Anyone who’s been near a television set during the past half-century has seen Bob Barker. For 35 years he hosted daytime’s “The Price Is Right”—the longest-running game show in North America. Before that, he spent 18 years hosting “Truth or Consequences.” No wonder Barker has been hailed as TV’s longest-running host.
Barker, the recipient of 19 Emmy Awards, retired in 2007. But he hasn’t disappeared behind the curtain. At 86, he remains a tireless animal rights advocate—and is a fledgling author. His memoir, Priceless Memories, written with Digby Diehl, provides a backstage pass to the shows that made him a household name.
There are also vignettes of his surprising past—including his upbringing on the South Dakota Indian reservation where his mother was a teacher, his training as a Naval fighter pilot and the love story he shared with his high school sweetheart-turned-wife, Dorothy Jo.
“We were a team,” Barker says of his wife, who died in 1981. “I couldn’t have done what I did if it weren’t for her.”
Speaking by phone from the Hollywood home he shares with his dog and rabbits, Barker explains that he purposely kept the tone of his book upbeat and non-controversial—in the tradition of his TV shows. “We didn’t solve the world’s problems. But we hopefully helped you to forget your problems for just a while.” As to why “Price Is Right” has proven so durable, he offers, “Audience participation. That’s the key.” In fact, shows like “The Price Is Right” were originally called “audience participation shows.” Recalls Barker: “They were spontaneous and unrehearsed. No one was tested or coached before they went before the cameras.” Also, once the cameras rolled, they kept rolling—and whatever happened, happened.
Barker got into television the old-fashioned way: via radio. He had a weekly show for Southern California Edison, the electric power company, which aired locally on CBS. With Dorothy Jo, who was his producer, he traveled to two cities a day to visit Edison’s “Electric Living Centers,” where he interviewed homemakers about the latest electrical wonders. “One day Ralph Edwards heard the show—and liked it. He was already considered a broadcasting pioneer, and a legend,” Barker recalls.
In 1956 Barker became host of the Edwards-created show “Truth or Consequences.” He was still doing “T or C” when, in 1972, he bounded in front of audiences for “The Price is Right.” For the next three years he did a juggling act—working both shows. When he opted to do only one, he couldn’t have guessed that he would spend more than three decades playing the straight man to contestants grappling with price tags. “The premise of ‘The Price is Right’ is simple—and powerful. Everyone identifies with pricing,” Barker says. “From cab drivers to executives, everyone’s interested in what things cost.”
Under Barker, the program observed several milestones. In 1987, after years of fooling with hair dyes, he rebelled—becoming the first host to let his hair go au natural. “I was the only guy on TV with gray hair,” he says, adding, “I had to get approval from the head of daytime programming!” Barker also began signing off with what was literally a pet passion: “Help control the pet population. Have your pets spayed or neutered.”
It was his late wife who enlightened him about the plight of animals. Following her cue, he became a vegetarian—and went on to convince producers of “The Price Is Right” to stop featuring furs and leather. Later, as the longtime emcee of the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, he sought to stop the contestants from parading in furs. When the show’s producer wouldn’t budge, Barker resigned—and the so-called “fur flap” became major news. “For the first time, many people understood about the cruelty to animals that resulted from the production of fur,” he says, adding, “Fur is no longer chic.”
In memory of his wife and his mother Tilly, who was also devoted to animals, Barker established the DJ & T Foundation, which has contributed millions to spay/neuter programs. Barker, who never had children, is also leaving a legacy of university endowments for the study of animal rights, and is himself active in animal rights legislation. He may no longer be in front of the cameras, but Bob Barker hasn’t stopped working.
Journalist Pat H. Broeske has a menagerie of cats and dogs—all spayed or neutered.