Bob Barker, Host of Price Is Right, Dead at 99

The game show host died Saturday of natural causes, a family spokesperson said.
Bob Barker photographed hosting Truth or Consequences in 1963.
Bob Barker photographed hosting Truth or Consequences in 1963.By Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images.

Asked how he wanted to be remembered, Bob Barker replied, “As the man who said, ‘Have your pets spayed or neutered.’” Maybe he will be, but Barker, who died on Saturday, August 26 at age 99, will almost certainly also be remembered as the greatest game-show host who ever lived.

In his more than half a century of enthusiastically emceeing such consumerist contests as Truth or Consequences and The Price Is Right, Barker gave away more than $200 million in prizes. But he was more than just a smiling, dapper master of ceremonies. He redefined the role of the game-show host, making him someone who could age gracefully over his long tenure and someone who could be so at home in America’s living rooms that no one minded him incorporating his animal-rights activism into every broadcast.

Robert William Barker was born in Darrington, Washington, on December 12, 1923. When his father, Byron, died in 1929, Barker and his mother, Tilly, moved to Mission, South Dakota, a town that was part of the Rosebud Indian Reservation; in fact, he was one-eighth Sioux. When Barker was a teen, Tilly re-married and moved the family to Springfield, Missouri. Barker enrolled at Springfield’s Drury University (then Drury College) on a basketball scholarship, but World War II interrupted his studies. While training to become a navy pilot, he married his high-school sweetheart, Dorothy Jo Gideon, in 1945. The war ended before he could be shipped overseas to fight; the future Price Is Right host returned to Drury and, fittingly, graduated summa cum laude in economics.

He knew nothing about broadcasting, but he learned of a radio-station owner in Springfield who was an aviation buff, so Barker applied for a job at KTTS in his pilot’s uniform. So began a broadcasting career that would last more than 60 years. It soon took him to Los Angeles, where, despite having no industry contacts, he launched his own radio show within a week of his arrival in 1950. Dorothy Jo served as producer of The Bob Barker Show, a daily series that had Barker interviewing housewives and showcasing appliances. The program had been running for six years when early game-show guru Ralph Edwards heard it on his car radio and hired Barker to host NBC’s Truth or Consequences in 1956. He would remain the game show’s host for the next 18 years and 3,524 episodes.

Barker excelled at interacting with the Americans from all walks of life who would attend game-show tapings. On Truth or Consequences, it was up to him to pick audience members who’d be well suited for the various wacky challenges mounted during the “consequences” segments. On Truth, and later, on Price Is Right, Barker seemed to delight in learning about the lives of his contestants, letting them shine as he gave them their 15 minutes of fame. As he put it, the secret to being a good game-show host was simply to “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.”

In 1972, while still hosting Truth, he began the job for which he’d earn everlasting fame, hosting CBS’s hour-long daytime game show The Price Is Right. Over the next 35 years, he’d host more than 6,500 episodes, pulling people plucked from the audience onto the stage to guess the prices of consumer goods and win cars and other big-ticket prizes.

Throughout Barker’s tenure, the show was a smash with an intensely loyal following. So intense that, as Barker recalled, one audience member went into labor but refused to leave, lest she miss announcer Johnny Olson telling her to “Come on down!” and compete for prizes.

At Price Is Right, Barker would win 16 Daytime Emmys, earning prizes for producing and hosting, as well as a lifetime-achievement Emmy awarded in 1999. The year before, after he’d taped 5,000 episodes at Studio 33 at the CBS Television City studio in Hollywood, the network renamed the stage the Bob Barker Studio. In 2003, Barker’s 31st year on the show, he surpassed Tonight Show host Johnny Carson’s record for continuous performances on a single network show. In 2004, he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

As a living fixture at the network, it’s no wonder Barker felt comfortable enough to incorporate his activism into his seemingly apolitical job—he’d been slowly introduced to animal-rights activism by Dorothy Jo, who was a vegetarian and who politely declined to wear the furs and leather coats Bob had bought her over the years. Soon, he was ending every Price Is Right broadcast by saying, “Help control the pet population. Have your pets spayed or neutered.” And he didn’t stop there: in 1987, after he’d hosted the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants for 20 years, he threatened to walk if the Miss USA contestants wore furs. Pageant organizers met his demand, but the next year, when Barker asked them not to give furs as prizes, they balked, and he quit. In 1994, he started the DJ&T Foundation, named for his wife and his mother, which helps subsidize the cost of spaying and neutering pets. Since 2001, he has endowed programs in animal-rights law at such universities as Harvard, Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, U.C.L.A., Columbia, and Georgetown. In 2010, he paid for the renovation and purchase of a Los Angeles building for PETA, which named the building after him.

Barker was also secure enough in his job to become the first game-show host to stop dyeing his hair. The sixtysomething host revealed his natural gray without fanfare one day, returning from vacation after a taped run of dark-haired episodes. A shocked viewer wrote, “Bob, you must have had one hell of a night.” Barker claimed the show’s ratings actually rose after the shift.

Even into his Medicare years, Barker continued to project the virility of a younger man. In 1994, longtime Price Is Right spokesmodel Dian Parkinson sued him and the show for sexual harassment, claiming the host had coerced her into a sexual relationship in 1990, when he was 66. Barker, who’d lost Dorothy Jo to lung cancer in 1981 after 36 years of marriage, acknowledged the intimate relationship with Parkinson but claimed it was consensual. She dropped the sexual-harassment suit in 1995.

Barker, who’d studied karate under Chuck Norris, gained a new generation of fans when, after 46 years in Hollywood, he made his film debut in 1996’s Happy Gilmore. In a celebrated sequence, the 72-year-old Barker, playing himself, beats up 29-year-old Adam Sandler (as the title character) in a brawl on a golf course. The comic throw-down earned Barker an MTV Movie Award for best fight sequence. The emcee also credited himself with turning the former Saturday Night Live comic into a movie star. “Nobody heard of Adam Sandler until I beat him up,” he boasted.

Barker was 83 when he finally handed over The Price Is Right to Drew Carey in 2007. “I wanted to retire while I’m still young,” he quipped. Even in his retirement, he’d still pop up on The Price Is Right on special occasions well into his 90s. 

For all the fame and all the millions he’d earned by giving away millions to strangers, Barker never seemed to lose his common touch. He insisted that he was as ordinary as his fans. “They treat me as if I were a next-door neighbor. I’ve never been a cowboy or a detective or a doctor on television. I’ve been Bob Barker. They’ve seen my hair go gray.” As a result, he said, fans had an easy, jokey rapport with him, stopping him on the street and asking if he had a refrigerator to give away. “I love it. It means they watch me.”