The Tragic Real-Life Story Of The Pawn Stars Cast

Watch regular episodes of "Pawn Stars," and it might start to seem like the Harrison family has the Midas touch. They, after all, regularly drop sums in the six digits on all kinds of items, and while it's possible to see how it's that kind of mindset that led to the building of a massive empire, there's more to it than that. Rick Harrison has been candid about how it's about more than the bottom line: It's about spotting the deals, knowing what he can flip and what he can't, and knowing which customers bring in the business that's worth his time. 

There was a lot of determination that went into things, too. Harrison explained to Fox News that when they initially started looking at getting a license to open a pawn shop, they were told that it was going to cost them somewhere in the neighborhood of a million bucks. They didn't have that kind of cash — at least, not yet.

But Harrison's business savvy was already in high gear, and he explained, "Apparently in 1955, the good old boys got together and they passed the city ordinance saying they'd issue one more pawn license when the city population got to a quarter of a million." After regular phone calls to check on population numbers and a bit of help from a lawyer, they secured their license for a mere $50 and the rest is, as they say, history. That said, it hasn't all been roses, rainbows, and smooth sailing for the cast of "Pawn Stars."

Rick Harrison's sister died very young

The grief that comes with the loss of a beloved family member is a specific sort of grief, and when that family member is a child, some wounds never heal. In 1967, the Harrison family lived a parents' worst nightmare when they buried their young daughter, 6-year-old Sherry Joanne Harrison. Her obituary (via Find A Grave) is short and heartbreaking, saying "Funeral plans incomplete. Survivors: parents; brothers Joseph Kent Harrison, Richard D. Harrison, Christopher Harrison, all of the home."

Patriarch Richard Harrison — better known to viewers as "the Old Man" — was famously a Navy man, and in a conversation with the Navy Times, he talked about his service. Surprisingly, it wasn't a voluntary thing: After initially enlisting as an alternative to a jail sentence for stealing a car, he served his time, left the military, and only went back after his daughter's birth. Born with Down syndrome, Sherry's arrival brought such overwhelming medical bills that he re-enlisted in order to pay them. Although he's said both in the interview and on the show that he ultimately enjoyed his time in the service and was proud of it, there's an undeniable shadow.

In Rick Harrison's book "License to Pawn," he quotes his father as explaining, "JoAnne and I have been married for 51 years, and there have been some ups and downs along the way. We've had our share of heartbreak. Little Sherry was born disabled, with Down syndrome. She was the light of my life."

Their first business was a catastrophic failure

While the Harrison family might be known for their pawn shop, that wasn't their first business — and that first business was the opposite of successful. It started when Richard "Old Man" Harrison got out of the Navy, choosing to retire after putting in his 20 years. He told the Navy Times, "That's a lot of time... The only reason I got out was that I had three teenage boys, and the wife couldn't handle them."

It was his wife who kicked off the family business, selling real estate and eventually forming her own company that supported the rest of the family. It was the early 1970s, and according to what Rick Harrison wrote in his book, "License to Pawn," it absolutely seemed as though it was going to be the family business. Things were great for a while, but suddenly, business turned dire and they found themselves facing the fact that their livelihood was about to become non-existent.

"All I can remember them talking about was the high interest rates — as high as 18 percent — and the complete shutdown of the housing market. They started losing money, until they didn't have any more," he wrote. It was 1981, and Harrison said that as the economy tanked and mortgage rates soared, they suddenly found themselves nearly bankrupt. With their last remaining nest egg — amounting to around $5,000 — they headed to Las Vegas in hopes of finding something else.

Rick Harrison's childhood was filled with fear and seizures

Rick Harrison was 8 years old when he suffered a terrifying health scare. He wrote in his book, "License to Pawn" (via ABC News): "All of a sudden, no warning, without me moving, the floor became the ceiling and the ceiling became the floor. ... My legs were cramped and constricted. I tasted blood from my shredded tongue. I was scared and confused and tired and just so goddamned scared. I got to my parents' room and knew from the looks on their faces that everything would be different from this point forward."

Everything was indeed very different, and Harrison went on to explain that he began suffering from regularly occurring grand mal seizures. "They struck with such severe force that I accepted it as a given that I would not live into adulthood," he wrote. The weight of seemingly inevitable death is a heavy thing for an adult to bear, much less a child.

According to what he told Fox News, the seizures were so bad that it wasn't unusual for him to be bedridden for days and even weeks afterward. That also meant he would be out of school, spending weeks in agony and wrestling with a fear that at some point, the seizures would just never stop. Pulled muscles and constant pain left him unable to do much of anything besides read books from the library, and the terrifying experiences eventually led him to work with the Epilepsy Foundation.

Chumlee's weight loss surgery was inspired by a family tragedy

Austin Lee Russell is, of course, better known as "Chumlee," and in the years that "Pawn Stars" has been on the air, the fan favorite's fluctuating weight has been a topic of conversation. In 2021, he shared some details with TMZ, saying that he had undergone gastric sleeve surgery. He explained that he had been stuck in an up-and-down pattern in which his weight fluctuated by around 100 pounds, and he also shared that he had lost 160 pounds since having the surgery.

He also said that he was doubling down on staying healthy, and that he'd been struggling with weight management for years. Back in 2013, he sat down for an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and at the end of the interview, he mentioned that he was headed to the gym. He said he was making a conscious decision to exercise every day and being careful about what he ate, and shared that he had a heartbreaking reason for being so health-conscious.

"My dad died from pancreatic cancer at 54, two weeks before the show aired," he explained. "I'm making sure I'm eating my vegetables and staying away from the red meat."

One employee was devastated when she was fired for past work

Las Vegas might be known as Sin City, but as far as "Pawn Stars" is concerned, they apparently want to keep things family-friendly, as far as who's featured. Olivia Black was a regular on the show and appeared in 13 episodes before she was abruptly fired. What happened? She told Inside Edition that it was the National Enquirer that found photos of her posing for a soft-core porn site, and it wasn't long after the story ran that she got a call.

"I got the phone call from the production company that I wasn't going to be on the show anymore," she said. "I was in shock, I was stunned. I began to cry." She further clarified: "I'm not ashamed of any of the photographs. ... I'm comfortable with being naked."

Black also spoke with RadarOnline, condemning the entire thing and promising to follow up with legal action. She also clarified that she wasn't fired by the Harrison family or the pawn shop — they, she said, were fine with the choices that she made in her personal life, and that it was strictly the producers of the television show who gave her the ax. "A lot of people have... informed me that it's possibly a form of discrimination," she said, and followed that up with a confirmation that she was consulting with legal counsel. Rick Harrison, meanwhile, confirmed to Fox News that although she no longer worked at the pawn shop, Black had quit of her own accord.

Old Man Harrison died after being diagnosed with Parkinson's

Fans have grown accustomed to seeing multiple members of the Harrison family making deals and pestering each other over the course of "Pawn Stars." That was part of what made the show so big in the first place, and when Richard "Old Man" Harrison vanished, it was a huge deal. When Harrison passed away in 2018, his obituary in The New York Times revealed that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and that it was ultimately the official cause of death. It was unclear how long he had been living with the diagnosis.

Tributes poured in, with Rick Harrison writing on Instagram, "He was my hero and I was fortunate to get a very cool 'Old Man' as my dad." Austin "Chumlee" Russell also posted a moving tribute to X, saying (in part): "He was such a big part of my life and treated me like family. I will miss him greatly and carry the lessons he taught me throughout my life."

Still, it seems as though a bit of surprise might have come on the heels of his tragic passing. Although he was lauded as a loving patriarch of the family, public details from his will revealed that although he mentioned his son, Christopher, in the document, it was to clarify that Christopher was to receive no part of the estate. It wasn't clear why he had been written out of the will, but it was apparently a revision that had been added the year before Harrison's death.

The family was estranged by a nasty legal battle over the business

While viewers might think of "Pawn Stars" as a family business, news that hit headlines in 2022 revealed that not everything was going smoothly for the Harrisons when the cameras stopped rolling. In a story initially reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, court documents had been filed alleging that although the death of Richard Harrison meant that 49% of the company passed to his widow, Joanne, she had been essentially cut out of the business.

A lawsuit claimed that in addition to pushing her out of the financial loop, Rick Harrison was also being accused of convincing his mother to sign over a large portion of the shop to him. It was further claimed that he had taken advantage of his mother's hospitalization in order to get her to sign, and that the lawsuit was an attempt to put a stop to the use of funds.

A few months later, the case was back in the headlines. This time, Joanne Harrison was filing for a temporary restraining order against her son, with her attorney saying that "While Rick enjoys his comfortable life as a celebrity firmly in control of all the family businesses and finances, Joanne is left frightened and unsure if she will have enough [for]... medical and personal expenses." Rick, meanwhile, issued a statement (via the Las Vegas Review-Journal) suggesting that someone was trying to exploit his mother. The case — and their estrangement — seems to be ongoing.

Adam Harrison's death

The loss of a child is always devastating, and in 2024, TMZ announced that it had gotten a statement from a "Pawn Stars" representative that explained a rather cryptic post on Rick Harrison's Instagram. The post featured a photo of Rick and his son, Adam, and the caption, "You will always be in my heart! I love you Adam," along with a broken heart emoji. According to the statement, Adam had died — suddenly and unexpectedly — from an overdose.

The 39-year-old's death was investigated by law enforcement, and just a few days after his passing, the Harrison family issued another statement to TMZ. In it, they revealed that the official cause of death was a fentanyl overdose, and added: "The fentanyl crisis in this country must be taken more seriously. It seems it is just flowing over the borders and nothing is being done about it. We must do better."

Although Adam did reportedly work at the pawn shop at some point, he was never featured on the show. Corey Harrison, Adam's brother, was among those to share tributes, posting a childhood photo of them together on his Instagram and writing, "Wax wtf I will always love you bubba."

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