The time is right for the coolest 83-year-old in television to step away from “The Price Is Right.”
“This is an appropriate time for me to retire,” Bob Barker says. “It’s not just that I want to retire while I’m young. It marks the 50th anniversary of my time on television and it marks the 35th year of “The Price Is Right.” (Before that, he hosted “Truth or Consequences.”) “We’re way up there in the ratings, right on top. We have people lined up, sleeping on the sidewalk, to see our show. I want to go out on top.”
The most astonishing thing about the people who camp out to get into “The Price Is Right” is their age—they’re mostly college students. An ancient game show hosted by an octogenarian would seem an unlikely magnet for the kegger crowd.
Barker finds it amazing, too. “If I could explain that, I could make millions of dollars. Every show, I don’t mean just game shows, would love to have what we have going for us.”
He speculates there are two reasons. “About 10, 15 years ago, we had a group of college kids come to the show. I mentioned they were there. Then another group showed up, then another. It began to catch on. Now we have two, sometimes three college groups at every taping. They make good contestants. They give the show energy. It’s a cult thing now.”
A big part of the cult is glee clubs. “One time, we had the Duke choir in our audience. We had them come down to contestants’ row during a commercial. When we came out of it, they sang for us. Since then, we’ve had the Harvard choir, the Yale choir and cadets from the West Point choir. William & Mary”—the college choir, not the couple—“sang on the show. As soon as a group gets in the audience, we get them down there. I speed up a game or two and we do that. It’s wonderful.”
A brief appearance punctuated by a memorable line in Adam Sandler’s “Happy Gilmore” also might have something to do with his idol status among young people.
“I don’t tape a show that someone in the audience doesn’t bring up, `Did you like beating up Adam Sandler?’ They loved that movie, particularly young men,” Barker said. “Then they will say, `Do the line, Bob. Do the line’”
He has even worked out a routine with crew members. He asks if there’s time to do the line and they say no. This leads to more pleas from the young people, until Barker relents, as he intended to all along. “I’ve told them, I’ve been in television for 50 years and what am I going to be remembered for? `The price is right, bitch.” (Possibly from force of habit, he misspoke: The line is “the price is wrong.”)
One of the few unpleasant memories Barker will take from the show also might have enhanced his street credibility, albeit for the wrong reasons. Over the years, several of Barker’s Beauties, the models who show off the prizes, have filed suit for sexual harassment or other offenses related to backstage hanky panky. One of the Beauties, former Miss USA Dian Parkinson, admitted having an affair with Barker.
The lawsuits have generally been settled out of court, although Barker says this has not been his choice. “I didn’t choose to settle any of them. I chose to go to court.” Barker’s position is the lawsuits were frivolous, “based on distortions, exaggerations and outright falsehoods.” However, for the owners of the show, the price was right to settle. “I understand that,” Barker said. “It’s good business to settle when you can for far less than the lawsuit would cost.”
Barker’s farewell will not be a case of here today, gone tomorrow. CBS is giving him an extended sendoff not seen since Johnny Carson’s final days on “The Tonight Show.” Prime-time specials saluting him and “The Price Is Right” are scheduled Wednesday and Thursday. A couple of weeks ago, he was featured on the comedy “How I Met Your Mother.” Barker expects to tape the final daytime edition of “The Price Is Right” in early June, scheduled to air several weeks later. He’ll continue to be a presence in reruns through the summer. His eventual replacement—George Hamilton and John O’Hurley are the names most often mentioned—won’t debut until September.
Barker is stepping away from TV but he will continue to crusade for animal rights, a passion he has had for decades. He established a foundation that subsidizes the spaying and neutering of pets, and is working on having zoo elephants transplanted to a more natural environment. “That’s going to take a lot of my time. It takes a lot of my time now. I go in around noon, 1 p.m., to do `The Price Is Right.’ Most of my time before that is working with the details of the foundation.”
His love of animals also influenced him to become a vegetarian, a choice he recommends for everyone, not just because he doesn’t believe in eating animals. “If you’re not a vegetarian, you should give it a go. ... I don’t think I would have worked for the past five years were it not for my vegetarian diet.”
His work on behalf of animals is responsible for a thrill bigger than any he has gotten from being a TV star. Future Hall of Fame pitcher Roger Clemens once stopped on a roadway to come to the aid of a dog injured by a car. “Roger helped the dog and got it to a veterinarian,” Barker said. “Someone interviewed him about it and he said, `I’m just a regular Bob Barker.’
“I thought that was the greatest compliment. When I was a kid, I wanted to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals, so anybody who is pitching in the big leagues I admire.”
While Barker might have dreamed of playing ball for a living, his entrance into broadcasting came about by chance. “When I got out of the Navy”—he was an aviation cadet—“I went back to college. I wanted a job and heard about the manager of a radio station, who was crazy about airplanes. I had never even been in a radio station. So I put on my naval officer’s uniform and my wings of gold and I went in and met G. Pearson Ward. We talked about airplanes for a half-hour and I had a job in radio.”
It wasn’t a glamorous job. He wrote local news, sports, read commercials and did station breaks. “But I got my first chance to do an audience-participation show. We took people right out of the audience and talked with them. They did this. They did that. That was my first appearance before an audience.”
His first review was a rave, sort of. It came from his wife, Dorothy Jo. “She said, `That’s what you should do. You did that better than you’ve ever done anything.’ She didn’t say I was good.”
Over the next half-century, countless others have.
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
Prime-time specials: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday on CBS
Regular air time: 11 a.m. weekdays on CBS (check local listings)