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Misleading Men: Australia’s Biggest Export

Paul Hogan was more than just Crocodile Dundee

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

Some actors’ charm is so potent — but also so fleeting — that it’s as unsurprising that they became huge stars as it is that they quickly fell off the map. These actors are less performers than they are memes — they’re human time capsules, a walking catchphrase with an unseen expiration date. It’s not that they did anything wrong: It’s just that we enjoyed them during their moment with absolute intensity, and then we moved on to somebody else.

Paul Hogan had such a long career that reducing it to a single blockbuster movie is kind of insulting. George Miller’s Mad Max came out in 1979, sparking Hollywood’s interest in the Australian landscape. The film starred Mel Gibson, who grew up in Australia, but was born in the United States. But long before Australian actors dominated Hollywood’s A-list, long before directors like Baz Luhrmann were given big budgets to create epics like 2008’s Australia (a bomb, but one that featured Aussie elites Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman), came the peak of Australian cinema: Paul Hogan and his 1986 film Crocodile Dundee — the second-highest-grossing film of that year in the U.S., and a worldwide phenomenon.

Before Hogan made it to Hollywood, he had to work his way up back in Australia: Hogan first appeared on New Faces — a kind of Star Search meets America’s Got Talent — and the news program A Current Affair. He had been working as a rigger and painted on Sydney Harbour Bridge, and his co-workers dared him to try out for the talent show, famous for judges who heckled the “talent.” As Hogan later recalled about his New Faces appearance, “I went on to persecute the professionals. … I gave [the judges] a big taste of their own medicine. But it was very accurate and it was funny. I picked out all of their shortcomings, pointed them out and told them what to work on.” He would become the show’s Grand Final Winner in 1973; He was 34 years old.

It worked, and Hogan would soon get his own sketch show. Premiering for Australian audiences in 1973, The Paul Hogan Show was slapstick-heavy, Benny Hill-style humor that spoofed cop shows, product placement and celebrities of the day like John McEnroe. None of it was very edgy, but the show was deeply silly and likeable throughout its 11-year run.Hogan came across as an affable, low-key star, always playing the role with aw-shucks modesty, as if he couldn’t quite believe he’d been given his own show. It was a huge hit in his homeland, and syndicated in 40 other countries.

Hogan’s appeal quickly caught on — he did commercials for Winfield cigarettes and Foster’s beer — but it was his campaign for Australian tourism in the early ’80s that helped attract a mainstream American audience. “I’ll put another shrimp on the barbie for ya!” he quite literally says at the end, poking fun at the very American way to imitate an Australian accent.

After being part of the Australian World War I miniseries, Anzacs, Hogan had an idea to base a movie character on the life of Rod Ansell — who, in 1977, survived seven weeks alone in the Outback after his boat sank. Ansell became Hogan’s Mick “Crocodile” Dundee, a lovable, outdoorsy rogue. Like Ansell, Dundee survived a deadly encounter with nature — in his case, a crocodile attack — prompting a sophisticated New York reporter (played by Linda Kozlowski) to fly halfway across the globe to interview this larger-than-life, backwoods figure. The legend of “Crocodile” ends up being a bit of a distortion — Dundee didn’t lose a leg — but sparks fly between the rugged Aussie and the uptight American, who invites the bushman to travel with her back to the States. Along the way, they fall in love.

Americans loved Hogan’s fish-out-of-water act: Crocodile Dundee went a long way on the strength of its star’s no-big-whoop aura. As The New York Times review said at the time, “He has an easy, extremely likable screen personality — a mixture of warmth, sex appeal, disarming innocence and dry humor.” All true: Handsome but approachable, Dundee was a modern-day cowboy. Hollywood had found a new kind of leading man who didn’t have the raging biceps of a Sylvester Stallone or the cocky strut of a young hotshot like Tom Cruise. (Funny to think that, when Crocodile Dundee opened in the fall of ’86, Hogan was about to turn 47 — practically ancient for a newly-minted movie star.)

Crocodile Dundee became the biggest film in Australian box-office history — 30 years later, it still is — and ended up No. 2 in the U.S. for 1986, just barely getting beat out by Cruise’s Top Gun. Hogan won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy, and he and his co-writers earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. He even spoke at that year’s Academy Awards, advising his fellow nominees how to make the show less boring. It was a master class in Hogan’s brand of disarming charm:

Hogan ultimately lost in his category, the Oscar going to Woody Allen for Hannah and Her Sisters. But he was that year’s feel-good story: the friendly foreigner who had captured our hearts. (“It was a such an extraordinary thing,” Hogan said in 2013 about the experience of making Crocodile Dundee. “Everything was a first. It was my first film script.”)

As with many foreign fads, America’s love affair with Hogan didn’t last long. Although 1988’s Crocodile Dundee II was a hit, the bloom had already started to fade. Hogan began to feel like an artifact, and later movies like Almost an Angel and Lightning Jack suffered from the fact that they starred that guy who used to be Crocodile Dundee. By the mid-‘90s, the original film’s most quotable lines — “That’s a knife!” — seemed as musty as “Where’s the beef?”

Even Hogan seemed to understand the limits of his appeal. “I don’t think I’m ever gonna be looked upon as another Robert De Niro or Dustin Hoffman — you know, as Mr. Versatile,” he told an interviewer around the release of 1990’s Almost an Angel. “I’ll just do a movie and hope it entertains people.” In the same conversation, he brushed off the idea of doing any more Dundee movies: “He’s not James Bond — can’t send him around the world solving crimes.” But there was indeed one more sequel: The poorly-received Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles opened in 2001, failing to make much of a whimper. Hogan was 61 years old.

Still, since Hogan, there hasn’t been a star who so perfectly captured that rugged teddy-bear dichotomy, a true hero from the Australian outback. American audiences are fickle: We’ll go gaga over a foreign-born actor because there’s something cutely exotic about him, but we’ll also discard him pretty quickly once the novelty wears off. Hogan came into our orbit, tempting us to visit the vast lands of untouched Australia. We spent some time there, loved it, but eventually decided to go back home.

Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch and the author of six books, including Martin Scorsese in Ten Scenes.

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