didn't work or the trivia question was too hard, or too easy, Kathie Lee might play along lovingly, like an indulgent mother. And so, while Regis, 60, and Kathie Lee, 40, have always maintained their combative chemistry, Kathie Lee and Gelman enjoyed a sunny, Oedipus-as-sitcom sexual dynamic.
But sitcom can turn to tragedy. Kathie Lee hardly looks Gelman's way these days; at times her brutal indifference shifts toward withering hostility. Take the May 23 show, when Kathie Lee heard that they were going to air a clip from NYPD Blue without bleeping the naughty words. Glaring at Gelman out of the corner of her eye, she apologized to the audience for what it would see later in the show. Regis agreed, awkwardly, and tried to laugh it off. But backstage the offended guest from the acclaimed ABC cop show, actor James McDaniel (Lieut. Arthur Fancy), refused to go on, leaving Gelman with a canceled segment and time to fill.
A few days later, Regis suggested launching a Live spin-off and, in a voice ripe with sarcasm, said, ''You two kids, who have had such a wonderful relationship lately, could have one show and Regis could maybe have his own!'' Regis also occasionally riffs on how Gelman doesn't like Kathie Lee to talk about her kids so much. She doesn't seem amused.
What went wrong? One theory: hair. A few months ago, Gelman and the show's foxy gossip columnist, Claudia Cohen, 42, looked like they were getting closer. She seemed to receive more airtime, and appeared to be interacting more with Gelman, at least on the air. And then Gelman and Claudia started wearing the same ponytail! Why, she might as well have put his class ring on a gold chain and worn it to the Emmys.
How must Kathie Lee have felt? Jealous? Angry? Heartbroken? What is to keep her from running over to Bobbittize Gelman's rubber-banded tresses? Recently, Kathie Lee recast her own coif in a shorter, swept-back, more motherly fashion. Will she win him back? Now she looks like Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People, which is a little scary.
Sources on the show confirm that there's tension backstage. But when confronted with the rumors and the hair theory, Gelman laughs and says, ''I love babies, I love James McDaniel, I love Regis and Kathie Lee, I love my ponytail, and I just want everybody to be happy.''
Friends tell me to stop obsessing over the show. Broaden my interests. Take the pictures of Regis off my ceiling. Pooh. Oh, sure, things seem to be getting friendlier on the set. But one of these mornings, Kathie Lee is going to have a really bad hair day, and the fur is going to fly. I can't wait.