Bob Barker was a pillar of television’s greatest generation.
Barker, the enduring host of “The Price Is Right” who died Aug. 26 at the age of 99, was a World War II veteran who trained as a Navy fighter pilot. But his destiny was not to fly missions in the Pacific theater. Barker’s service to his country came in the years after the war, when he and an elite corps of seasoned radio announcers laid a large part of the foundation for commercial television as we know it today.
Barker was a born broadcaster. He had a resonant voice, and his 6-foot-1 frame didn’t hurt in making an impression on viewers in the early days of grainy TV pictures. But his biggest asset was the gift of being to speak extemporaneously on live television – and make it look and feel natural while doing so.
His natural comfort with the medium gave Barker a likeability that made him a different breed of personality than actors or comedians or news anchors. Barker connected with viewers, often in daytime hours, as an affable uncle. He was a tour guide for the folks at home to whatever game show, talk show or light entertainment program he happened to front. Daily daytime series such as “The Price Is Right” and “Truth or Consequences,” two of Barker’s long-running gigs, helped television in its post-war infancy become a daily habit for viewers. Barker and star host contemporaries such as Bill Cullen, John Charles Daly, Art Linkletter, Betty White, Hugh Downs, Garry Moore, Jack Barry, Monty Hall, Dinah Shore, Gene Rayburn, Arlene Francis, Arthur Godfrey, Allen Ludden, Tom Kennedy, Mike Wallace (pre-”60 Minutes”) and Johnny Carson (pre-”Tonight Show”) became the audience’s TV friends. Those bonds magnified TV’s influence as a force in pop culture.
Barker, of course, enjoyed unusual longevity in a notoriously fickle medium. He had a 35-year run on CBS’ daytime staple “Price Is Right” prior to stepping down in June 2007 after nearly 6,000 episodes. Before that he logged 18 years with the quiz show “Truth or Consequences.” In between, there were countless TV specials, beauty pageants, awards shows telethons, supermarket openings and more. Bob Barker and his (almost exclusively white male) peers worked out the kinks of daytime television in real time as NBC, CBS and ABC became the nation’s most dominant media platforms. Bob Barker and Monty Hall and Dinah Shore kept viewers coming back to the set as part of everyday routines as much as Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan and Sid Caesar kept them tuning in at night.
Over more than half a century in broadcasting, Barker earned his stripes as one of America’s most recognized faces. He earned his jaw-dropping laughs alongside Adam Sandler in the 1996 comedy “Happy Gilmore” with his willingness to poke fun at his straight-laced image in the now-legendary cameo appearance.
I was fortunate to have a long sit-down with Barker at his Hollywood Hills home in late 2003, as he was celebrating his approaching 80th birthday. It was a few years before he hung up the skinny microphone on “Price,” and it was no secret that CBS was preparing a transition for the show. Barker’s squeaky-clean image had taken a hit in 1994 when former “Price Is Right” model Dian Parkinson accused him of sexual harassment in a highly publicized lawsuit. In an earlier era, Barker kept his job. The experience still rattled him a decade later.
When we sat down in November 2003, I was distracted by the surroundings. Barker’s 1929 Spanish colonial home was exquisitely decorated with artwork, sculptures, furniture and mementos of his life. The hand-tiled floor in the spacious sitting room where we spoke was a masterpiece unto itself. Eventually, he noticed my darting eyes, and he started talking about the history of the house, the inspiration for his design and the backstories of various pieces in the room. Believe me, Barker was well-traveled and intellectually curious. He had good taste in art that worked for his home.
Barker was happy to talk about his early years in TV and radio, and about his experiences during World War II. His memory was prompted by items as we walked and talked through a few other rooms, and then out into a backyard with a patio that definitely impressed. The accent tile went on for miles.
At the time, Tom Brokaw’s World War II-themed book franchise “The Greatest Generation” had made a big splash. I was surprised when Barker rolled his eyes a bit and cracked a gentle joke suggesting that maybe the “greatest generation” praise was a little out of control, including for himself. Barker enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve at age 19 in 1943, and then underwent extensive aviation training in Chicago, Detroit, South Texas and Daytona, Fla. He was poised to join the U.S. operation in the Pacific when Japan surrendered in the wake of atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Barker was proud of his role as a post-war TV pioneer and of his credentials as an animal rights activist. Telling America day after day in his “Price Is Right” closing to please remember to “help control the pet population — have your pet spayed or neutered” put the concept of animal population control in the nation’s groundwater in a way that few other PSA campaigns could.
Most of all, after three hours of talking and touring the Barker manse, I was left with the impression that he was a contented person, comfortable in his own skin, happy with his career achievements. He was also grateful and humble about the good luck and good timing that allowed him to thrive in the fertile fields of radio and TV broadcasting. And he was justifiably eager to show off of his incredible digs, which he enjoyed working on as an ever-changing mosaic of art and design.
The headline for the column published Dec. 1, 2003, in the Hollywood Reporter was “A Lifetime in Daytime.” Barker dropped so many fun anecdotes that it was hard to fit everything into a 600-word column. I chose to end on a tidbit about his humble start in 1956 as host of “Truth or Consequences” because it seemed to captured his spirit:
“At the outset, ‘Consequences’ was beamed live to the East Coast on weekday mornings at 8:30 a.m. Hollywood time from the El Capitan Theatre. To round up a studio audience at that early hour, the theater’s marquee promised ‘Free Doughnuts and Bob Barker.’ At the end of his first four weeks, when Barker got the permanent nod from NBC, he refused to sign a new contract until they changed the marquee to give him top billing.
‘I went home and told my wife, “I’ve got it made,”‘ Barker recalls with a grin.”
(Pictured: Bob Barker celebrating his 80th birthday on “The Price Is Right” in 2003)