FOR Bob Barker, the soon-to-retire host of "The Price Is Right," it hasn't been the years or the miles so much as the contestants.
For more than three decades, the 83-year-old, silver-haired host has been tackled, bear-hugged and smooched by jubilant hysterics. He's witnessed them trip, collapse, faint and even fall out of their tops in the mad rush to contestants' row.
His incredible TV reign, as host of daytime's top-rated and longest-running game show, is in and of itself a virtually unmatched feat in the medium. (By comparison, Johnny Carson logged in a mere 29 1/2 years as a late-night host.) But when adding Barker's earlier, 18-year stint as host of the quiz show "Truth or Consequences," that means his familiar tan-and-smiling face has been a daily presence on the tube for a half-century -- a record that's unlikely to be broken.
Barker's astonishing small-screen career has done more than just transform him into an "entertainment icon," as CBS President of Entertainment Nina Tassler recently put it. It's also paved the way for him to become an unlikely national advocate for animal rights and, on a less serious note, to achieve almost cult-like status among college-aged males that lasts to this day if for no other reason than his bit role in Adam Sandler's "Happy Gilmore." (If you've seen it, you know \o7th\f7\o7e\f7 line.)
But TV's Iron Man has been accumulating rust. Heart ailments, prostate surgery, a torn rotator cuff, a bad knee, a tilted back disc have slowed his famous gait across Stage 33 at CBS' Television City.
Last week, after 6,586 episodes, Barker taped his final show: He laid down his trademark long-stem microphone, oversaw his last twirl of the wheel, congratulated his last showcase winner and bid television a fond farewell. (The final show will air Friday in its regular morning time period and then be repeated in prime time that night just before the broadcast of the 34th annual Daytime Entertainment Emmy Awards, where Barker is up for his possible 18th and 19th statues.)
His departure means the loss of one of the last active national links to a long-gone media era. During the span of Barker's career -- not without its controversies, including a spat of lawsuits claiming sexual harassment and discrimination -- the medium has evolved from a vacuum-tubed "Leave It to Beaver" mentality that ran test patterns in the early morning hours to a voracious YouTube universe that churns out 24-hour-a-day HD programming.
"When I wake up that first morning that I would normally go to the studios and I realize there is no show for me," quipped Barker in his CBS dressing room after a recent afternoon taping, "I'm not sure, I may have to have help -- psychiatric help."
Grief counseling may be avoided, however, should the 17-time Daytime Emmy Award winner recall the parade of tributes and specials staged on his behalf during the countdown to his retirement. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, even cable's Game Show Network have recently spotlighted Barker's 50 years in television with honorary dinners, awards and programming.
But CBS, which can thank the game show host for clobbering the morning competition in the ratings for decades, threw the biggest Barker bash -- back-to-back prime-time specials last month that drew a hefty combined audience of 28 million viewers. Both prime-time programs won their time slot for total viewers with Barker's night career retrospective even beating out the season finale of ABC's hit show "Ugly Betty."
As host of "The Price Is Right," Barker, the former Midwesterner who lost his father at age 6 and struggled through the Great Depression with his mother, said he has handed out more than $300 million in cash and prizes to Middle America.
"Bob brought a lot of much-needed class and humor to the genre," said Jerry Katzman, the former vice chairman of the William Morris Agency who now teaches at UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television. "It's really a miracle with all the changes in game shows over the past several decades, he's made it this long. I don't think we'll ever see that again."
One call did it all
AS with the whole of his career, Barker's first major break reads like a Hollywood fable. In 1950, he headed west with no job, no agent, no contacts, just a dream to become an entertainment star. After struggling for a half-dozen years in L.A. radio jobs, Barker finally landed an audience-participation radio program that showcased his talent for making people laugh.
By chance, game show producer Ralph Edwards tuned into the show while driving the Los Angeles freeways and soon after offered Barker a television job hosting "Truth or Consequences." The year was 1956.