2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.
Long before he became synonymous with an all-khaki outfit and his “Crikey!” catchphrase, Steve Irwin was the enthusiastic son of an Australian zookeeper with a penchant for rescuing reptiles. This led to an adulthood spent in remote areas of Queensland, Australia, helping the government catch “problematic” crocodiles and maintaining the grounds of the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park.
By all accounts, Irwin — who died after being pierced in the chest by a short-tail stingray in 2006 — had no intention of seeking attention beyond the human and reptilian population of Northwest Australia, but the universe had other plans. After meeting an American tourist named Terri Raines in October 1991, the two were married within eight months and spent their ensuing honeymoon filming crocodiles.
It was that footage that would go on to launch the smash-hit television series The Crocodile Hunter. Almost 25 years to the day since it first aired on April 5, 1997, I talked to some of the people who helped create the show’s first season to get a sense of what it was like behind the scenes in those early days.
‘Yeah, This Is Kind of Crazy’
In June 1996, Discovery came out with a new, experimental network dedicated to animals called Animal Planet. Around the same time, the Irwins’ honeymoon footage, which had been edited into a documentary by Australian film and television producer John Stainton, was finding its footing on Australian TV. Discovery liked what they saw in the Irwins, but investing in an unknown Australian with a wildly new approach to nature documentaries was a gamble for the nascent Animal Planet.
Historically speaking, nature shows were straightforward and academic; viewers observed wildlife from an arm’s length while listening to a David Attenborough-esque narrator. Irwin’s approach was completely different.
Steve Elkins, Photography and Camera Operator, The Crocodile Hunter: John [Stainton] was coming to visit L.A. and said, “Would you mind looking at this video? There’s this crazy guy in Australia who goes out and captures crocodiles and relocates them. He’s been making these home videos, and I think it would be a good show.” It was a beat-up old VHS tape. I think I might still have it.
I watched that and was like, “Yeah, this is kind of crazy.” But I immediately saw that Steve was in a class by himself — his enthusiasm was magnetic; you couldn’t help but get wrapped up in it. He’d just be like, “Hey golly, this the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. Isn’t she a beaut?” next to a massive crocodile. And that was what he was like in real life. He was his authentic self, and he was an everyman — he didn’t put on academic airs because he really didn’t have any.
Chris Borghesani, Camera Operator, The Crocodile Hunter: The network wanted to check Steve out because he was still unknown to us, it was before he made it big. But I can tell you that that day we spent with Steve wasn’t typical for the work I’d been doing — we thought it was going to be lame, and it wasn’t.
Elkins: The real kicker came when Animal Planet saw it and thought Steve might be a good icon for the channel. What we shot would end up in different seasons or shows because we shot a lot and having a tight crew allowed us to move fast — it would be myself and maybe a sound person, John and then Steve and Terri. Maybe there’d be some assistant keeping records of everything. But it was always light, and we’d be in a van running around to film different things — sometimes literally just looking for snakes and different desert lizards. I mean, Steve would just see something on the side of the road and go, “Stop here — let’s film these critters!”
I’d worked on all kinds of wildlife and adventure stuff, but there was a moment early on when filming for The Crocodile Hunter that I knew this was different. We were filming a mountain lion that needed to be transferred to a bigger refuge, and it wasn’t happy. So I’m filming it and going, “I don’t know about this,” because the mountain lion is hissing and snarling, and it starts to lunge toward me.
And Steve, without waiting a second, jumped in front of the lion. He said, “I can’t let you get hurt,” and he just looked at the lion and the lion backed down. I don’t know how he did it, but if he hadn’t gone in there, I probably wouldn’t be here today to tell the story. So right then and there, I knew he really had the ability to communicate with animals, particularly reptiles, in a way I’ve never seen other people do.
Borghesani: One time I asked Steve why he preferred to pick up snakes by the tail, and he demonstrated it from the snake’s perspective, but actually putting his hands around my neck and, to my surprise, choking me on camera.
Elkins: To be sure, there were a few times I was like, “Wait, what am I doing here?” Like the time we were filming in the swamps of Florida in the middle of the night, waist deep in the water shooting water moccasins. Turns out, they were attracted to the light that was beaming from my camera; so when they started swimming closer and closer to me, I didn’t realize it was because I was lowering the camera to follow them. The next thing I knew, I had the camera aimed straight down looking at these water moccasins swimming between my legs.
I said to Steve, “This is too much. I don’t know if I can handle this. You take the camera and swim along these water moccasins, I’m not doing it.” And he did, without hesitation. He came over and took this big beta camera and swam parallel along with the snakes.
I’ve shot a lot of wildlife stuff in my life, and I never met anybody that was as enthusiastic and as gutsy as him. More than anything, he had a special way with animals of all kinds — it was a really special skill. Like the time we were interviewing this bear rescue guy, and all of a sudden, there’s a giant black bear standing up right behind me. Steve says, “Don’t move, don’t even look around, don’t even look behind you.” And he got the bear to back off and calm down.
It got to the point that if Steve was handling the animal or he was there, I never had any fear.
‘Jack Hanna Meets Evel Knievel in Crocodile Dundee’s Backyard’
It didn’t take long after The Crocodile Hunter aired its first episode that executives at Discovery knew they had a breakout hit on their hands. Within a year, the show would embark on its 10-episode second season, and a 16-episode third season in September 1999. Within two years, The Crocodile Hunter was airing in 122 countries and pulling in over 60 million viewers in the U.S. alone. The massive success brought countless parodies, but countless critics as well.
Elkins: The show took off like a rocket, but it wasn’t until Steve got invited onto the Conan O’Brien show that we realized he was going to be big time. We brought an inflatable crocodile that Steve spontaneously wrestled live on TV with Conan. It was hilarious, and Conan was great — he loved it. It was really Steve’s first big introduction to the national audience, and after that, we knew this show was going to blow up.
Sandra Lee, writing for USA Weekend in 2000: The outback slang, the bush-trekker khakis, the suicidal tangos with some of nature’s fiercest creatures — these are the trademarks of both the man and the show known as The Crocodile Hunter […] the show that’s been a breakout success for cable’s Animal Planet, a spinoff of the Discovery Channel.
Eric Deggans, writing for the Tampa Bay Times in 1999: If you’ve never seen Irwin’s death-defying interactions with dangerous animals, his Crocodile Hunter series on cable’s Animal Planet channel can be oddly compelling, like Jack Hanna meets Evel Knievel in Crocodile Dundee’s backyard. […] Forget about leisurely nature videos, filmed over painstaking weeks by a hidden camera crew. It’s the perfect nature show for a television universe of 500 channels and lightning-fast remote-control clickers.
Elkins: His early success brought with it a lot of flak from animal rights people. They didn’t like the way he handled animals and railed against him for being so hands on.
Lee: Irwin’s brand of full-contact conservation has its detractors, however. He’s been called a rash grandstander, a dangerous model for kids, unprofessional, downright nuts. But even some of Irwin’s critics concede that [he has] intrigued and inspired today’s 20- and 30-somethings, in whose hands rests the future of endangered species. Most of whom are drawn to his unabashed passion for the animals, his brute enthusiasm when hunting them and his tender devotion to protecting them.
Elkins: Ultimately, he started the whole genre of doing animal documentary shows like that. There’s been many copycats since then, but he was the first one, he was the most successful and nobody came close to what he was doing.
Early on, when Terri and Steve were first coming here [to the U.S.] to do the show and nobody really knew who they were, they’d come to my house and my mother-in-law would make them tuna fish sandwiches, which they loved. And one day they went to my son’s school to do a presentation, something I don’t think they’d ever done before, because I’ll never forget the look on their face. They were overwhelmed, trying to control about 30 seven- and eight-year-old kids, but it wasn’t happening.
That’s something I think back to, because it reminds me of the humble beginnings of this show. It started with an old VHS tape of two people being themselves and doing what they loved, and grew into something that changed the world forever.