It’s time for Part 5 of my periodic series about the few famous graves of Las Vegas and how they came to be here. The conceit is simple. Even though the Las Vegas area has a population topping 2.3 million, there are remarkably few final resting spots here of people famous outside the Las Vegas area, no more than 20 by my count. Why? The city was founded barely a century ago, in 1900, and as late as 1950 still had fewer than 50,000 residents. You need famous live bodies to produce famous dead bodies. I’ve also speculated that for the longest time Las Vegas had a stigma that led the next-of-kin of many prominent folks to dig elsewhere.
In Part 1 I described three well-known athletes: boxer Sonny Liston, baseball pitcher Bo Belinsky and tennis great Pancho Gonzales. In Part 2 I profiled two prominent entertainers: movie icon Tony Curtis and TV star Redd Foxx. In Part 3 I detailed the only big-name organized-crime boss planted here, Morris Barney (Moe) Dalitz. I also wrote about Phyllis McGuire, centerpiece of the famous McGuire Sisters singing act and the long-time girlfriend of Sam Giancana, a famous Chicago mobster with Las Vegas interests. In Part 4 I examined a pair with mob ties who nevertheless played important roles is developing Las Vegas as the go-to place for wagering: casino operator (and killer) Benny Binion and Nick (the Greek) Dandolos, for decades the world’s most famous gambler.
So I’ve written up only nine folks, yet I’m almost halfway through my famous-here-for-all-eternity list. In this post, I’m going to look at two TV personalities–with identical years of birth and death–who came to Las Vegas for another chance and actually passed after I became New To Las Vegas.
Robin Leach never became a U.S. citizen nor lost his rowdy English accent. But long before relocating to Las Vegas, he became one of the world’s most famous TV personalities by virtue of an exuberant personality and his hosting for 15 years of a TV series that defined the “greed is good” end of the 20th Century. “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” with its you-are-there footage of celebrities in their acquired environments, started a trend in high-end reality TV shows that really hasn’t ended. As Leach himself once said, “Nobody would watch Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown.”
Born August 29, 1941, in London, Leech grew up in a middle-class family. Eschewing college, he moved into journalism and by age 18 was a star reporter on the Daily Mail, one of the U.K.’s major dailies. In 1963 he moved to the U.S., first to New York, where he helped launch People magazine, while spending a lot of time in Los Angeles, where he got into television covering entertainment news. In 1980 he became CNN’s first showbiz reporter and in 1981 helped launch “Entertainment Tonight,” where he was an on-air correspondent for three years. In 1984 Leach became the host of “Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous,” syndicated by CBS for 11 years from 1984 to 1995. In interviews Leach credited Ronald Reagan for making glitz chic. Donald Trump was a frequent guest. Leach’s loud, rapid-fire delivery, and his ability to continually exude wondrous amazement, was so unique that he found himself parodied by Dana Carvey on “Saturday Night Live” (“I’m Robin Leach! I’m yelling and I don’t know why!”)–a sure sign of cultural fame. A foodie, Leach was also an early presenter on the Food Network, which started in 1993.
But after his run ended on “Lifestyles,” Leach sort of hit a career slump. Long divorced, he moved four years later, in 1999, to Las Vegas, famed as a city of renewed chances. He settled into a nice but far from over-the-top house–3-bedroom, 3-bath with a swimming pool in an exclusive neighborhood on the city’s west side. (After his death it sold for $718,000.) That tended to support his long-standing assertions he was never as rich as the folks he profiled, perhaps because he didn’t have huge equity chunks in many of his endeavors and also because he lived large. Leach kept up a national TV, cable and even film presence (frequently playing himself), dabbled in local online websites, raised money for Las Vegas charities, touted the praises of Las Vegas and became a popular figure hereabouts. “The thing that I love about Vegas is, you are within 45 minutes of Hollywood without having to deal with the 405 and state taxes and fees,” he once told the Los Angeles Times. Eventually, he went back to his print roots and took entertainment columnist positions, first at the Las Vegas Sun and then, in 2016, at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. As fluffy and un-serious as his journalistic output was viewed by some, Leach saw his fame surpass and even outlast many of the celebrities he profiled. After his death the City of Las Vegas renamed a street for him.
In November 2017 Leach had a stroke while vacationing in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and never fully recovered. On August 24, 2018, he died in a Las Vegas area hospital a few days after a second stroke, at the age of 76. According to his death certificate, his remains were cremated and likely put in a plot overlooking a lake in the Lakeside section of Palm Memorial Park, 7600 S. Eastern Ave. The marker contains the famous words he uttered at the end of every “Lifestyles” episode: “Champagne wishes & caviar dreams.”
Richard (Old Man) Harrison also became a celebrity due to reality TV but his public personality was the mirror opposite of Leach’s. For nearly three decades Harrison with his family was the co-owner of what became the World Famous Gold and Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas. It–and he as the irritable proprietor–truly became famous after cable TV’s History Channel in 2009 started “Pawn Stars.” That’s a reality show based on the daily interactions of the staff–son Rick, grandson Corey and family friend Austin (Chumlee) Russell–with customers seeking to pawn or value items. “Pawn Stars” quickly became the History Channel’s highest-rated show, a reality-TV hit and is still on the air. In 2012, Harrison and Rick made Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential persons in the world.
Harrison was born on March 4, 1941–five months before Leach–in Virginia and grew up poor in North Carolina. He enlisted in the Navy at age 17 after getting caught stealing a car, and served on a number of ships for 20 years, rising to petty officer first class. He mustered out in 1979 in San Diego, where his wife, Joanne, had a real estate business. That went poof in the 1981 high-interest-rate recession.
Essentially broke, the family moved that year to Las Vegas. Already called The Old Man–even though he was just 39–Richard and Joanne opened the first of several pawn-like shops on a seedy section of Las Vegas Boulevard just north of the Strip. The business bounced among several locations before hanging out a shingle at 713 Las Vegas Boulevard S in 1989. Twenty years later, the business hit the jackpot when Pawn Stars went on the air and drew a worldwide audience. Richard was blunt about his stern countenance in the production: “My role on the show is to be an old grump.” Rick was more the out-front face. The shop drew thousands of tourists daily, selling a lot of souvenir T-shirts. But was there any real family kumbaya? After Harrison’s death, it became known he cut one of his other sons out of his will. And earlier this year, Joanna, now 81, sued son Rick, in effect claiming she was hookwinked years ago out of her 49% interest in the business. Rick denied wrongdoing. That lawsuit is still pending.
The patriarch died on June 25, 2018–just two months before Leach, who over the years had interviewed him–from Parkinson’s disease at age 77. After a public viewing and funeral that featured a flag-draped coffin, Harrison was laid to rest in Palm Northwest Cemetery, 6701 N. Jones Blvd., in the Eternal Life 1 section, PG 15, Space 2. Unusual for a cemetery–but perfectly in keeping for a TV personality–his marker in the large plot is adorned with a picture of him, stern-faced but tipping his hat. The caption beneath the photo: “Old Man.”
More to come.