WTF Happened to Road House?

WTF Happened to Road House? Let’s find out as we dig into the 1989 classic starring Patrick Swayze, Sam Elliott, and Kelly Lynch…

There are a lot cult classics from the 1980s, but Road House stands somewhere near the top. Sure, many of its fans wouldn’t label it as such, since they lovingly, legitimately and unironically adore it. But there’s no use in arguing it belongs in one camp over another or that it is unapologetically everything it sets out to be. But it – and its cult following – couldn’t have happened without a few broken ribs, a don’t-take-no producer and some pervy late-night phone calls to a star’s spouse. Yes, it involves Bill Murray… So, pour some suds and rip some throats because we’re gonna find out: WTF Happened to this Movie?!

Road House comes from a script by David Lee Henry (a pseudonym for R. Lance Hill) and Hilary Henkin and tells of a dude with a mullet named Dalton hired to “cool” the Double Deuce bar, all while developing a romance with a doctor who has also caught the eye of a dastardly – by ‘80s movie standards, at least – businessman.

Coming to the table of superstar producer Joel Silver, Road House would be assigned to director Rowdy Herrington, who wasn’t entirely sold on the project as his follow-up to thriller Jack’s Back, but was convinced by Silver, who revealed that Patrick Swayze – a Hollywood darling after Dirty Dancing – would be starring. To also draw in any prospects, Silver summed up the movie as “boobs and bombs”, while Herrington “saw it as a cartoon…Broader than life. Brighter than life”, also noting that Silver had a penchant for making movies geared towards teenage boys.

As “peaceful warrior” James Dalton, Patrick Swayze would headline Road House, while Kelly Lynch (Cocktail, Drugstore Cowboy) would land love interest Dr. Elizabeth Clay. To prepare for her role, Lynch actually shadowed medical professionals…which we know now was completely useless since she doesn’t do any real medical work in the movie. Lynch wasn’t entirely sure if she even wanted the part, saying, “Okay, I don’t understand what this is. There’s a big-wheel truck, there’s a bad guy, there’s a doctor in a mini-dress, and there are bouncers…So many elements were thrown into this movie that it just didn’t make any sense to me.” But Silver reminded her she had a contract with United Artists and didn’t get much of a say, especially since original choice Annette Bening wouldn’t be hired due to her lack of chemistry with Swayze (she’s more of a Beatty gal).

WTF Happened to Road House?

Taking the part of Dalton’s mentor Wade Garrett would be Sam Elliott, another party who wasn’t interested at first, only being talked into it by Herrington, who told him, “If you don’t do this movie, I’m fucked.” But Silver – who Elliott called a “throwback to old Hollywood” – may have nailed it even better, telling the legend, “You’ve got a lot of baggage, and it makes you right for this part.” There, too, would be Ben Gazzara as Brad Wesley (a role first offered to James Garner, who turned it down), Kevin Tighe as Frank Tillman, and Red West as Red Webster, whose auto supply shop gets all blowed up in a stunt that cost $25,000! West actually has a pretty cool music background, as he was a close friend of Elvis and even a member of the Memphis Mafia. Also on the music front was blind guitarist Jeff Healey.

With a budget of $15 million, production on Road House commenced in April 1988, with filming taking place in California, a set standing in for the Missouri’s fake Double Deuce, although some interiors were shot inside of a now-defunct bar in CA called The Bandstand, also once called Cowboy Boogie. Other locations included Santa Clarita and Valencia.

It’s probably no surprise that much of the behind-the-scenes goodness of Road House stems from the action, so much of which seems so silly and dated 35 years after its release (even director Herrington said he wanted to pay homage to silent comedians the Keystone Kops!). What might be more of a shock is that the cast was encouraged to do their own stunts. As Elliott put it, “It was a very physical job. I mean, you hear all that bullshit about ‘It’s all stunt doubles’ and all that shit. Well, it isn’t. All the actors, as far as I know, did their own fighting. I fucking got the shit kicked out of me for the entire film.”

Still, none of it was possible without stunt coordinator Charlie Picerni, who had previously done stunts for Die Hard, Beverly Hills Cop II and more, and nine-time black belter Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, who had a leg up in recognizing that Swayze could have been a pro kickboxer after seeing him in action. There, too, would be a lot of explosives work by Al Di Sarro, who Herrington said “might’ve been in prison for pyromania if he wasn’t in the film business.” We can picture that!

By pretty much all accounts, Road House was a fun set to be on. And yes, the cast knew how ridiculous some of the one-liners were, including that one, which was originally written as “Damn, boy, I thought you were good!”, although whether it was a Marshall Teague improv or a line tossed in by Joel Silver remains debated…Which brings us to the scene we all know and love:

The scene in question, in which Dalton chases down Jimmy Reno on foot and tackles him off of a motorcycle – the one stunt Swayze wasn’t allowed to perform (yet they let him take a 20-foot plunge into a truck; go figure!) – before launching into an epic fistfight. That fight – the high point of the movie – took a full five days and more than 70 takes to nail. And with it came the bumps, bruises and breaks that show up on screen. Teague (who got the role after Scott Glenn turned it down) took to antagonizing Swayze to get more out of the fight, firing up the star, who also wanted it all to look as real as possible. And real it was, with the two having to be broken up at one point because they thought Swayze and Teague were actually beating the shit out of each other!…which they kind of were, since Teague gave Swayze broken ribs, forcing him to undergo four total surgeries, while Swayze would also have 2.5 ounces of fluid drained from his knee. Who says “Pain don’t hurt”? Don’t worry, Teague got his, too, ending up with a broken eye socket…Despite the injuries, it was actually his haircut that Swayze called “the bane of my existence.” But it is a damn good fight, a standout of over-the-top hand-to-hand combat in ‘80s cinema, ending with one of the wildest moments of the decade: Swayze ripping out Reno’s throat. For that? Just one take.

WTF Happened to Road House?

But it wasn’t all pain on the set. There was some love, too – and we don’t just mean the flock of female fans were trying to get a glimpse – and probably more – of Swayze. As far as that moment between Swayze and Lynch, which starts against a fireplace, she remembered: “They really liked everything about the way that scene looked, with the blonde hair against the rocks behind me, but I was like, ‘Isn’t this kind of…mean?’ So they put a thin padding under my dress, so you can’t see it. But he’s still slamming me against the rocks, so I had to be careful not to hit my head. Thank God Patrick was so strong.” He, too, had some fond memories, saying, “The love scene is probably the hottest I’ve ever done, and clothes don’t even come off.”

It might not be that memorable for most of the male audience, but there is one family that can’t get enough of it. As it turns out, Bill Murray and his brothers have made it a habit to ring up Kelly Lynch’s husband, writer Mitch Glazer, every time that scene comes on, altering their voices and informing him, “You don’t know me, but your wife is getting slammed up against the wall by Patrick Swayze. She’s not putting up much of a fight.” For the Murray brothers, no time of night is off limits for the prank call. (Murray isn’t the only famous fan, though, as Anthony Bourdain counted himself among its biggest supporters.)

But long before the lewd messages, Road House had to hit theaters; and it did on May 19th, 1989, opening against newbies Fright Night 2 and Miracle Mile. But there would be other movies keeping it from hitting #1, with its $6 million opening weekend landing it just behind the previous week’s champ, See No Evil, Hear No Evil…and ahead of five-weeker Field of Dreams. And that’s where it would peak. With a total gross of $30 million, Road House may have doubled its budget but it wasn’t exactly a smash, barely beating out a re-release of Disney’s Peter Pan on the year-end charts.

Critically, it was a disaster, even going on to earn five Razzie nominations, tying for the most that year with The Karate Kid Part III and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. They were: Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Actor, Worst Supporting Actor (poor Ben Gazzara!), and Worst Screenplay, “losing” most to The Final Frontier.

But Road House’s reputation decades on can’t be denied. Sure, it has a lot of corn, a sprinkle of homoeroticism and easily mockable sequences, but it has actually proved useful in real-life situations. Following the 2014 murder of Eric Garner, which sparked outrage and protests against police departments for use of excessive force, the NYPD implemented the movie’s Three Simple rules as part of a new retraining program: 1) Never underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected; 2) Take it outside. Never start anything inside the bar unless it’s absolutely necessary; and 3) Be nice…OK, so they did modify these a bit and we’re still waiting to see the long-term effects, but at least they weren’t getting inspiration from Denzel in Training Day

WTF Happened to Road House?

The movie truly found its fanbase and would later do remarkably well on the home video market, already beginning to build a newfound fanbase. As such, it’s really no surprise that studios have gone back to the Road House well, first producing a 2006 direct-to-video sequel which followed the exploits of Dalton’s son, Shane. There, too, most surprisingly, was an off-Broadway production in 2003, whose full title is: Road House: The Stage Version Of The Cinema Classic That Starred Patrick Swayze, Except This One Stars Taimak From The 80’s Cult Classic “The Last Dragon” Wearing A Blonde Mullet Wig. Yes, there were multiple sold-out shows.

In 2015 – six years after the death of Patrick Swayze – a remake was on the table with Ronda Rousey starring and Nick Cassavetes directing. That was KO’d, but a new one was finally greenlit and is out in 2024 with Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead. But we won’t spend too much time here, as it has so much going on behind the scenes – original Road House writer R. Lance Hill claiming copyright infringement, the release moving from theatrical to streaming, the subsequent protests from director Doug Liman, the allegations of AI use to replicate actor’s voices amid the SAG-AFTRA strike – that it might end up getting its own “WTF Happened to This Movie?!” episode someday. But we should still note that Marshall Teague found the fight scenes “humorous” and that we highly doubt Jake Gyllenhaal saw the injuries that Patrick Swayze did.

But there’s just no replacing the original Road House, which has an intense following that has inspired theme nights and screenings, typically within college crowds. No doubt this was spawned partly by seemingly constant spots in AMC’s rotation…And we can still see exactly why Joel Silver called it “the best drive-in movie ever made”, even though most of us probably never saw it at the drive-in.

As Rowdy Herrington put it, “It’s harder to throw a meatball past a hungry dog than it is to make a picture that endures.” Now that’s a one-liner worthy of Road House!

About the Author

1832 Articles Published

Mathew is an East Coast-based writer and film aficionado who has been working with periodically since 2006. When he’s not writing, you can find him on Letterboxd or at a local brewery. If he had the time, he would host the most exhaustive The Wonder Years rewatch podcast in the universe.