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From his uncannily appropriate name to his middle-aged model good looks, Bob Barker embodied the image of the ultimate TV game show host for generations of viewers. As the iconic host of "The Price is Right" (CBS, 1972- ), Barker's masterful blend of showmanship and promotion helped spark capitalist America's enduring fascination with the game show genre. Blessed with a playful wit and genial on-air style, the seemingly ageless host perfected the formula of playing tempter, comic foil and nursemaid all in one, setting the standard for all future game show emcees to follow.
Born Robert William Barker on Dec.12, 1923, this beloved American institution of daytime television came from humble beginnings. The son of a power line foreman and his teacher wife, Barker grew up near a Native American reservation in South Dakota, where his mother taught school. In his teens, Barker and his family moved to the Midwest, where he attended high school and eventually received a basketball scholarship to Drury College. During World War II, Barker briefly interrupted his studies to train as a Navy fighter pilot, but the war ended before Barker could receive his assignment. Following his discharge, Barker returned to Drury and took a job at a local radio station to help finance his studies. After graduating summa cum laude with a degree in economics, Barker went to work for a radio station in Palm Beach, FL. Barker's success there led to a gig in Los Angeles, where he quickly landed his own radio program.
In 1956, Barker's patented smooth delivery caught the attention of Ralph Edwards, a local producer and TV personality. As it happened, Edwards - who had created and hosted the popular radio quiz "Truth or Consequences" during the 1940s - had just sold the show to NBC television as a daytime strip and was in the process of seeking a new host. After unsuccessfully auditioning dozens of prospective candidates from across the country, Edwards stumbled onto Barker's show on his car radio one day. Enthralled by his effortless charm and smooth delivery, Edwards arranged a meeting with Barker and hired him soon after. Proving his loyalty to the man who gave him his big break, Barker ended up hosting TV's "Truth or Consequences" (NBC/CBS/syndicated, 1950-1987) for an unprecedented 18 years. Barker's seductively encouraging demeanor and cheerful cajoling of contestants became a much-imitated trademark of his.
However, it was as the host of another American game show, that Barker truly came into his own. In 1972, Barker signed on as host of the Mark Goodman-Bill Toddman produced "The Price is Right," a consumer product-based quiz show with which Barker's name became synonymous. Dubbed the "greatest game show of all time" by TV Guide, "The Price is Right" became the most watched game show in America and would eventually set the record for the longest continuously running game show in North American television history. Showing a surprisingly sly wit beneath his dignified gentlemanly persona, Barker became famous for blithely busting the chops of eager bidders too excited to listen carefully. Barker also proved himself an unflappable figure, capable during the most unexpected of circumstances. In one of the most famous moments of "TPIR" history, a full-figured woman clad in a tube top named Yolanda Bowsley ran down to contestant's row so quickly and jumped up and down so vigorously that she rendered herself topless for some time before noticing. As a result, TV viewers nationwide got an eyeful (though with a censor's black bar covering the body parts) a good 30 years before the term "wardrobe malfunction" became a household phrase. Of the incident, Barker would later famously quip: "She came on down, all right and they came on out."
Another - albeit, less revealing - landmark occurred on "TPIR" in the early 1990's, when the handsomely aging Barker ventured onstage for the first time without his standard dyed brunette hair, showing off his more natural silvery white coloring. Cannily conscious of his image as an audience pleaser, Barker calmly inquired whether viewers preferred his "new look" or wanted him to continue coloring his hair. Needless, to say, Barker's snow-white scalp only increased his rating in tabloid "sex symbol" polls. As with other gray-haired personalities surrounded by younger women, Barker found the dialectic of father figure and aging stud - embodied in the harem of models on the show coyly billed as "Barker's Beauties" - carried to dizzying new heights.
This dichotomous image, however, would later come back to haunt the septuagenarian game show host and become the center of an embarrassing 1992 lawsuit. That year, Dian Parkinson, a prize model for "The Price Is Right" from 1975-1993, filed an $8 million lawsuit against Barker for sexual harassment. Though Barker would eventually cop to having had sexual relations with Parkinson, Barker was insistent that their relationship was consensual, stating, "As God is my witness, I never asked her to do anything she didn't want to do." Unable to compete with the much-loved Barker in a protracted legal battle, Parkinson reluctantly dropped the suit in 1995. However, this would not be the end of Barker's legal w s. During the mid-1990's and early-2000's, Barker was sued by five more women - two of whom, like Pennington, being former Barker's Beauties. Charges ranged from sexual harassment, racial discrimination and wrongful termination. With one notable exception, all the women ended up receiving out-of-court financial settlements.
An amiable and highly professional TV personality and producer, Barker was the perfect person to introduce, with the proper blend of excitement and control, the annually televised "Tournament of Roses" parade. He was also the natural choice to host "Miss USA" and "Miss Universe" pageants for several decades, interrupting his duties only when his animal rights activism deigned otherwise. A highly vocal spokesperson for the care and protection of animals, Barker also used his fame to promote (or proselytize, depending on who you spoke to) responsible pet ownership, imploring to "TPIR" viewers not to forget to have their pets spayed or neutered.
Not surprisingly, Barker's signature combination of sincerity and glib humor made him ripe for self-parody. In 1996, Barker accepted a role playing himself in the Adam Sandler golf comedy "Happy Madison." Barker's hysterical pummeling of Sandler in the film's most memorable scene ("The price is wrong, bitch!") won the veteran TV personality, not only a new generation of fans, but also an MTV Movie Award for Best Fight sequence. Barker also voiced himself in two episodes of the animated hit series, "Futurama" (Fox, 1999-2003) and "Family Guy" (Fox, 1999-2002; 2005- ).
In late October 2006, after 35 years and 17 Emmys as host of "The Price Is Right," Barker announced his retirement due to his declining health. Barker's last episode, set to air June 15, 2007, concluded a storied 50-year career in broadcasting.
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