At 80, Bob Barker is still in the game

Published Dec. 9, 2003|Updated Sept. 2, 2005

He calls 40 minutes early, seemingly aware of the disorientation that comes from having your first conversation with a man you've known all your life.

Fortunately, Bob Barker has learned a thing or two about putting people at ease in 32 years hosting his hit daytime game show, CBS's The Price Is Right.

Phoning from his Los Angeles home to talk about his upcoming 80th birthday, Barker deploys an easy charm and ready cache of one-liners in discussing everything from fighting the fur industry to kicking Adam Sandler's behind on film.

Let wienies such as Wheel of Fortune's Pat Sajak tape a month's worth of shows in two days. Barker still does it the old-fashioned way, recording two shows on Monday and one show Tuesday to Thursday each week ("Those shows that tape five shows a day only do one game," the host explained. "We change everything for every show. . . . It's too much for five shows a day.")

CBS pays homage to the game show legend twice this week, celebrating his 80th birthday Friday on the daytime show and Saturday night on The Price Is Right Million Dollar Spectacular. The prime-time special features appearances by CNN host Larry King, actor Chuck Norris and singer Celine Dion, among others.

It's a giant-sized tribute to the man who has hosted TV's longest-running game show for three decades and twice was mentioned in Guinness World Records as TV's "Most Durable Performer."

Barker, born Dec. 12, 1923, grew up on an Indian reservation in South Dakota and spent time as a radio host in West Palm Beach before moving to Los Angeles, where he took over NBC's Truth or Consequences in 1956.

In our phone conversation, with his trusty black Labrador Winston barking in the background, Barker spent about an hour discussing his 50 years in show business.

Times: What do you know at age 80 that you didn't know at 60 or 70?

Barker: "I'll tell you one thing, in what I do for a living, there's no substitute for experience. I don't care how much natural talent you may have. . . . In the type of show I do, you can depend on surprises. By that I mean props don't work, cameras go out. Contestants don't react the way you expected. You're constantly facing a crisis, or something unexpected."

BARKER jumps here

some pics on the wire if you need them

Times: You had one incident in which a woman's top came off during the show, right?

Barker: "The most talked-about incident in Price Is Right history. That lady was wearing a tube top, her name was called to be a contestant, and she jumped to her feet and began jumping up and down, and out they came. She came on down and they came on out."

Times: How does experience help when something like that happens?

Barker: "When I made my entrance, the audience was screaming, and I thought, "Well, they love me.' Then I realized no audience had loved me that much. So I turned to Johnny Olsen _ he was (the announcer) then _ and I said, "Johnny, what has happened out here?' And he said, "Bob, this girl has given her all for you.' " (He chuckles.)

Times: In 32 years, you've survived the decline of game shows on daytime TV, sexual harassment allegations in 1994 and two announcers: Johnny Olsen, who died in October 1985, and Rod Roddy, who died in October. What's your secret?

Barker: "I owe it all to the viewers, because they make the decision. Networks decide who will have a chance to do shows, but it is the viewers who make the final decision of who stays and who goes. I am very fortunate, in that the television viewers of our country have decided that Bob Barker can stay.

"Many people have the idea that game shows are easy to come up with. And nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, game shows are a very delicate combination of several things _ and one of the most important things is the basic premise. You can't fool television viewers with dancing girls and flashing lights.

"In our case . . . everyone identifies with prices. When we bring out something and offer it for bids, you think, "That bid's too high,' or "That's a good bid.' Whatever you think, you're involved. That is one of the reasons we've been able to survive for so many years."

Times: Even though people like Johnny Carson, Mike Wallace and Dick Clark started on game shows, for many of them it was a transitional job. Why have you stuck with it for so long?

Barker: "I've learned my song, and I sing it. This is the area that I know. (While finishing college in the early 1950s), I got a job at a radio station. And it wasn't long before I had an opportunity to do an audience participation show, where I talked with unrehearsed contestants. When my wife heard this show, she said, "That's what you should do. You do that better than you've ever done anything else.' She didn't say I was good. She just said I did it better than anything else. I had great confidence in her judgment, so I thought, "Well, that's what I'll do.' "

Times: What did you do that worked?

Barker: "The first thing on the list is listen. So many hosts will ask a question of a contestant and pay no attention because they're so busy thinking about what they, the host, will say next. If you ask a question or make a remark and listen, often that contestant will provide you with a little gem you can work with.

"I play more than 70 games on the Price Is Right. I know all of these games so well that I don't have to worry about cue cards, or worrying about the rules of the game. I'm completely at ease. So what I try to do is have fun with the audience and get laughs . . . make it a big party. On our show, we don't solve the problems of the world. But hopefully, we can help people forget their problems for an hour."

Times: You're still taping five shows a week at age 80. How do you keep going?

Barker: "I think that age as a number is not nearly as important as health. You can be in poor health and be pretty miserable at 40 or 50. If you're in good health, you can enjoy things into your 80s. Beyond that, if there's a secret for health and energy, it lies in exercise and nutrition. I exercise regularly. I'm a vegetarian _ I think there's a strong possibility, had I not become a vegetarian, I would not be working now. I became a vegetarian about 25 years ago, and I did it out of concern for animals. But I immediately began having more energy and feeling better."

Times: In 1987, you stopped coloring your hair to protest the way animals are used to make the products. That same year, you stood up to the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, which you hosted, for their use of furs.

Barker: "It's been one of most rewarding things of my entire life to see the huge difference we've made in the protection of animals and the treatment of animals. Let's take the fur industry: Years ago, young women were anxious _ they saved their money for fur coats. . . . If you look around, you don't see young women wearing furs, you see matronly women wearing furs. Furs are no longer chic.

"In 1987, you may recall the fur flap: I went to New Mexico to host the Miss USA pageant (and) I was shocked to learn the swimsuit contestants were going to make their entrance wearing furs. I told the producers I could not be on the stage surrounded by young women in fur coats, because I would appear to be a complete hypocrite. But they had contracts and a quarter of a million dollars' worth of furs there. It became a front page story, and it was the best thing that ever happened to the anti-fur campaign. People who had never even thought about the mistreatment of animals were suddenly reading about it in the newspaper. Here was this man who was about to give up hosting two very profitable shows on behalf of these animals. The next year, I quit both pageants and there was another fur flap _ fur flap II _ and it got even more publicity."

Times: "The Price Is Right" hasn't changed much in 32 years. Does that ever become a problem?

Barker: "It's an advantage. Our viewers don't want our show to change. We've been on 32 years, and they have watched it as children, and now their children and even their children's children are watching and they don't want change.

"They have ideas, . . . we say no thanks. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. They did a nighttime Price Is Right, and they incorporated a lot of these things . . . complete with black floors! And it just didn't work."

Times: How does it feel to have two TV shows celebrating your birthday?

Barker: "I told (CBS) I didn't know there would be so much attention paid to my 80th birthday, or I would have celebrated it a long time ago! (He laughs.) When you turn on the (Saturday) show, you'll see a birthday card from Celine Dion open, and there is Celine seated in her dressing room in Las Vegas. And she quietly talks about the fact that I'm 80 now, and she and her family have watched me all their lives. And she sings, a cappella, Happy Birthday to me. I'm telling you, it brought tears to my eyes when I saw the tape."

Times: That kind of celebrity worship must happen pretty often.

Barker: "I tell you who's had the biggest effect: Adam Sandler. For one of his early pictures, Happy Gilmore, he wrote a part in which I played myself in a golf tournament and we had this fight. That happened four or five years ago, and I don't do a taping at which somebody doesn't ask me something about that movie. Mostly, they want to know why I haven't done more pictures. I tell them the reason is because I refuse to do nude scenes. I don't want to be just another beautiful body."

Times: You studied karate with Chuck Norris. Use any of his moves on Sandler?

Barker: "No, . . . I didn't get to kick him much. (He laughs.) I actually studied karate for more than 20 years. . . . I didn't start until I was almost 50. I didn't stop until I was 74 or 75. I started having trouble with my knees and trouble with my back and one of my shoulders. My doctor, who had been in karate himself, said, "Do you think maybe you're getting a little old for all these spinning, jumping back kicks?' That hadn't even occurred to me. So I laid off karate for about two weeks and I felt so much better, I eased up."

Times: Karate at age 75? Now I'm really impressed.

Barker: "Nowadays, I do a lot of stretching, which is important in karate. I lift some light weights. And I do a lot of walking. Low impact stuff."

Times: At what point do you call it quits? Will they have to pry the microphone from your cold hands? And will you expect fans to walk around wearing black armbands afterward?

Barker: "Black armbands, oh brother. (He laughs loudly.) I consider retiring every year _ I have ever since I was 70. I consider it and I say, "Well, I'll do it one more year.' So I'm not going to make any predictions. We'll see."