For Barker, the `Price' is still right

July 30, 2002|By Sorina Diaconescu | Sorina Diaconescu,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HOLLYWOOD - For three decades and counting, Bob Barker and Co. have beckoned with the trademark "Come on down!" and viewers have tuned in, turning The Price Is Right into a perennial champ of daytime TV.

In fact, with 30 years in, Barker has surpassed Johnny Carson's long tenure on The Tonight Show.

This summer, with six specials broadcast during prime time, the ratings have flared higher than usual.

Yet on a recent July morning, Barker contemplated scaling back on his duties as host and executive producer of the most durable game show ever. He used to tape two shows every day; now he usually does just one daily taping.

"It's quite a workout, and as I got a little older," - he turns 79 in December - "I realized it was too much," he says during an interview in his Hollywood home. He is on vacation, and his companions are a plump black Labrador named Winston and a cat named Dolce.

Barker looks fit in a white shirt, jeans and white sneakers. A dab of foundation gives his complexion a tan glow.

On The Price Is Right, Barker displays a talent for stirring contestants into a frenzy: They bob up and down, scream, throw themselves to the floor. Some ask if they can kiss him, and they are usually told they can.

Such breathless displays do not bother the host.

"I love it. I love it," he says. "Men like to retire and get a sail boat or play golf; I thoroughly enjoy what I do. I've done this all my life, and here I am, still wanting to do it."

"The show and the man are intertwined," says Lucy Johnson, senior vice president for daytime programming at CBS, who has worked with Barker for 14 years. "He just keeps finding new generations of people who appreciate him."

Barker has won more Emmys for The Price Is Right than he can fit on his mantelpiece: 14, including a lifetime achievement award. In the process, he has become an American institution and a paternal icon.

"I have one contestant after another who says to me, `Bob, I've watched you ever since I was a baby. The first thing I remember is you on television,' that sort of thing," he recalls.

Barker's willingness to poke fun at himself has scored with the college crowd, who loved his cameo in Happy Gilmore, in which Barker - who actually does take karate training - wins a golf course fistfight with the film's protagonist. "People loved that scene," says Dennis Dugan, who directed the film. "We wanted to use a double, but he said, `I can do this.' He wanted to do all the fighting."

Older viewers see Barker as a throwback to an era of gentlemen TV hosts.

"He makes all contestants feel cared for even if they lose," says CBS' Johnson. Unlike a new crop of television personalities who wear their tartness as a badge of honor, Barker is not one to rip anybody to shreds on the air. Four generations of contestants have been known to appear on his show - a testimony to his appeal.

Barker's stint as a game-show host began almost half a century ago. "I did Truth or Consequences for the first time on Dec. 31, 1956. Wow!" he exclaims with self-mocking emphasis. It has been a long journey for the ex-fighter pilot, who grew up in a tent on South Dakota's Rosebud Reservation.

To be sure, Barker's tenure as a TV personality has not been entirely sunny. In the last decade he has been named in lawsuits filed by disgruntled ex-models on The Price Is Right, alleging age discrimination and sexual harassment. ("The things that they claim are not true," says Barker. Litigation is still under way in several suits, but the harassment claims have been dropped.)

But overall, Barker's image remains that of a benign, courteous host. His vegetarianism and commitment to animal rights are long-standing. He plans to leave the bulk of his estate to the DJ&T Foundation, an organization he established to sponsor the spaying and neutering of stray pets.

As Barker's schedule gets leaner, viewers are bound to see more reruns of The Price Is Right and fewer original episodes next season.

Beyond that, Barker's employers are not willing to peer too far into the future. Said CBS' Johnson, "I'd rather not talk about life without Bob."

Sorina Diaconescu writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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