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‘Road House’ Is Paved With Good Intentions

Almost three decades after its release, director Rowdy Herrington takes us through the making of the over-the-top cult classic

(MGM/UA Communications Co.)
(MGM/UA Communications Co.)

All week, The Ringer will be celebrating Good Bad Movies, those films that are so terrible they’re endlessly amusing and — dare we say it? — actually good. Please join us as we give the over-the-top action movies, low-budget romance thrillers, and peak ’80s cheese-fests the spotlights they deserve.

At first, Rowdy Herrington didn’t want to do it. The script was too broad, too vulgar. But Road House needed a director. After Herrington expressed doubts about wanting to helm the movie, Joel Silver summoned him to a midnight meeting at the 20th Century Fox lot. There, with Die Hard filming in the background, the megaproducer made his case.

"I think you can do something with it," Herrington remembered Silver telling him about the action flick, which already had actor Patrick Swayze attached to star. Then Silver said, "I need you to do this."

"So," Herrington said, "I said OK."

Twenty-eight years after its release, the film is a cult classic. Packed with explosions, cool cars and trucks, live music, sex, crude one-liners, and brawl after brawl, it’s two hours of well-crafted ridiculousness. Julie Michaels, who appears as barfly Denise, told me that Silver once summed up the movie to her in three words: "Boobs and bombs." Road House is still so adored, Herrington thinks, because it’s so over the top. That was on purpose — reviews be damned.

"I saw it as a cartoon," Herrington said. "Broader than life. Brighter than life."

The story of how the director got his first big studio gig is simple: Silver liked Herrington’s directorial debut, a Jack the Ripper–inspired mystery starring James Spader called Jack’s Back. The producer then persuaded Herrington to take on Road House.

"Joel made pictures for teenage boys," Herrington said of Silver, whose early credits include 48 Hrs., Weird Science, and Lethal Weapon. The director recalled the producer telling him a story about a 12-year-old being so disturbed by what he saw during an early screening of Predator that he left the theater to throw up. At that moment, Silver told Herrington, he knew the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle would be a hit.

Herrington had a feeling that Silver would be a good partner for a violent Western like Road House. But first Herrington had to cast the movie. Beyond Swayze, who stars as cerebral cooler Dalton, a harder-edged role than his breakout turn as Johnny in Dirty Dancing, the director didn’t have many people locked in. When gravel-voiced actor Sam Elliott initially turned down the part of Dalton’s mentor and best friend, Wade Garrett, Herrington adopted Silver’s blunt negotiating style. Over lunch, Herrington said, he looked at Elliott and said, "Sam, if you don’t do this movie, I’m fucked." Elliott took the part.

When it came time to pick Dalton’s nemesis, Brad Wesley — the mob boss who runs the small Missouri town where the movie is set — Herrington went to James Garner. "I was in awe of the man," Herrington said. But after Silver’s pitch, in which he ran down a list of his successes as a producer, Garner responded, "Success don’t interest me." Instead, Herrington picked the suave Ben Gazzara, whom he’d loved in Peter Bogdanovich’s recent film Saint Jack.

Road House was full of inspired casting choices, including Kelly Lynch, who plays the community doctor, and Kevin Tighe as the owner of the Double Deuce. The script, which was written by R. Lance Hill and Hilary Henkin, called for a blind guitar player to front the rowdy bar’s house band. Music supervisor and future headphones king Jimmy Iovine recommended Canadian rock star Jeff Healey.

Because Road House featured so many brawls, Herrington required the actors who played Wesley’s henchmen to have martial arts experience. There were a total of nine fight scenes filmed — Herrington credited stunt coordinator Charlie Picerni and kickboxer and choreographer Benny Urquidez with helping stage the skirmishes — though not all of them made the final cut. The best of the tussles is a sequence in which Dalton tackles Wesley’s lackey Jimmy off his motorcycle and then kills him by ripping out his throat.

It was the only one of Swayze’s stunts that he didn’t perform himself. "He was really mad at me that he couldn’t knock the guy off the motorcycle," said Herrington, who got the idea for Jimmy’s death from a story he’d heard back in college about a martial artist tearing out an enemy’s trachea. (It’s not all gruesome. Herrington added a tranquil scene, choreographed by his wife, Toni, where Dalton practices tai chi. "He’s a Zen bouncer," the director said.)

The film is full of outrageous set pieces. Special-effects coordinator Al Di Sarro helped blow up several buildings on set. "He might’ve been in prison for pyromania if he wasn’t in the film business," Herrington said. At one point, Wesley’s henchman Gary drives a Bigfoot monster truck through a car dealership and crushes a bunch of station wagons. Herrington said that cinematographer Dean Cundey and his crew used seven cameras to capture the scene, which they shot in one take. The film’s climax, which takes place in Wesley’s ornate trophy room, was shot in the Los Angeles home of a big-game hunter. All the exotic taxidermy on display is real. The owner of the house, Herrington said, "killed every goddamn thing you could think of."

Herrington said that Road House came in just over its $15 million budget. Most critics hated the movie. The director remembered Gene Shalit calling it "Outhouse." Herrington wasn’t surprised. After all, this is a film in which Jimmy, who’s played by Marshall Teague, tells Dalton, "I used to fuck guys like you in prison." (Herrington said Silver wrote that line.)

Still, the movie was entertaining enough to overcome its crassness. "The movie’s better than it had to be," Herrington said. It made more than $30 million domestically and has become ubiquitous via home video and cable. (The movie has famous fans, too, like Bill Murray.) Herrington, who now lives with his wife in Montana, went on to direct a half-dozen more movies. None have had the shelf life of Road House. Not that he minds.

"It’s harder to throw a meatball past a hungry dog that it is to make a picture that endures," Herrington said.

A big part of why Road House holds up is its star. "Patrick Swayze was a wonderful man," Herrington said. "He was very easy to work with. Very generous." The last time Herrington saw Swayze, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, was at the Warner Bros. commissary. The actor snuck up behind the director and playfully put him in a headlock. It was the kind of smooth move that helped make Dalton famous.