TOSSING A BALL TO HIS FAITHFUL MUTT Federico in the backyard of his Spanish-style Hollywood home, the host of TV's longest running game show seems cheerful and willing to talk about anything: his several cosmetic surgeries, the occasional skin cancers he develops from daily sunbathing ("They're easy to cut out if you catch them early")—even the accusation of sexual harassment leveled at him recently by Dian Parkinson, a model who worked with him on The Price Is Right for 18 years. "I think any man would find it difficult to talk about his sex life with the press," he says, "but this is what I have to do. I never thought it would happen to me. I'm 70 years old. The sexual revolution in my life came when I was out of ammunition."

Not quite. There is no disagreement over whether Barker, a widower since 1981, and the unmarried Parkinson, 49, had a physical relationship. Nor is either party contending that love had anything to do with the liaisons that, by Barker's account, took place at his house, at her San Fernando Valley apartment and in his dressing room at Price studios in L.A. At issue, rather, is whether Parkinson's involvement with Barker cost her her $120,000-a-year job. In a letter her attorney sent Barker early in May, Parkinson claimed that she had sex with her boss only because she feared losing her job, which she quit in 1993. She is asking for $8 million to settle out of court. Barker responded on May 26 with a press conference at which he angrily challenged Parkinson to sue. "She is not telling the truth," he says. "I think it's an injustice to the women who really are suffering when a woman files a cynical lawsuit for personal gain."

Parkinson, who still receives $1,000 a week from the show as part of a two-year severance package, did not respond to a request from PEOPLE for an interview; her attorney, Thomas M. Celli, said she was upset by Barker's "media blitz" and had "gone into seclusion.'' Barker, however, was anything but reticent in discussing what he calls "a fling—a short, meaningless relationship" that he says Parkinson initiated in December 1989. "She told me I had always been so straitlaced that it was time I had some hanky-panky in my life," he says. "She volunteered to provide the hanky-panky."

Some of their coworkers on Price claim they knew what was going on. "She was extremely flagrant with the flirting and the touchy-touchy," says India Ditto, who retired as Barker's hairdresser in 1992. "I was afraid of cutting her fingers because she had her hands in his hair all the time." On one occasion, Ditto says, Parkinson ducked her head under the smock draping Barker and simulated oral sex. "He turned red as a beet," she says. "Maybe it was a joke, but she definitely wanted everyone to know they were involved."

This did not sit well with the show's other models, Janice Pennington and Holly Hallstrom. "[Parkinson] used that as a source of power," says Pennington, 38, a Price regular since 1972 and the author of what she calls a no-holds-barred book about the show, due out this fall. "People found themselves tiptoeing around her, making sure she had nothing to run to Bob with." For his part, Barker says the possibility of problems in the workplace was one reason he cut off the relationship in September 1991. "I didn't want the others to believe I would favor Dian because we were having sex," he says.

Barker has always kept his romantic life uncomplicated. Dorothy Jo Barker, who died of cancer, had been his high school sweetheart back in Springfield, Mo., then his wife for 37 years. Since about 1984 he has had what he calls an on-again, off-again relationship with animal-rights activist Nancy Burnet, 50. Parkinson, he says, "was not someone with whom I would wish to spend any lime. I never even took her to lunch." When he broke off the relationship, he says, "she did not become angry. She simply said, 'All right,' and left."

So far no lawsuit has been filed. But Laurence Labovitz, one of Parkinson's lawyers, maintains that the full story has not been told. "When the allegations are set forth with her complaint," Labovitz says, "you're going to find that Mr. Barker has not only been inaccurate but untruthful in his account."

Barker, of course, insists otherwise. "I suppose there are going to be people who believe that I forced that woman to have sex with me," he notes. "All I can do is assure them that the sex I had with her was voluntary. I wasn't hurt, she wasn't hurt. No one was hurt—until now."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
JOHN HANNAH in Hollywood

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  • John Hannah.