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Barker still a prize

Durable host gave 'Price Is Right' a long spin

By JOANNE WEINTRAUB
Journal Sentinel TV critic
Posted: May 9, 2007

"The Price Is Right" without Bob Barker?

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No Bob to hand out cash by the fistful, to stand by the big wheel as hyperventilating contestants give it a spin, to be smooched, squeezed and swooned over by women in "Bonkers 4 Bob" T-shirts?

It's a mournful vision, like the nation's capital without the Washington Monument or Disneyland minus Mickey.

But it will become a reality this year, when the white-haired wonder of daytime TV plans to retire, a half-century after he started in television and almost 35 years after he began this particular gig.

Barker will tape his last "Price Is Right" sometime in June.

CBS plans to air reruns in the summer, as usual, followed by the return of the show in the fall with a new host, who has yet to be named.

Next week, the network will take the show to prime time with a pair of specials, the first featuring a high-stakes version of the game show and the second a tribute to the man who owns 17 Emmys and a "Guinness Book of World Records" citation as TV's "most durable performer."

The 83-year-old Barker likes to joke about "retiring while I'm still young" or taking up bodybuilding in the interest of becoming gubernatorial material in California.

But there was no joshing about his talent or his track record when he talked to TV critics earlier this year at a CBS event in Pasadena.

"It's like playing center field," Barker said. "If it comes easy for you, why, you can just gracefully catch the fly balls as far as they might be hit."

This "old-fashioned guy doing an old-fashioned show," in his own description, prides himself on his unparalleled longevity and "Price Is Right's" first-place rating in its genre.

Barker notes with satisfaction that would-be contestants line up with lawn chairs and sleeping bags every day outside the program's Los Angeles studio, which was renamed in his honor following his 5,000th show, in 1998.

The prices to be guessed at still include those of laxatives and hearing-aid batteries, but there are laptops and laser printers now, too. College students are among "The Price Is Right's" biggest fans; both the Harvard and Yale choirs have serenaded Barker from the audience.

And his street cred soared after the beating he laid on Adam Sandler's character in the 1996 movie "Happy Gilmore," followed by the mildly naughty line he has been asked to repeat a million times since.

"I've been in television for 50 years," Barker observed with mock regret, "and what am I going to be remembered for? 'The price is right, (B-word)' - if I'm remembered at all."

Connecting from the start

Like many broadcasters of his generation, Barker, who grew up on the South Dakota Indian reservation where his mother taught school, started out in radio.

Not long out of the U.S. Navy, where he was trained as a fighter pilot during World War II, he was resuming his education at Drury College in Missouri.

"I heard about the manager of a radio station who was crazy about airplanes," Barker recalled. " I had never even been in a radio station, but I thought that might be fun, working 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. Mr. Ward and I talked about airplanes for about half an hour, and I had a job in radio."

He wrote local news and sports, then did his first sportscast and some commercials. Along the way, he did an audience participation show.

"No one called them game shows then," he reminisced. "We took people right out of the audience, talked with them, and they did this, that, or the other thing.

"Dorothy Jo, my wife, was at home, and she heard that radio show. And when I went home, she said, 'That's what you should do. You did that better than you've ever done anything else.'

"She didn't say I was good. She just said I did it better than I'd ever done anything else. And I set out from that day to do precisely what I'm still doing."

He moved on to radio stations in Palm Beach, Fla., then Los Angeles, where Ralph Edwards, the producer of "This Is Your Life" and other pioneering TV shows, heard Barker on his car radio.

"He called me, and I went in for a series of auditions," Barker recounted, with the relish people reserve for their very favorite stories. "And on December 21, 1956, at 5 minutes past 12 noon, Ralph called me and told me that I was to be the host of 'Truth or Consequences.'

"And every Dec. 21 after that (until Edwards' death in 2005), Ralph and I would meet for lunch, and at 5 minutes past 12 noon we drank a toast to our long, enduring friendship."

Barker began hosting the popular quiz show a few days later and stayed until 1974.

He started with "The Price Is Right" in '72, when game-show giants Mark Goodson and Bill Todman launched a daytime version of the prime-time hit that had been hosted by Bill Cullen in the '50s and '60s.

Prizes, prices and lawsuits

Barker's official CBS biography says he has given away more than $200 million in cars, cash, cruises, living-room sets and other prizes while mastering the intricacies of some 70 "Price Is Right" games, including Penny Ante, Punch a Bunch and the highly desirable Plinko, with its lure of up to $50,000 in loot.

The official bio doesn't mention the lawsuits, but a critic asked him to comment on them during the session.

Since the mid-'90s, Barker has been sued by six women, most of them models who silently, smilingly appear alongside the prizes on the show, for alleged sexual harassment, racial discrimination or wrongful termination.

The critic wanted to know why most of the cases were settled out of court.

"I didn't choose to settle any of them out of court," Barker replied. "I chose to go to court. But the company that owned the show - and various companies have owned the show throughout the lawsuits - chose to settle. And I understand that. These people who sued, these were frivolous lawsuits. They were distortions, exaggerations or outright falsehoods, and we could prove that in court.

"So we wanted to go to court. But it's good business to settle when you can settle for far less that the lawsuit would cost."

When the inevitable question about his own skill at naming the retail value of golf clubs and garage-door openers arrived, Barker had a ready answer.

"I would be a terrible contestant," he said. "I know nothing about prices. I've never paid any attention, because I can't win. Why should I?

"So sometimes when I go and do interviews, the writer will show up with a brown paper bag and say, 'I'm going to test you, Bob.' And I make a damn fool of myself every time."

E-mail: jweintraub@journalsentinel.com







From the May 10, 2007 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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