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Beloved Game Show Host Bob Barker Dies at 99

TV icon was best known for his long run on 'The Price Is Right'


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It wasn’t just his matinee idol good looks, sly wit or polished delivery that made Bob Barker one of the best game show hosts in television history, anchoring The Price Is Right for 35 years before his retirement at age 83 in 2007. It was also his unflappability, the way he deftly fended off unwelcome kisses and revived fainting contestants. As he once explained it: “What I do for a living, there's no substitute for experience. ... You can depend on surprises.”

Like the time announcer Johnny Olson directed the famous “Come on down!” line to a female audience member, who ran down to contestant's row so excitedly, jumping up and down with such vigor, that she displaced her tube top. The studio audience, which saw it all, screamed with laughter. And later, Barker famously quipped, “She came on down, and they came on out.”

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Barker, whose death at 99 was announced by his longtime publicist, was hosting another game show, Truth or Consequences, in 1972 when CBS programming executives, hoping to attract more women viewers to the morning lineup, debuted a 90-minute block of game shows that fall: The Joker’s Wild, Gambit, and a reboot of The Price Is Right, a consumer-product-based program which aired on other networks from 1956 to 1965.

They set about searching for the man who would join bikini-clad models Janice Pennington and Anitra Ford and could pack a punch with the now-famous phrase, “And the actual retail price is …”

“I was 48 and didn’t have any thoughts about the rest of my life,” Barker reminisced to Entertainment Weekly in 2007. “It was just another show I thought I would have fun with and be well paid for.”

Instead, he became synonymous with it, and Barker, whose surname seemed destiny, would take The Price Is Right into the record books as the longest-running game show in history. He would also hold the title as the longest-tenured game-show host. Price became part of the American culture — in 1975, it was the first show of its kind to stretch into 60 minutes — and TV Guide has dubbed it the “greatest game show of all time.”    

But initially, Barker balked, telling Bud Grant, then vice-president of daytime programming, that he wasn’t interested. “I almost fell off the chair,” Grant told EW. “He said he’d do Joker’s Wild or Gambit, but not Price. He thought the show could be better produced. I said, ‘Barker, you will do Price because those other two shows are good, solid game shows that require a traffic cop to run them. And you’re not a cop. You have far more talent!’”

Born Robert William Barker on Dec. 12, 1923, in Darrington, Washington, he spent his early childhood on the Rosebud Reservation in Mission, South Dakota, where his mother, Matilda (Tillie), was a teacher. His father, Byron John Barker, a foreman on electrical highlines, was one-quarter Sioux. “Cowboys tied up their horses at hitching rails,” he recalled to People magazine in 1999. “It was like I was growing up in the Old West.”

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He lost his father when was 6, the elder Barker falling to his death from a tower, and Barker’s mother remarried. The family relocated to Missouri.

He was 15 and in high school when he met his future wife, Dorothy Jo Gideon, at an Ella Fitzgerald concert.  They married after he earned a degree in economics at Drury College (working also in radio), and he trained as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy Reserve during World War II. It was an uncommonly close marriage.

“She gave me the confidence to even try to do what I set out to do,” Barker said in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation in 2008. “She didn’t just urge me on; she worked right at my side.” The couple had no children.

After becoming an announcer and news editor at a Palm Beach, Florida station, Barker moved to California, where his sonorous baritone earned him his own show at Burbank’s KWIK. From there, he transitioned from radio into television.

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Barker’s wife stopping wear fur coats and championed animal rights before such awareness rose in the American consciousness, and after her death at 57 from lung cancer in 1981, Barker did the same. He quit his 20-year streak of helming Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants because officials awarded the winner a fur coat. He also stopped the same practice with game contestants and began ending episodes of Price with, “This is Bob Barker reminding you to help control the pet population — have your pets spayed or neutered.”

In 1995, he founded the DJ&T Foundation, named after his wife and mother, to encourage animal neutering and in 2013, he donated $1 million to transport three elephants from a Canadian zoo to a sanctuary in California. He also funded animal law courses at various universities and fought for legislation barring mistreatment of circus animals.

The host found himself mired in controversy in 1994, when model Dian Parkinson sued him, accusing him of sexual harassment. (He insisted their two-year relationship was consensual.) The following year, model Holly Hallstrom left the show and subsequently sued for wrongful termination and malicious persecution.

In 1996, Barker made a cameo appearance in the film Happy Gilmore, memorable for the scene in which he punches Adam Sandler. The scuffle won for “Best Fight” later that year at the MTV Movie Awards.

He had suffered myriad health problems since 1999, including a blocked carotid artery, a stroke and several serious falls.

Barker won 14 Daytime Emmy Awards for outstanding game show host, and with cowriter Digby Diehl, penned his 2009 autobiography, Priceless Memories. But he considered activism his legacy. “How would I like to be remembered?” he replied during the television academy interview. “As the man who said, ‘Have your pets spayed or neutered.’ ”

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