The former 'Price Is Right' host's partner opens up to PEOPLE about their 40 years together, their passion for animal rights activism, and the "mutual humor" they possessed through life
The former Price Is Right host, who died on Saturday at age 99, was emceeing an animal adoption day in Downey, California with actor Earl Holliman in March 1983. Burnet, an animal rights activist involved with animal legislation, had heard about Barker’s event and hoped he would help raise awareness around a proposal she had to stop pet stores from selling chicks and ducklings around Easter time.
Barker was already a big TV star then, but Burnet — who almost chose to skip the event — tells PEOPLE she didn’t watch daytime television.
“I knew almost nothing about him really,” Burnet says. “I knew he did The Price Is Right. I knew that he was interested in animals, and he had the format to get the word out.”
The Price Is Right star passed on Burnet’s request, but he did ask her out for dinner that day.
"He said, ‘I'll bet you are a wild-eyed radical.’ I said, ‘Well, I don't know about the ‘wild-eyed’ part,’" she recalls.
It would be another day or two before their schedules aligned, and the pair went out. But over their lunches and dinners, where Barker would travel to her in San Clemente and she would meet him in Los Angeles, the two bonded over their mutual love for animals.
For Barker and Burnet, it was the start of a love and enduring friendship that would span four decades. Through the height of his fame and into his twilight years, they maintained a unique relationship.
"He had such an amazing, productive life,” Burnet says. “He was a natural, but he worked hard. Everything he accomplished, he accomplished himself because of hard work.”
While Barker hosted The Price Is Right, he also became a crusader for animal rights, alongside Burnet. “He was willing to use his name value,” she explains. “He was willing to stand up when things were controversial.”
Burnet founded and served as president of United Activists for Animal Rights in 1987, an animal rights group, with Barker's support. The couple led an investigation into the 1987 film Project X, starring Matthew Broderick, which resulted in the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation requesting animal cruelty criminal charges be filed during the film’s production.
The Price Is Right host also founded the DJ&T Foundation in 1994, which provided spaying and neutering services for a low cost. (Burnet took over the foundation in 2000.)
"I can't tell you the millions of animals, because of his name value and his speaking out, that were not born doomed, never to be adopted, because there just aren't enough homes," she explains. "It made a difference."
Though the two were committed to animal rights at home, their work also followed them on their their travels, which they did a lot of during the mid-1980s through the early 1990s.
"We were in the Cayman Islands, and we were shopping one day, when we saw a flyer that said that a circus was coming in, and they were going to bring these poor animals in by boat," Burnet recalls.
The couple tried to organize a protest, contacting local media and humane organizations before leaving, although it never happened.
During a trip to Hawaii, Barker and Burnet found a scarred pit bull loose in a tourist area, begging for food. The two believed the dog had been in a fight since they noticed a piece of skin on its side had been ripped away.
"The top layer of skin was gone and it had healed over, but it was awful," she recalls. "It was a terrible scar."
"The animal control person said, 'No, this is not dog fighting. This is pig hunting,'" she adds. "The islanders would take their dogs, their pit bulls, to go after a boar. And of course, the boars are pretty tough animals and they have tusks. And if a dog was injured, they'd leave it. We were trying to do something about that. But that did not go over well, because that's a tradition. Our opinions were not very popular."
While it was previously reported Barker had no interest in remarrying in the years after his first wife Dorothy Jo Gideon died in 1981, Burnet says Barker proposed to her "many times."
"Neither of us had any desire ever to be married again, and he believed it when we first started seeing each other," she explains. "But as the years went by, he proposed to me many times. I just said, 'I just don't want to be married.' Our humor was very dry. We kidded in a way. And he said, 'Not even to me?' And I said, 'Especially not to you.'"
Barker, however, remained very persistent, according to Burnet. In 2011, he had his attorney in Los Angeles draft a prenup without consulting her.
"He had his attorney send it to me," she continues. "I said, 'I just don't want to do this. I'm not going to accept this.' And he said, 'Well, if you don't like the terms of the prenup, take it to your own attorney. You can change it.' I never did do it."
Even in 2019, during Barker’s final years — and more than a decade after Burnet says their relationship had become more platonic — Barker, once again, brought up the idea of getting hitched.
"There was a difference, a 19-and-a-half, 20-year difference in our ages, so I said, 'What would people think here?'" she says. "And he said, 'Oh, I don’t care what they think.' He was interested in doing it anyway. He didn’t care."
Barker had long retired from The Price Is Right by then, stepping down from his hosting duties in 2007, and leading a quiet life in his Hollywood Hills home with Burnet, using a walker to move around.
The two would occasionally go out, but enjoyed spending time at home, playing chess "until I beat him one time and he wouldn’t play with me anymore," she quips.
Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.
They had a glass of wine most evenings, discussing their interests: his love for golf and the shooting range, her affinity for animals.
"He once said to me, 'I could be happy with you in Dubuque, Iowa,'" she recalls. "I said, 'Dubuque, why would you say that?' He says, 'I don't know. It came to me, and I don't think there's a lot going on there.' Just having that mutual humor, finding each other amusing, that helped pass the time."
Reflecting on their 40 years together, Burnet adds that besides their appreciation for animals, she offered the TV legend something few others did.
"I think the thing that he liked most about me is that I may have been the only person who treated him like anyone else," she explains. "I did not baby him or fawn over him, or you know how people are with celebrities. I was never like that. He was a person. I was very honest and direct with him. Everybody needs someone to keep them at ground level, and I was that person. I think he could depend on me, and he trusted me and respected me."
Barker's larger legacy is a considerable one. As the longest-running game show host of the longest-running game show in U.S. history, the TV star was a pop culture fixture and familiar face to generations of viewers.
Barker will also be remembered in the years for his adamant support of animal rights, from his unique sign-off message at the end of The Price Is Right, reminding viewers to get their pets spayed and neutered to his work through his organizations.
"He liked the idea that people found joy in watching these shows," Burnet says. "He used to receive letters from some of them saying, 'We try to schedule our classes so that we can watch the show.'"
"But the thing I think he'd like to be remembered for most of all would be his work for animals," she adds. "He changed America and maybe some other countries. He educated people and raised their awareness so that they started asking questions. His message, I think, brought that home."
For more People news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!
Read the original article on People.