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You Can't Put a Price on This Hosting Job

July 16, 2002|SORINA DIACONESCU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Recently, Bob Barker, the cordial emcee of the longest-running show on daytime television, beat Johnny Carson.

Brute force was not involved.

It's true that in the 1996 movie "Happy Gilmore," Barker made such short work of co-star Adam Sandler that MTV viewers honored him with an award for best fight; this year, however, "The Price Is Right" host won a longevity contest, surpassing Carson's tenure at "The Tonight Show."

For three decades and counting, 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. This summer, with six specials broadcast during prime time, the ratings have flared higher than usual and the show figured briefly among the most watched programs in prime time, according to data compiled by Nielsen Media Research.

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, I realized it was too much," he said during an interview in his Hollywood home. He was on vacation, and his companions were a plump black Labrador named Winston and a cat named Dolce.

"At my age, I do not make long-range predictions," he explained, "but God willing, I intend to do it for another year."

Barker will turn 79 in December. He looked fit in a white shirt, jeans and white sneakers. A dab of foundation gave his complexion a tan glow. He was preparing for a trip to George Washington University Hospital the next day for a procedure to reduce the size of his prostate. (A spokesman said Monday that the operation had gone according to plan and that Barker was expected to return home today.)

He said it had been keeping him awake. "Suffering from sleep deprivation," he quipped, "is not a good condition when you're giving away refrigerators all day."

In addition to refrigerators, Barker has handed over jukeboxes, Chevy Camaros and piles of cash since 1972 to contestants who have approximated the correct price of household items. "Week after week, month after month, year after year," he recited in comic crescendo, "decade after decade, century after century...."

On "The Price Is Right," Barker displays a talent for stirring contestants into a state of excitement: 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 of adoration better suited to teenage rock 'n' roll idols do not bother the host. "I love it. I love it," he said. "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," said 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 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 recalled.

His willingness to poke fun at himself has scored with the collegiate set, who loved Barker's cameo in "Happy Gilmore," in which the septuagenarian--who actually does take karate training--won a fistfight with the film's protagonist. "People loved that scene," said Dennis Dugan, who directed the film. "Bob Barker never shows any anger on his show, so we thought it was funny to [reveal] his dark side. 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," said 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 exclaimed with self-mocking emphasis. It has been a long journey for the onetime-fighter pilot, who grew up in a tent on South Dakota's Rosebud Reservation.

His unparalleled longevity on the air amazes him; his pop icon status amuses him.

"Audience members want to know why I haven't been in any more movies. And I explain to them that I refuse to do nude scenes," Barker said, pausing for an imaginary drum roll.

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