The untold truth of Richard 'Old Man' Harrison

Known affectionately as the "Old Man," Richard Benjamin Harrison was the ever-scowling, irascible patriarch of Pawn Stars, the wildly popular History Channel reality show that tracks the daily dealings of the World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas. Harrison passed away June 25, 2018, after "a long battle with Parkinson's," according to his son, Rick Harrison's Instagram. He was 77 years old. The pawn shop's official Facebook page posted a remembrance that said, in part: "He will be remembered as the best father, grandfather and great-grandfather you could have by his family and by fans as the sometimes grumpy (always loving, however), often wisecracking, and voice of absolute reason on [Pawn Stars]."

A beloved figure to TV audiences, Harrison also led a colorful life beyond the glass counters and smoky backroom of his buy-and-sell emporium. As a Navy veteran, he traveled the world, but he was also a born hustler, who never missed an opportunity to make a buck. Let's take a look at the untold truth of Richard "Old Man" Harrison.

His first great deal

Though Richard Harrison achieved great success later in life with both the pawn shop and the reality show, one of the untold truths about his life is that he started from humble beginnings. His son, pawn shop co-owner Rick Harrison, put it this way in his 2011 autobiography, License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and My Life at the Gold & Silver: "They were dirt-poor white trash, left to survive on their wits for the most part."  

The Old Man became a hustler early, driving a school bus at just 14-years-old — apparently this was legal at the time in rural North Carolina where he grew up — and earning "five or six dollars a week." He also got into a bit of trouble. At 17 years old, he was busted for stealing a car and presented with a choice by the judge: the military or jail.

The Old Man chose to serve and unwittingly embarked on a career that would take him around the world for the next two decades of his life.

Anchors Aweigh

According to his interview with You Served, Richard Harrison enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1958 and served until 1979. He spent 14 years of his military career deployed, listing the Spanish ports of Barcelona and Madrid as his favorite spots. He spent time on four ships, but he most enjoyed his last assignment, which was more than five years on a small "fleet tug" with only 76 people aboard it.

In a passage he wrote for his son's aforementioned autobiography, Harrison said there was a 14-month gap in his service after he left in 1962, but he reenlisted to get medical benefits for his first-born child, a daughter named Sherry. Sherry had Down syndrome, and unfortunately, she passed away at age 6, an experience Harrison described as part of life's "share of heartbreak." Harrison and his wife, JoAnne, raised three sons: Joe, Rick, and Chris, and when they became teenagers and "too much to handle" for JoAnne, Harrison retired from the Navy to spend more time at home, though he claimed he would have spent another ten years in the service if he could. "It was a great life," he said.

Harrison obviously framed his naval service as a great experience, but he stopped short of boasting about his specific achievements while enlisted. Those accolades came to light shortly after his death.  

A born hustler

Anyone who's watched a few minutes of Pawn Stars knows that the art of the hustle in that family business came straight from the top. The Old Man was as ruthless a negotiator as Rick, Corey, and Chumlee, and in his case, it clearly came from a life spent scraping up a buck at every possible opportunity.

While he was in the Navy, Richard Harrison turned a tidy side profit by running a payday loan service for his fellow sailors, loaning them cash — with interest, of course — between paychecks. According to Rick's autobiography, the Old Man also ran blackjack games out of his room, but he didn't play in them. He dealt the games, and as a result, raked in cash and sometimes collateral, like a "new set of China" one unlucky gambler had purchased for his wife in Hong Kong before losing his shirt at the Old Man's table.  

"Old Man was a pawnbroker before he was a pawnbroker," Rick wrote of his wily dad.

His thoughts about the show are classic 'Old Man'

Though he was clearly a grump with a heart of gold, Richard Harrison was not one to mince words. This cantankerous characteristic was on display in his interview with You Served, when he was asked how his life had changed since the success of Pawn Stars. "The film crew, they're a pain in the a**, but when I tell them to back off, they back off," Harrison said, admitting that he had "fleeting moments" when he wished he could just go back to his pre-fame days. When asked why he thinks his show resonates with audiences, the Old Man couldn't resist taking a shot at a popular rival series.

"We're like an Antiques Roadshow, but we live in the real world," he said. "They've been sued several times for some of the appraisals they've given out." Harrison said one of the hardest parts of the pawn industry is having to tell people the items they're trying to sell simply aren't as valuable as they believe them to be. "I've busted a lot of bubbles over the years, but when I do it, I try to do it with finesse," he said. "I don't try to be hard on people."

Betting it all on Vegas

Richard Harrison ended up in San Diego in 1979. Freshly retired from the Navy, he decided to join his wife JoAnne in her small, but successful real estate business, according to son Rick's autobiography. Unfortunately, the housing market had other plans. "I should have declared bankruptcy in '81, but I didn't. I lost a fortune," the Old Man told The Dispatch in 2011. Faced with skyrocketing interest rates due to the Recession of 1981-1982, Harrison decided to pack up the family and move to Las Vegas in a last-ditch effort to turn his other side hustle, selling gold and silver, into a small business.

Years later, Rick snagged a pawnbroker's license, a rarity in Las Vegas at the time, and father and son went into business together, according to Las Vegas Weekly. That "$10,000 investment" became the World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn shop, a business that turned the Harrisons into millionaires.

When inviting a biker gang to your house goes wrong

Though he was known for his ability to sniff out a deal, Richard Harrison couldn't see the forest for the trees when he allegedly got duped into hosting a fundraiser for a notorious biker gang. According to TMZ, Harrison threw a Valentine's Day bash for the Vagos biker gang at his home in 2014, which included "various raffles." The proceeds from the ticket sales allegedly went toward "a slush fund used to pay for lawyers for members of the gang that commit crimes," which in the past have included "gun and drug trafficking and robbery." Yeesh. So, how did the Old Man get mixed up in all of this?

According to his son, Rick Harrison, who spoke with the tab, Richard was taken advantage of by his son, Joseph Harrison, who was a member of the Vagos gang. Rick insisted his dad had "no idea" the raffle money was being used for that purpose. (And here we thought family friend Chumlee was the black sheep of this crew.)

Where did he go?

Pawn Stars returned for Season 15 in October 2017, but viewers quickly noticed the Old Man was absent. His fading presence was also noted the year before, when outlets such as the Inquisitr noticed that Richard Harrison was quietly backing out of scheduled public appearances. Granted, he was in his mid-70's at this point and surely deserving of some rest and relaxation, but he wasn't exactly the retiring type (more on that in a moment), so the rumor mill kicked into high gear.  

With no official update from the show, stories about a stroke to claims that he had died started popping up online. There was even an entire Facebook page, called RIP "Old Man" Harrison that started posting on June 26, 2016 and made regular updates until his actual death two years later. As of this writing, its still unclear exactly why the Old Man slowed down in the years preceding his death, although upon his passing, his son Rick revealed that his father endured a "long battle with Parkinson's," so that likely had a lot to do with it.

He had no plans to retire

In both his 2011 autobiography and a 2013 Forbes interview, Rick Harrison said that if his dad ever retired, he would be dead within six months. Obviously, it was a quip, but it framed the Old Man's work ethic in a way that led fans to expect to see him around until the very end. Richard Harrison addressed the subject of hanging it up for good in a 2012 interview with Hagerty. "People asked me many times, 'Well Richard, when are you gonna retire?' I tell them the day I walk through that door and it's not fun, I'll quit."

The Old Man stayed true to his word and never formally took his leave of the pawn shop. Though illness kept him away and eventually took him from his life's work, he left a legacy that won't be soon forgotten. "He lived a very full life," Rick wrote in a remembrance post on Instagram. "And through the History television show 'Pawn Stars' touched the lives of people all over, teaching them the value of loving your family, hard work and humor." RIP Old Man.

Two out of three ain't bad

As we previously mentioned, Richard Harrison made it clear that his family was his priority. After all, his decisions to leave and re-join the naval service were due entirely to him trying to provide for and raise his kids. Considering this paternal dedication, the news that the Old Man intentionally left one of his sons out of his will certainly raised some eyebrows when it made headlines shortly after his death. According to The Blast, who broke the story less than a month after his passing, Harrison had previously included all three of his sons, Joseph, Richard, and Christopher, in his will, but for "unclear" reasons, he removed Christopher in 2017. However, the family patriarch was sure to write that he wanted "to express [his] love and affection for Christopher," regardless of the decision about his apparent disinheritance.

Christopher's brother, Rick, who appears on Pawn Stars, and who was named administrator of his father's estate, addressed the snub with USA Today, saying, "The family had previously discussed this information and it is a private matter."

He stayed hush on his heroics

Richard Harrison may have been known to boast about his dealmaking, driving, and other skills on Pawn Stars, but when it came to his military service, he was uncharacteristically humble. To wit, throughout his chat with You Served, the Old Man chose to focus on the travel experience that was afforded him courtesy of the U.S. Navy, rather than recount any glory stories. But a week after Harrison's passing, the Navy Times shed a bit more light on Harrison's service record, including the fact that he was "authorized to wear the Good Conduct Medal; the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; the Vietnam Service Medal; and the National Defense Service Medal." The publication also revealed that Harrison achieved "the rank of Personnelman 1st Class," and that he "had multiple extended deployments to the western Pacific and Vietnam."

Harrison previously spoke with the outlet in 2014, when he reportedly said that "the value of hard work" was the lesson he took from his time in the service. As for advice for others, the Old Man stayed completely on-brand: "Don't dwell on the past — you've got a life ahead of you," he said. "Live it to the fullest. Don't waste your time thinking about the past — the past is over."