Known to generations of Americans as the host of "The Price Is Right," Barker was just a local-radio personality half a century ago when producer Ralph Edwards was looking for someone to host one of his game shows.
"And on December 21st, 1956, at five minutes past 12 noon, Ralph called me and told me that I was to be the host of 'Truth or Consequences.' Now, that is the most important thing that had ever happened to me professionally or will ever happen to me professionally, because it changed my life," Barker said. (And he had lunch with Edwards every Dec. 21, toasting at exactly 12:05 p.m., until the producer died in 2005.)
He spent the next 18 years hosting "Truth." And he's spent the past 35 years hosting "Price," in the process becoming the most beloved game-show host in history.
Barker is retiring after a 50-year TV career that knows no parallel in the history of television. And it's not like he's being forced out of a job.
"The question that I'm hearing most often now is why did I choose to retire just now? And I will explain that to you," he said. "In December I became 83 years old, and I want to retire while I'm still young."
In a business where "game-show host" can be a pejorative, Barker stands apart. His fans range from preteens to college students (a lot of college students) to adults to retirees. "It's like playing center field. If it comes easy for you, why, you can just gracefully catch the fly balls as far as they might be hit," he said. "But if you weren't meant for center field, they better get you out of there. ... It has to be relaxing and fun.
"You don't watch 'The Price is Right' to solve the problems of the world. What we try to help you do is forget your problems for an hour, and in order to forget your problems, you have to be comfortable. And if you see a host up there who is anything but comfortable, you're not very comfortable either."
It's quickly clear to viewers that Barker is having a great time, and his enthusiasm leaps off the screen. "I have fun with the audience itself. I really enjoy what I do. ... Had I not enjoyed it so much, I probably would have retired a long time ago."
You won't catch him saying that he's better at it than his counterparts, only that he's different. "If you look at the successful hosts over the years, they're as different as all of us are," Barker said. "In my case, one thing at which I excel is listening. I listen to what the person I'm talking with is saying. I listen to what the contestant says. Some (hosts) are so concerned about what they're going to say next or how they're going to top this contestant that they're not really listening.
"When young hosts asks me my advice, I tell them, 'Listen, because those people are giving you little gems with which you can create laughter and have a great time."'
Barker has shepherded "Price" through 3 1/2 decades — and the show has remained pretty much the same as it was when it debuted (as "The New Price Is Right") in 1972.
A much different version of "Price," hosted by the late Bill Cullen, aired from 1956-65. Producer Mark Goodson reworked the show seven years later and asked Barker to host. "(Goodson) said, "I think we'll get a long run out of this.' But I don't think, as brilliant as he was, he was thinking of 35 years or more."
He theorized that the show's ongoing success is, in part, because "everyone identifies with prices. When we bring something out for a bid, I don't care ... what you do, you have an opinion. You think that bid's too high or that bid's too low or that's a good bid. Whatever you think, you're involved. Every game show wants viewer involvement. And we get it to the nth degree." (Barker, by the way, said he would be "a terrible contestant. I know nothing about prices. I've never paid any attention because I can't win.")
He called "The Price is Right" "an old-fashioned show" that succeeds because "it's a people show. It is a game show, but I have a very flexible format."
He can have fun with a contestant for several minutes, knowing he can make the time up later in the hour. "We do 'Price is Right' just as if it were a live show. ... What you see is what you get. We don't edit. And I think that's important. People like live television, and that's what we're doing."
Barker is also frequently asked what he's going to do after retirement. "Perhaps I'm missing something, but I thought that after you retire, you didn't have to do anything," he said. "However, I do have a plan. I'm going into bodybuilding and eventually (plan to) become governor of the state of California."
Not surprisingly, he's going to continue to work with his foundation to subsidize having pets spayed or neutered across the United States. And he's also working on other animal-rights issues. "To put it mildly, I'm busy, so far as animals are concerned. And I will be busier."
He knows he'll miss doing the show when he tapes his last episode in June. "Of course. ... I expect to miss it," Barker said. "But this is an appropriate time for me to retire. It's not just that I want to retire while I'm young. It marks the 50th anniversary of my time on television. Half a century. And it marks the 35th year of 'The Price is Right.' We're way up there in the ratings, right on top. And we have people lined up, sleeping out there on the sidewalk, to see our show.
"And I want to go out on top."
Born: Dec. 12, 1923. At age 83, he is the oldest man to ever host a game show and the oldest to host a weekday TV program of any kind.
Hosted: "Truth or Consequences" (from 1956-74) and "The Price Is Right" — the longest-running game show in TV history — since 1972. Holds the record for holding a weekday TV job continuously for 50 years.
Won: A total of 17 Emmy Awards — 13 as TV host (more than any other performer), three as executive producer of "The Price Is Right" and the Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award for Daytime Television in 1999. Barker was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2004.
CBS will air two prime-time specials honoring him: "Bob Barker: A Celebration of 50 Years On Television" (Tuesday, 7 p.m., Ch. 2); and a "Million Dollar Spectacular" edition of "The Price Is Right" (Wednesday, 7 p.m., Ch. 2).
His last episode of "Price" is scheduled to tape June 6 and air June 15. Reruns continue through September.
CBS renamed Stage 33 at CBS Television City "The Bob Barker Studio" after the 5,000th episode of "Price" in 1998.
The cable GSN channel will pay tribute to Barker with a slate of programming May 15th-19th, featuring him on a number of classic game shows, including "I've Got a Secret," "Family Feud," "Match Game" and "Tattletales."