FOR Bob Barker, the soon-to-retire host of “The Price Is Right,” it hasn’t been the years or the miles so much as the contestants.
For more than three decades, the 83-year-old, silver-haired host has been tackled, bear-hugged and smooched by jubilant hysterics. He’s witnessed them trip, collapse, faint and even fall out of their tops in the mad rush to contestants’ row.
His incredible TV reign, as host of daytime’s top-rated and longest-running game show, is in and of itself a virtually unmatched feat in the medium. (By comparison, Johnny Carson logged in a mere 29 1/2 years as a late-night host.) But when adding Barker’s earlier, 18-year stint as host of the quiz show “Truth or Consequences,” that means his familiar tan-and-smiling face has been a daily presence on the tube for a half-century -- a record that’s unlikely to be broken.
Barker’s astonishing small-screen career has done more than just transform him into an “entertainment icon,” as CBS President of Entertainment Nina Tassler recently put it. It’s also paved the way for him to become an unlikely national advocate for animal rights and, on a less serious note, to achieve almost cult-like status among college-aged males that lasts to this day if for no other reason than his bit role in Adam Sandler’s “Happy Gilmore.” (If you’ve seen it, you know the line.)
But TV’s Iron Man has been accumulating rust. Heart ailments, prostate surgery, a torn rotator cuff, a bad knee, a tilted back disc have slowed his famous gait across Stage 33 at CBS’ Television City.
Last week, after 6,586 episodes, Barker taped his final show: He laid down his trademark long-stem microphone, oversaw his last twirl of the wheel, congratulated his last showcase winner and bid television a fond farewell. (The final show will air Friday in its regular morning time period and then be repeated in prime time that night just before the broadcast of the 34th annual Daytime Entertainment Emmy Awards, where Barker is up for his possible 18th and 19th statues.)
His departure means the loss of one of the last active national links to a long-gone media era. During the span of Barker’s career -- not without its controversies, including a spat of lawsuits claiming sexual harassment and discrimination -- the medium has evolved from a vacuum-tubed “Leave It to Beaver” mentality that ran test patterns in the early morning hours to a voracious YouTube universe that churns out 24-hour-a-day HD programming.
“When I wake up that first morning that I would normally go to the studios and I realize there is no show for me,” quipped Barker in his CBS dressing room after a recent afternoon taping, “I’m not sure, I may have to have help -- psychiatric help.”
Grief counseling may be avoided, however, should the 17-time Daytime Emmy Award winner recall the parade of tributes and specials staged on his behalf during the countdown to his retirement. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, even cable’s Game Show Network have recently spotlighted Barker’s 50 years in television with honorary dinners, awards and programming.
But CBS, which can thank the game show host for clobbering the morning competition in the ratings for decades, threw the biggest Barker bash -- back-to-back prime-time specials last month that drew a hefty combined audience of 28 million viewers. Both prime-time programs won their time slot for total viewers with Barker’s night career retrospective even beating out the season finale of ABC’s hit show “Ugly Betty.”
As host of “The Price Is Right,” Barker, the former Midwesterner who lost his father at age 6 and struggled through the Great Depression with his mother, said he has handed out more than $300 million in cash and prizes to Middle America.
“Bob brought a lot of much-needed class and humor to the genre,” said Jerry Katzman, the former vice chairman of the William Morris Agency who now teaches at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film & Television. “It’s really a miracle with all the changes in game shows over the past several decades, he’s made it this long. I don’t think we’ll ever see that again.”
One call did it all
AS with the whole of his career, Barker’s first major break reads like a Hollywood fable. In 1950, he headed west with no job, no agent, no contacts, just a dream to become an entertainment star. After struggling for a half-dozen years in L.A. radio jobs, Barker finally landed an audience-participation radio program that showcased his talent for making people laugh.
By chance, game show producer Ralph Edwards tuned into the show while driving the Los Angeles freeways and soon after offered Barker a television job hosting “Truth or Consequences.” The year was 1956.
“That was, that is and that will always be the most important call of my professional life,” said Barker, who joined Edwards for a toast every Dec. 21 at 12:05 p.m. -- the time of the offer -- until his death in 2005. “All the wonderful things that have happened to me since started with that phone call from Ralph.”
Barker has always demonstrated a knack for dates. He can rattle them off as if they were yesterday, not yesteryear. In an interview after a recent show, Nov. 17, 1939, came to mind -- his first date with Dorothy Jo, the young woman who would become his high school sweetheart and later his wife. They saw Ella Fitzgerald at the Shrine Mosque Auditorium in Springfield, Mo.
Nurturing his career and even serving as a producer on several of his early radio shows, Dorothy Jo’s larger effect on her husband before her death in 1981 would be in fostering a lifelong dedication to animal rights. She was the first Barker in the house to denounce fur coats and helped convert her one-time steak-eating spouse into a vegetarian and passionate spokesman for the humane treatment of animals.
“My wife was ahead of her time,” said Barker, who never remarried, and had “The Price Is Right” stop awarding fur coats as prizes by the mid-1980s.
In 1987, Barker’s activism took the national stage when he quit as the longtime host of the Miss USA and Miss Universe beauty pageants over the use of animal furs. He’d been urging them to stop for years, but the final straw came when he learned the swimsuit contestants were making their entrances in fur coats.
“I’d been speaking out at every opportunity about fur, and I would have been a complete hypocrite if I’d walked out on that stage,” said Barker, who hosted the pageants for some two decades.
Around this time, fur coat sales went into steady decline. “I’m not for a moment taking all the credit; there were many, many people working to make everyone aware of the cruelty to animals,” he said. “But the fur flap sure helped.”
In 1995, Barker started the DJ&T; Foundation, which subsidizes the spaying and neutering of animals across the U.S. (The DJ is for his wife and the T is for Matilda, a.k.a. “Tilly,” his mother.) Retirement will mean he’ll devote more than his usual couple of mornings a week to the nonprofit organization, which has awarded $40 million to help control the animal population. He’ll also have more time with his Hollywood housemates -- Jessie, his dog, and Mr. Rabbit and Honey, his rabbits.
“I keep Jessie away from the rabbits,” said Barker, who ends his game show with a reminder to viewers to spay or neuter their pets. “Because she pictures them as something very delicious.”
Trouble in the TV family
BARKER’S good works were clouded in 1994 when a former “Price Is Right” model sued him for sexual harassment. Over the next several years, about a half-dozen more suits were filed alleging sexual harassment, racial discrimination and wrongful termination.
The suits have all either been dropped or settled -- the latter being a legal move Barker said he opposed. “I wanted to go to court,” said Barker, who denounced the suits as distortions, exaggerations or outright falsehoods. “But it’s good business to settle when you can settle for far less than the lawsuit would cost.”
But lawsuits are of no concern to Barker’s legions, who put the “fan” into “fanatic.” They literally tremble, shake and scream at his approach and often are dressed in specially made T-shirts that say things such as “Barker’s Beauties,” “Bobalicious,” or “Got Bob?”
In addition to their outpouring of letters, e-mails and YouTube tributes to Barker since he announced his retirement last October, his followers are famous for enduring long waits in line to see the show. Ronald and Sharon Goodman flew in from the Midwest late last month to attend a taping and celebrate their 31st wedding anniversary. They camped out on the sidewalk overnight to secure a coveted seat.
“My friends at work think I’m nuts,” said Sharon Goodman, 46, a postal carrier from Osceola, Mo., who ended up at tapings three days in a row. “They say, ‘You’re sleeping on the streets of Hollywood? Are you crazy?’ I say I’m just crazy to meet Bob.”
“My mother watched ‘Truth or Consequences’ before I was born,” she added. “So actually I was watching Bob Barker while she was pregnant, so I’ve been listening to him longer than I’ve been walking around. Beat that!”
One of the more entertaining parts of the show never makes the broadcast. Between commercial breaks, Barker fields questions -- all of which he’s heard before. His responses are delivered with a comedian’s precise timing.
“Can I kiss you?” asks an audience member.
“No, I’m working,” he snaps. Then, a beat. “Meet me in the parking lot later.”
But nothing jolts the studio laugh meter like Barker repeating his famous bit from Adam Sandler’s adolescent-male cult classic “Happy Gilmore.” In the 1996 film, golfing partners played by Sandler and Barker duke it out with the game show host delivering a slapstick knockout to the words, “The price is right, bitch!”
It’s a great line to serve up moments before the return from commercial break.
At the last break before show’s end, the inevitable question -- at least since Barker announced his retirement -- arises: “What’s going to happen to the show?”
As of last week, CBS was still keeping mum. Barker, though, wasn’t about to pass up a good punch line.
“The show is going to end when I leave,” replied Barker wryly. “In fact, the top executives decided that they are going to stop all television. So when I retire you can put potted plants in all those sets at home.”