The time is right for the coolest 83-year-old in television to step away from

The Price Is Right

. "This is an appropriate time for me to retire," Bob Barker says. "It's not just that I want to retire while I'm young. It marks the 50th anniversary of my time on television, and it marks the 35th year of

The Price Is Right

." (Before that, he hosted

Truth or Consequences

.)

"We're way up there in the ratings, right on top. We have people lined up, sleeping on the sidewalk, to see our show. I want to go out on top."

The most astonishing thing about the people who camp out to get into The Price Is Right is their age - they're mostly college students. An ancient game show hosted by an octogenarian would seem an unlikely magnet for the kegger crowd.

Barker finds it amazing, too. "If I could explain that, I could make millions of dollars. Every show, not just game shows, would love to have what we have going for us."

He speculates that there are two reasons. "About 10, 15 years ago, we had a group of college kids come to the show. I mentioned they were there. Then another group showed up, then another. It began to catch on. Now we have two, sometimes three college groups at every taping. They make good contestants. They give the show energy. It's a cult thing now."

A brief appearance, punctuated by a memorable line, in Adam Sandler's Happy Gilmore also might have something to do with Barker's idol status among young people.

"I don't tape a show that someone in the audience doesn't bring up, 'Did you like beating up Adam Sandler?' They loved that movie, particularly young men," he said.

"Then they will say, 'Do the line, Bob. Do the line.' " He has even worked out a routine with crew members. He asks if there's time to do the line and they say no. This leads to more pleas from the young people, until Barker relents, as he intended to all along.

"I've told them, I've been in television for 50 years and what am I going to be remembered for? 'The price is wrong, bitch.' "

One of the few unpleasant memories Barker will take from the show also might have enhanced his street credibility, albeit for the wrong reasons. Over the years, several of Barker's Beauties, the models who show off the prizes, have filed suit for sexual harassment or other offenses related to backstage hanky-panky. One of the Beauties, former Miss USA Dian Parkinson, admitted having an affair with Barker.

The lawsuits have generally been settled out of court, although Barker says this has not been his choice. "I didn't choose to settle any of them. I chose to go to court." Barker's position is the lawsuits were frivolous, "based on distortions, exaggerations and outright falsehoods."

However, for the owners of the show, the price was right to settle. "I understand that," Barker said. "It's good business to settle when you can for far less than the lawsuit would cost."

Barker's farewell will not be a case of here today, gone tomorrow. CBS is giving him an extended send-off not seen since Johnny Carson's final days on The Tonight Show.

Prime-time specials saluting The Price Is Right and its host are scheduled Wednesday and Thursday. A couple of weeks ago, he was featured on the comedy How I Met Your Mother.

Barker expects to tape the final daytime edition of The Price Is Right early next month, scheduled to air several weeks later. He'll continue to be a presence in reruns through the summer. His eventual replacement - George Hamilton and John O'Hurley are the names most often mentioned - won't debut until September.

Barker is stepping away from TV, but he will continue to crusade for animal rights, a passion he has had for decades. He established a foundation that subsidizes the spaying and neutering of pets and is working on having zoo elephants transplanted to a more natural environment.