05/21/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT
I used to be in and out of makeup in 15 minutes, and now I come in the day before," jokes Bob Barker, eyeing his reflection in the dressing room mirror as his 83-year-old face is carefully powdered. His makeup artist smiles, flicking a brush across his forehead. "Keep your eyes open," she says as she applies a final touch-up before a recent taping of The Price Is Right. "I will," says Barker, with a sardonic arch of his brow. "Otherwise, it'll look like you're embalming me."
Whoa, hold on there. Life is hardly over for Barker—though TPIR fans may mourn next month when the silver-haired host walks away from his nearly 35-year post as emcee and executive producer of TV's longest-running game show. A friend to generations of shoppers (and kids home sick from school), Barker tapes his final episode on June 6. His on-air retirement party includes two CBS prime-time specials on May 16 and May 17. And when he utters his sign-off one last time—" Bob Barker reminding you: Help control the pet population. Have your pets spayed or neutered. Goodbye, everybody"—he'll have given away cash and prizes worth over $800 million, earning 17 Daytime Emmys in the process.
With his health and his ratings still strong, why quit now? "Not many 83-year-old men wake up knowing they'll have a standing ovation, and I'll miss that," says Barker, who shoots five episodes a week. "But this is a demanding schedule even for a younger man. I can't catch a cold, or we don't tape. I look forward to not having the responsibility." (Or the accidents: Contestants jumping for joy have crushed his toes and bashed his chin, and one hugged him so hard, it tore cartilage in his ribs.) It helps that his half brother Kent Valandra, 68, a retired ad exec, is also in L.A. Says Barker: "I told him I'm doing this because he needs someone to play with."
The World's Greatest Emcee—according to the "W.G.M.C." plaque his staff put on his dressing room door years ago—spent his early days on the South Dakota prairie. He later moved to Springfield, Mo., where he fell in love with Dorothy Jo Gideon after their first date at an Ella Fitzgerald concert when they were 15. The pair eloped six years later, then tackled Barker's showbiz dreams, first on radio, then TV, when in 1956 he became host of Truth or Consequences, a quiz show with wacky stunts that paved the way for TPIR 16 years later.
"I had confidence in The Price Is Right," says Barker of its Sept. 4, 1972, launch. "But we could not have predicted its success. From day one, it was a hit." Viewers tuned in for his easy rapport with contestants and his knack for spinning mishaps—one of the Barker's Beauties crashing a car onstage or a young woman popping out of her tube top on her way to Contestants' Row—into comedic gold. "[I'm] the old man they watched all these years doing fun games with people of all colors cheering each other on," he says. "It's an atmosphere that hardly exists anyplace else."
That atmosphere helped Barker cope when he lost Dorothy Jo to lung cancer in 1981. "It nearly tore him apart," says Kent. "Thank god for the show." Says Bob: "I never got over it. I still miss her terribly." After Dorothy Jo's death, Barker sought refuge in work, which included hosting a self-titled traveling game show. Vowing not to marry again, he's been dating animal-rights activist Nancy Burnet, 63, on and off (now off) for about 20 years. "Right now she's unhappy with me, so I'm not sure we'll get back together," he says ruefully.
Though she won't comment on their relationship, Burnet says, "I'm always interested in working with him on animal-related projects." Even in retirement, Barker plans to be more hands-on with the DJ&T Foundation, his animal-rights nonprofit group (see box). "Bob will stop for animals that need help," says Burnet. "If you see someone [by the freeway] trying to pick up a [stray] dog with cookies in his hand, it could be Bob Barker." Barker hasn't always been portrayed in such sweet terms; he declines to speak about the sexual harassment and several wrongful termination lawsuits he has faced since 1994 from former Barker's Beauties and other show staffers, all of which were either dropped, dismissed or settled out of court. But now Barker looks forward to a more peaceful life out of the spotlight, spending time alone in his Hollywood home, reading biographies and watching the NBA playoffs.
One thing he won't do? Worry about his replacement. "If [the show] falls on its face, it ain't my fault," he says with a laugh. Mario Lopez, John O'Hurley and George Hamilton have been considered. A producer even asked How I Met Your Mother's Neil Patrick Harris if he was interested. (He impressed staffers when he filmed scenes with Barker on the TPIR set for his sitcom.) But no one has been hired yet. "My advice to the next host is don't imitate me or it won't work," says Barker. Meanwhile, his staff is in denial. "We do not know life [here] without Bob," says longtime TPIR producer Roger Dobkowitz. "I don't know how I'm going to deal with it." Barker feels the same way: "I love the people I work with. We'll cry [on my last day]. Roger says we'll have bundles of tissues."
The next morning, the man who's spent his life thriving on the energy of his audience must face the sudden silence. "I don't know how I'll feel the first time I wake up and think, 'No show,'" he says. But he has a plan. "I told my housekeeper, once I retire, she's to stand up and applaud every time I walk into the room." And if that's not enough? Says Barker with a grin: "I'll hire a second housekeeper."