September 06, 1999 12:00 PM

It’s five minutes to air on The Price Is Right, and Bob Barker is putting on a fashion show in his dressing room. As staffers look on, Barker, 75, the CBS game show’s tanned, silver-haired emcee and executive producer, walks around in shoes and socks, monogrammed shirt—and a pair of red-and-green boxer shorts. “Bob likes to stand around in his undershorts. This is second nature to him,” confides longtime Price Is Right prize model Janice Pennington. “Nobody minds. He’s got good-looking legs. And his undershorts are never too provocative.” They are intriguing, however. “These are little rottweilers in the snow,” Barker explains, pointing out the forlorn canines that adorn his boxers. “I like them because I’ve always had sympathy for the underdog.”

And for polar bears, otters, lions and other creatures whose framed portraits attest to Barker’s fervor as an animal-rights activist. In response to what Barker calls “the terrible population explosion of animals,” he ends every Price Is Right by urging viewers to have their cats and dogs neutered or spayed.

Still, his main love remains the show itself, and after quickly donning his $2,500 black suit, it’s time for Barker to greet his revved-up Hollywood studio audience. The 5,219th time, to be precise. Barker is now in his 28th year as host of Price, TV’s longest-running game show. Since 1956, some 40,000 contestants have heeded the call to “Come on down!” and scooped up more than $200 million in prizes, ranging from beach blankets and boats to blenders and Buicks.

And halfway through his eighth decade, Barker, who has collected 13 Daytime Emmys, still projects a youthful exuberance. “He hasn’t lost any of his enthusiasm, and I think that’s what keeps the franchise alive,” says TV critic Matt Roush. During a commercial break, the crowd peppers him with questions. “How do you stay so slim?” asks a woman. “I’m a vegetarian, I work out, and I don’t smoke,” replies the 176-lb., 6’1″ host, who was once trained in karate by Chuck Norris and who still kicks and boxes for up to an hour most mornings.

Then comes the almost inevitable “Will you marry me, Bob?” question, from a matronly audience member. Backstage later, he chuckles: “Some of them propose, but never seriously.” In any case, Barker, a widower since his wife of 37 years died of cancer at 57 in 1981, says he would decline. “I’ll never marry again,” he says. “Dorothy Jo was the love of my life.”

“She was a very funny woman,” recalls Pennington. “Once, somebody asked her what is the secret of her happy marriage. ‘Two things,’ she said. ‘I love Bob Barker, and Bob Barker loves Bob Barker.’ ”

“Am I vain? Yes,” says Barker. “But I have a lot less to be vain about than I used to,” a possible allusion to the face-lift he cheerfully admits to undergoing in 1990 or the numerous skin cancers that the lifelong sun worshipper has had removed. Oh, and there’s one more thing he’s not shy about discussing. “Am I still sexually active?” he asks. “Put it this way: In that particular area I have been blessed. I don’t have to settle for just conversational intimacy.” Then he adds, “I do think that sexual desire becomes less urgent when you’re older. Which is not a bad thing.”

He speaks from what may be rueful experience. In 1989, eight years after Dorothy Jo’s death, Barker embarked on a steamy backstage fling with Dian Parkinson, a Price Is Right model. “She told me I had always been so straitlaced that it was time I had some hanky-panky in my life,” he told PEOPLE. The relationship ended in 1991. The reason? “I heard that she was using her relationship with me to have her way on the set.” In 1994, a year after leaving the show, Parkinson filed an $8 million sexual-harassment suit against Barker, claiming she had sex with him only because she feared being fired. An angry Barker called a press conference to deny Parkinson’s charges. A year later, his accuser withdrew her suit. (“I did not have the emotional endurance to stay with the suit and the financial backing to continue,” a married Parkinson, 53, says today.) As for Barker, “the only regret I have about the whole affair,” he says, “is that I ever met her.”

For the past 15 years, Barker, who lives alone in the 15-room Spanish-style Hollywood mansion he shared with Dorothy Jo, has enjoyed an on-and-off romance with Nancy Burnet, a fellow animal-rights activist whom he first met in 1983. Burnet, 56, who lives an hour away in San Bernardino and—like Dorothy Jo—calls him Barker, chats with him by phone at least twice a week. “I’m very active in my work, and I don’t have a great deal of time for a full-time relationship with anyone,” she says. “When I do have time, Barker is the person I’m interested in spending it with. We are very, very comfortable together.”

Barker’s own love of animals can be traced to the succession of dogs he owned as a youngster. His father, Byron, a power-line foreman who traveled the West with his wife, Matilda, a schoolteacher, died from complications after falling off a pole in 1930 when Bob, their only child, was 6. A year later, Matilda took a job teaching at the Rosebud Indian Reservation in Mission, S.Dak. “I was surrounded by Indians,” Barker recalls. “Cowboys tied up their horses at hitching rails. It was like I was growing up in the Old West.” When he was 12, his mother wed Louis Valandra, a tire salesman, with whom she had a son, Kent, now 61 and an L.A. advertising executive, who still meets Barker regularly for dinner.

At 15, Bob, then a junior at Central High School in Springfield, Mo., where the family had moved, asked classmate Dorothy Jo Gideon out to an Ella Fitzgerald concert. “We fell in love as kids,” he says. “And we stayed in love.” But they didn’t marry until 1945, when Barker, then 21 and on leave as a Navy pilot, eloped with Dorothy Jo to St. Louis.

Back in civvies in 1947 and trying to make ends meet while earning a degree in economics from Springfield’s Drury College, Barker landed a job as sportscaster and deejay at a local radio station. One day he was asked to pinch-hit as emcee of an audience participation show and came away loving it. Dorothy Jo told him, he recalls, ” ‘This is what you should do.’ ” She became his sidekick, singing commercial jingles in a string of L.A. -based radio talent shows, until Ralph Edwards, the producer-creator of TV’s Truth or Consequences, tapped Barker to succeed him as its host in 1956. Barker hosted the show, in which he egged on contestants to perform crazy stunts, for 18 years.

In 1981, Dorothy Jo, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died six months later. “Bob went into this deep depression and was a totally different person for two or three years,” says Kent. He pulled himself out of it through work. “I immersed myself in it,” Barker says. “I just tried to stay busy.” His animal-rights activism meant so much to him that he quit as host of the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants in 1988 when organizers insisted on using a fur coat as one of the prizes. In 1998 he and Burnet even took on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, alleging that the show mistreated horses; an SPCA-L.A. investigation backed them up.

There is one battle, though, that the grand old man of game shows has long since conceded. About ten years ago, while on vacation, he decided to stop dyeing his hair after repeated colorings began to turn it pink. When he returned to work, his locks were shocking white. “And I got a postcard from a [viewer] in the Midwest who said, ‘Bob, you must have had one hell of a night!’ ”

Michael A. Lipton

John Hannah in Los Angeles

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