Hook & Barrel talks to Pawn Star’s Rick Harrison to get the lowdown on the show, his life, and what it means to be an educator.
When Rick Harrison invited television cameras into his pawn shop a decade ago, he wasn’t banking on becoming an international celebrity and the most famous pawn broker in history, but you can bet he’s making the most of it.
The affable Harrison had always been a savvy businessman with an uncanny ability to turn a fast buck, and he knew the value of media exposure, too, so he was always looking for ways to draw more customers to the oddball all-night pawn shop in Las Vegas that he ran along with his father and son.
Pawn Stars: When A Reality Show Becomes Reality
He actively shopped around the idea of a reality television show for four years, he says, and his efforts ultimately paid off with a jackpot as Pawn Stars became the History Channel’s most popular program. The show is in its sixteenth season and airs in 38 different languages in more than 150 countries. Forty more episodes being filmed now will bring the total to nearly 600 shows since it hit the airwaves in 2009.
“I was just hoping for a season or two to help out with my business,” he says before letting go of one of those quick, easy laughs that we know so well from TV. His soft, wheezy cackle is a reminder that Harrison’s laid-back and likable nature is a huge reason for the show’s popularity, along with its educational slant and its funny focus on family.
But he’s not one of his show’s millions of viewers. In a routine that started when his bouts with childhood epilepsy forced him to miss lots of school, the 54-year-old Harrison would rather spend his leisure time curled up with a good book.
“I rarely see an episode,” he says. “I can’t stand to see myself on TV.”
He watches the numbers, though. “We’re consistently in the Top 25 of all shows on television, and that’s pretty significant when you figure that there are literally hundreds of channels with thousands of different shows every day. And I have the best rerun numbers on cable.”
The reality show has been great for business—he says some 3,000 people a day pass through the World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, which has become a popular tourist destination itself even though it’s a couple of miles removed from the famed and glitzy strip.
Life at ‘Gold & Silver’
These days, tourists shopping for souvenir shot glasses and bobble heads bump elbows with folks needing short-term loans on jewelry or seeking top dollars for cool collectibles. The commerce is brisk at Gold & Silver, and Harrison and his cohorts have parlayed their success into offshoot ventures.
When not at the shop or out on the road making public appearances, he slings drinks as a guest bartender once a week at Rick’s Rollin’ Smoke BBQ & Tavern, and he recently opened the doors to his Rick Harrison Collection, a high-end gallery/boutique inside the Venetian Hotel & Casino that features some of the pawn shop’s more prized acquisitions.
Scrappy Beginnings For Rick Harrison
The Harrisons had a family real estate business in San Diego in the 1980s until an economic downturn caused by high interest rates prompted them to look for new opportunities in Las Vegas. They opened their pawn shop in 1989, and it was the first to have an after-hours service window.
While many of the established corporate-owned pawn shops gave loans on bread-and-butter items like jewelry and electronics, Harrison from the start kept his eyes wide open for the interesting, rare, and unusual. This, he reasoned, would attract attention — and more cool stuff.
“I realized early on that I couldn’t be Walmart, I had to be Tiffany’s. So we were always this weird pawn shop that had Super Bowl rings and Picassos.”
He says he always figured that the shop’s family dynamic would be a winning formula for a reality show. For most of the show’s run, he was the literal middle man in the family hierarchy. His father, Richard, who was known to viewers as “the Old Man,” passed away in 2018 at the age of 77. He was a retired Navy man and lifelong hustler who played a valuable role in real life and on the show as the irascible elder, handing down his knowledge and know-how in a quiet (but sometimes cranky) manner.
Rick’s son, Corey, nicknamed “Big Hoss,” has shown increasing maturity and authority as he’s learned the ropes from his more experienced elders. And book-smart Harrison, despite his casual demeanor, has always relied on the street smarts that were partly handed down by his pop.
And, of course, there’s that sometimes-bumbling family chum whose real name is Austin Russell.
“Chumlee’s a huge part of the show,” Harrison says. “Everyone loves him. He purposely annoys me all day long because he knows he can get away with it. But, truly, he’s an amazing kid.”
Working With Epilepsy
Harrison knows his notoriety can be an asset, so he was happy to help out when he was asked a few years back to help bring attention to epilepsy. The violent seizures he had as a youngster left him bedridden for days at a time with ice packs to soothe his sore muscles. He missed so much school that he dropped out in the ninth grade — something that bothers him to this day.
Like many sufferers of childhood epilepsy, he grew out of it with no lasting consequences. But many others are not so fortunate. As a member of the Epilepsy Foundation’s Board of Directors, he helps to increase awareness, raise money for research, and lobby political decision makers to make changes in insurance regulations. He has personally visited members of Congress in their offices on Capitol Hill and also has an annual motorcycle run in southern Nevada that benefits the cause.
Remote Getaways Are A Passion
A longtime “adrenaline junkie,” Harrison likes to ride quad bikes at high speeds in the desert near his home and has a blast setting up makeshift ranges and firing off some of the unique artillery that has come into the shop, as we’ve seen him do on the show.
Filming and other production for Pawn Stars can take up to half the year, he says, so during that time he and his wife, Deanna, are tethered close to their home just outside the city. For some serious down time, he heads off to his 80-acre ranch in the Pacific Northwest.
“The other six months I live off the grid—and I mean that literally,” he says, punctuating that last point with that famous laugh. His family’s fir-shaded getaway in wild and scenic southern Oregon was first established 100 years ago as a fish hatchery along the Elk River, he says, and seems to have been the site of something more nefarious.
“We thought that maybe they had done some mining for gold up there, but we were doing some exploring a few years ago and found some of their moonshining equipment.”
The property has a dam, hydroelectric plant, and an aging steel-trussed bridge that had to be partially rebuilt, he says. Describing himself as “an amateur machinist” in addition to his many other interests, he says the upkeep and renovation of the improvements to this historic property have been a labor of love.
“We have ponds full of rainbow trout, and I built a barn for my two horses,” he says. “There’s a creek that goes through the property, and it generates hydroelectric power.” He uses wind turbines, solar panels, and lithium batteries to power three houses, two garages for his many cars, trucks, and motorcycles, and his machine shop.
“It’s a really neat place. It’s four miles, as the bird flies, from the Oregon coast,” he continues. “We enjoy hiking out here on the property as well as fishing and crabbing. We can fish for salmon or rainbow trout.” He likes to hunt, too, but the television production schedule prevents it. “We film in the late summer, fall, and winter, so that screws up the whole hunting season. It’s a shame because all I have to do is walk outside and I have deer—and elk sometimes, too.”
A History Teacher At Heart
While Harrison doesn’t seem to be at odds with his fairly newfound fame, he says he is especially proud of his role as an educator. He’s excited that the show’s recent format change from half-hour episodes to a full hour allows him to dig in even deeper on the historical background of items that come into the shop.
“People like to learn history, but they would rather learn it from an uncle than some boring professor,” he says. “If you can get them to laugh a little, people will remember something.”
Note: This piece originally published in December 2019.