Bob Barker, Who Ruled the Game Show Universe With Mischief and Charm, Has Died at 99

Mark Davis
Mark Davis

More than Sajak, more than Trebek, more than Dawson, Bob Barker deserves his place on the Mt. Rushmore of game-show hosts. Longevity alone would earn him a spot: For more than six decades he hosted Truth or Consequences and The Price Is Right. And when he wasn’t running game shows, he was emceeing beauty pageants, hosting Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day parades, and supplying voice talent for Futurama and SpongeBob.

But outlasting his competition was not his only claim to fame. Barker, who died Saturday morning of natural causes at the age of 99, according to TMZ, always had an edge that the others lacked.

“It is with profound sadness that we announce that the World’s Greatest MC who ever lived, Bob Barker has left us,” Barker’s publicist, Roger Neal, said Saturday, NBC News reported.

A string of celebrities dished out condolences and warm memories on social media after the announcement.

“I cannot believe Bob Barker lived as close to 100 as possible without going over,” TV writer Louis Virtel wrote on X, referring to classic The Price is Right rules.

Actor Rob Schneider remembered how grateful Barker was for his hilarious acting role in Adam Sandler’s film Happy Gilmore.

“One of the nicest things I ever heard in show business was Bob Barker saying, ‘I moved to Hollywood to be an actor and the only person who ever let me do it was Adam Sandler!’” Schneider tweeted along with a clip of Barker’s cameo in the 1996 film. “This scene with them was and will always be absolutely hilarious! God bless you, Bob.”

#SpayAndNeuter your pets in his honor,” actor Yvette Nicole Brown wrote, referencing Barker’s longtime animal rights campaign.

Behind Barker’s smooth, professional delivery, there was always a little snark peeking out. And that was pure Barker: on one of his first jobs as a radio announcer on KTTS in Springfield, Missouri, he signed off one night with a not very subtle dig at the drinking habits of a fellow announcer: “This is KTTS—Keep Ted Tucker Sober in Springfield, Missouri.” That wisecrack foreshadowed controversial ad libs that peppered his 50 years in television. With Barker, you just never knew. That’s why you kept tuning in.

He was born Dec. 12, 1923, in Derrington, Washington—quite by accident. His father was an electric rail foreman, and the family was living in a tent city while his father was on the job. His mother, the daughter of a Methodist minister, gave birth to Bob in the doctor’s home in Derrington, and she and her infant son stayed a few days before returning to the tent city. From there, the family returned to the Rosebud Indian Reservation near Mission, South Dakota, where his mother was a teacher (his father was one quarter Sioux). At Central High School, he played basketball and received a basketball scholarship to Drury College, right across the street from the high school. In college he worked at its radio station, where he first caught the announcing bug. But two years into his college career, World War II broke out and Barker enlisted as a Naval Aviation Cadet. He got his wings in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1944, and he and his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Jo, married a year later. The couple remained married until her death in 1981.

When the war ended, he decided to make a go at radio. Dressed in his naval officer’s uniform with his Wings of Gold, he applied at KTTS in Springfield. G. Pierson Ward, a flight enthusiast, spoke with Bob about airplanes for 30 minutes, and that’s all it took to land his first radio job. The sponsor was Hires Root Beer. He started each sportscast with, “Hires to ya!” It was here that Bob did his first audience participation show, what would later be called “game shows.” The seed was planted for live, unscripted shows like Truth or Consequences and The Price is Right.

Barker was hired as a news editor and staff announcer at WWPG in Palm Beach, Florida. There the closest he got to his dream of developing an audience participation show was playing Santa Claus at a store where he was the self-described greatest “Santa Claus in the history of radio.” “I lived it and loved it and had more fun talking to those kids, and their parents, in some cases, too. And we had got lots of laughs and got mail from more adults than we did kids.” The Barkers spent a year in Palm Beach before deciding to follow Bob’s dream of a national show to Los Angeles in 1950.

In Hollywood, without an agent or any contacts, he found the competition fierce. Stations were looking for the bawdy, deep voices popular at the time, and his thin, Midwestern tone just wasn’t cutting it. So he circumvented the system by seeking a job as a salesman at KFMV, one of the country’s earliest FM outlets. His pitch was to sell an audience participation show that he would host. The sales manager knew Bob was green and hadn’t sold a show, but he also needed to expand the FM station to the San Fernando radio market.

So the two drove out to the Valley to pitch Bob’s idea to a supermarket. And failed. On the way back to Hollywood, the sales manager stopped by an appliance store to pick up some mod cons he needed for an apartment building he managed. While they were there, Bob made his pitch again for an audience-participation show, and the appliance store owner bought it. He offered Bob the use of the Department of Water and Power Auditorium on Lankershim Boulevard, where Bob began hosting some cooking and laundry demos using ranges and washer dryers. The show’s success convinced Southern California Edison to offer their auditoriums to Bob, too, and then Westinghouse wanted in. All this interest led to Bob’s first television appearance on Your Big Moment, a talent show that offered air time to talented—and not so talented—people. Nobody became a star by appearing on Your Big Moment, and often there weren’t enough people lined up for a full show, so sometimes producers had to grab “talent” from nearby bars to pad attendance. The show lasted 13 episodes, but it gave Bob a taste for television.

He continued hosting The Bob Barker Show on radio until 1956, when Ralph Edwards, creator of the game show Truth or Consequences, heard Barker on the air and liked his voice and style. Edwards was looking for a new host and Barker’s experience with live audiences and banter with regular people paid off.

When Barker began hosting Truth and Consequences, it was broadcast live in front of an audience. The show—more prank show than game show—was scripted, but the writers were really idea men who created situations where Bob had to ad lib, something at which he proved adept. Truth or Consequences soon became the number one show in daytime television, a slot it owned for 18 years.

In 1972, Barker began hosting The Price is Right, the first hour-long game show, which remained the number-one ranked game show for almost 30 years. Johnny Olson, the announcer, originated the enthusiastic “Come on down!” He had also come from radio. Instead of fresh ideas, the show relied on tradition, and its low-tech look endeared it to audiences. During Barker’s tenure, there were about 70 games in rotation. The games with the biggest prizes were played every three weeks. For example, the Golden Road (“At the end of the Golden Road, we always have something spectacular!”) If a contestant made it all the way down the Golden Road, there was a prize worth $60,000. But nobody ever won it. (The game wasn’t rigged, just difficult.)

About 10 years after The Price is Right started, Barker’s wife Dorothy Jo’s animal rights activism inspired him to end each show with, “This is Bob Barker reminding you to help control the pet population—have your pets spayed or neutered."

Although Truth and Consequences and The Price is Right account for most of his show business resume, Barker also appeared in the Adam Sandler comedy Happy Gilmore (1996) (he beats up Sandler’s character). He has also voiced himself in the animated television shows Futurama and Family Guy, and in SpongeBob SquarePants he played Bob Barnacle. In 1966, he was guest host on The Tonight Show, co-hosted CBS’ coverage of the Rose Parade several times from 1970-1980, and emceed the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants from 1967-1987.

Anyone who survives on television for more than half a century is riding on more than luck, and Barker knew whom to thank: “I am grateful that the television viewers are the people who have made my life such a joy. The viewers decide who will stay.”

Brooke Leigh Howard contributed to this story

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