Nov 02

SLO County on the silver screen

Made in SLO: Hollywood’s connection to the Central Coast

As fellow Tribune blogger David Middlecamp noted recently, San Luis Obispo County has been attracting movie crews since the 1920s.

Located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the region boasts sandy beaches, sleepy small towns and rolling hills covered with verdant grapevines and oak trees. It’s a moviemaker’s dream, a setting suitable for feature films, television shows and commercials alike.

Below is a list of the many movies filmed on the Central Coast.*


“The Ten Commandments” (1923)

Archaeologists are still digging plaster set pieces out of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, the setting of Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical epic. The shifting sands also served as the backdrop for 1921′s “The Sheik” and its sequel, “The Son of the Sheik,” both starring silent film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino.

“Sporting Youth” (1924)

Eager to win the attention of a pretty young miss, chauffeur Jimmy Wood (Reginald Denny) enters his employer’s car in a big auto race — only to be mistaken as a legendary English driver. This fast-paced romantic comedy was filmed at San Luis Obispo’s Exposition Park, a popular stop on the dirt track circuit in the mid-1920s.

“Diamond Jim” (1935)

This biopic about legendary gambler Diamond Jim Brady (Edward Arnold) and his romance with entertainer Lillian Russell (Binnie Barnes) was filmed in San Luis Obispo.

“Of Mice and Men” (1939)

Migrant workers George (Burgess Meredith) and Lennie (Lon Chaney Jr.) encounter trouble in Depression-era California in this timeless tragedy, filmed partially at Hearst Ranch and in San Luis Obispo.

“The Lady from Shanghai” (1947)

Against his better judgment, Michael O’Hara (writer-director Orson Welles) joins the crew of a yacht bound for San Francisco, then falls for the owner’s beautiful wife (Rita Hayworth). The film noir classic features footage shot at Morro Rock.

“The Spirit of St. Louis” (1957)

Portions of this Charles Lindbergh biopic were shot at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria. Jimmy Stewart stars as the legendary aviator.

“The Monster of Piedras Blancas “ (1959)

A mysterious monster terrorizes a coastal California town in this creature feature, shot in Cayucos. Scream queen Jeanne Carmen stars as the local lighthouse keeper’s daughter, who leaves food for the fiend.

“Spartacus” (1960)

Hearst Castle serves as an ancient Roman villa in Stanley Kubrick’s historic epic about the former gladiator (Kirk Douglas) who led a slave rebellion against the ancient Roman empire.

“The Christian Licorice Store” (1971)

Beau Bridges and Maud Adams stroll down a Morro Bay boardwalk in this drama about a tennis champ who falls for a pretty photographer.

“Jackson County Jail” (1976)

Partially filmed in Paso Robles, Roger Corman’s schlocky thriller follows an advertising executive (Yvette Mimieux) who is wrongfully imprisoned and raped by a crooked jailer. She later teams up with fellow inmate Coley Blake (Tommy Lee Jones) in an escape attempt.

“Pete’s Dragon” (1977)

The production crew built a 52-foot lighthouse on a Point Buchon bluff for this Disney film about a boy and his scaly friend. Montaña de Oro State Park stands in for Passamaquoddy, Maine.

“Stunts” (1977)

After his stuntman brother dies during filming an action flick, expert stuntman Glen Wilson (Robert Forster) is called in to finish the movie. The thriller includes scenes shot in downtown San Luis Obispo.

“California Dreaming” (1979)

After moving from Chicago to California, young T.T. (Dennis Christopher) learns about life and love in the Golden State. Filming locations include Avila Beach, Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo.

“The Junkman” (1982)

Angry Cholame residents complained when stuntmen screeched down rural roads while filming “The Junkman.” The thriller, shot in parts of Paso Robles and Shandon, includes a tribute to actor James Dean, who died in a car crash near Cholame.

“Personal Best” (1982)

Director Robert Towne picked Baywood Park, Los Osos, Morro Bay High School and Cal Poly as settings for his movie about a track star (Mariel Hemingway) vying for the national team.

“Commando” (1985)

This high-octane action flick about a retired special forces operative (Arnold Schwarzenegger) on a mission to rescue his kidnapped daughter features scenes filmed at two Central Coast locations: San Simeon and Hearst Castle.

“To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985)

Despite the title of this neo-noir thriller, the prison yard scene was filmed at the California Men’s Colony off Highway 1 just north of San Luis Obispo.

“Aria” (1987)

This collection of operatic arias includes a selection from Giuseppe Verdi’s beloved bedroom farce, “Rigoletto,” filmed at the delightfully kitschy Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. The segment stars Beverly D’Angelo and Buck Henry.

“Arachnophobia” (1990)

Giant killer spiders invade the quiet hamlet of Cambria in this creepy creature feature, which stars Jeff Daniels and John Goodman. Local highlights include Coast Union High School, Moonstone Beach and Adelaida.

“Midnight Ride” (1990)

A psychotic hitchhiker (Mark Hamill) preys on a cop (Michael Dudikoff) and his wife in this thriller, which takes audiences on a violent joyride through Grover Beach, Morro Bay, Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo.

“My Blue Heaven” (1990)

A straight-laced federal agent (Rick Moranis) is assigned to protect a loud-mouthed mob informant (Steve Martin) this wacky witness protection comedy. Atascadero, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo all serve as elements of a sleepy California town.

“The Odd Couple II” (1992)

Shot in the sunny Los Osos Valley and Santa Maria, this sequel finds mismatched friends Oscar (Walter Matthau) and Felix (Jack Lemmon) on a California road trip.

“Little Giants” (1994)

A former football star (Ed O’Neill) and his younger brother (Rick Moranis) coach rival Peewee football teams in this sports comedy, filmed in Arroyo Grande and San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly alumnus John Madden co-stars alongside pro football players Emmitt Smith, Tim Brown and Bruce Smith.

“Almost Salinas” (2001)

When a production company comes to Cholame to film a movie about James Dean, roadside diner owner Max (John Mahoney) must confront a secret from his past. Virginia Madsen costars in this independent drama filmed in Cholame and Paso Robles.

“Murder by Numbers” (2002)

Sandra Bullock plays a seasoned homicide detective on the trail of two teenage killers (Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt) in this by-the-numbers thriller, filmed in Los Osos, Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo.

“We Were Soldiers” (2002)

The Central Coast’s rolling hills and lush grasslands doubled for the Ia Drang Valley in Mel Gibson’s Vietnam War drama. Cast and crew members filmed in Morro Bay, Camp Roberts and Fort Hunter Liggett.

“Tears of the Sun” (2003)

Tragedy struck during the filming of this action adventure, which stars Bruce Willis as a Navy Seals commander leading a rescue mission into war-torn Nigeria. A parachuting stuntman missed his target in the Oceano Dunes, landed about 300 yards offshore and drowned.

“The Whole Ten Yards” (2004)

Hitman Jimmy the Tulip (Bruce Willis) and his assassin wife (Amanda Peet) come out of retirement to rescue the kidnapped wife of their nebbish friend (Matthew Perry) in the sequel to “The Whole Nine Yards,” filmed in part at the Oceano Dunes.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (2007)

At the opening moments of this fantasy blockbuster, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) slides down the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes to land in the sparkling Pacific Ocean. Local fans flocked to the dunes during filming to catch the cast in action.

“I Know Who Killed Me” (2007)

Troubled starlet Lindsay Lohan plays two roles in this thriller — Aubrey Fleming, an aspiring pianist and writer, and Dakota Moss, a down-on-her-luck stripper. Unfortunately, the film’s scenery — which includes the Fremont movie theater, San Luis Obispo City Hall, San Luis Obispo High School and the Morro Bay power plant — might be the best thing about it.

“Dark Honeymoon” (2008)

Cambria and San Simeon stand in for the Oregon coast in this straight-to-video thriller starring Roy Scheider, Tia Carrere and Daryl Hannah. The movie plays out in flashbacks as police interrogate a young man (Nick Cornish) whose new wife (Lindy Booth) is the suspect in a string of murders.

“Lizard Boy” (2009)

Distraught after being dumped by his fiancée, geneticist Dr. Gino Conti (Pete Punito) combines human and reptilian DNA to create a scaly surrogate son. The low-budget horror flick was filmed primarily in Castro Canyon off Highway 101 between San Luis Obispo and Avila Beach.

“Primitive” (2011)

Filmed mostly in San Luis Obispo County and Santa Maria, “Primitive” centers on special effects makeup artist Martin Blaine (Matt O’Neill), who’s forced to undergo anger management therapy. Soon after his session with an unorthodox hypnotist (Reggie Bannister of “Phantasm” fame), Martin begins experiencing vivid nightmares — and people around him start dying.


*Note: Santa Maria is located in northern Santa Barbara County, not San Luis Obispo County. However, it is close enough to be considered part of the region.

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1 comment

  1. Bree

    In Murder by numbers there was a scene shot at the Templeton high school gym. So Templeton should most definetly be included in that!

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