The 1986 movie Crocodile Dundee was an unlikely success story. It seemed to come out of nowhere with no big names attached and ended up as the second highest-grossing movie of the year, beaten only by Top Gun. It transformed Americans’ view of Australia, led to the “knifey-spoony” gag on The Simpsons and made star Paul Hogan a colossal amount of money.
Hogan was a familiar face on Australian TV, both as a comedian in a long-running sketch show and in commercials as the face of Winfield cigarettes, while in the U.S., he had starred in a series of ads for the Australian Tourism Commission with the still-famous catchphrase, “Put another shrimp on the barbie.” But Crocodile Dundee made him an international superstar.
However, while the character Mick Dundee ended up saving the day, getting the girl and living happily ever after, the man that inspired his adventures ended his days broken and paranoid in a murderous, speed-fueled shootout.
A lifelong outdoorsman, Rod Ansell moved from Queensland to the deeply rural Northern Territory at the age of 15 to catch buffalo. When he was 22, he told his girlfriend he was going on a fishing trip that might last a few months. He traveled up the Fitzmaurice River with his two dogs, until a crocodile — or, according to some of his retelling of the tale, a whale — overturned his boat. He and the dogs then lived off the land for two months, sleeping in trees, scooping honey out of beehives and sleeping with snakes, eventually being found by a pair of Aboriginal trackers and brought to safety.
When he told the story to the press, it became more and more outlandish, with claims of shooting sharks, eating goannas and drinking buffalo blood to survive. The media nonetheless jumped on it, and Ansell became an instant folk hero, a charismatic salt-of-the earth lovable rogue. Nobody seemed to mind the fact that he had actually set off on his trip to poach crocodiles — the guy was charming. He was eventually flown to Sydney to be interviewed for TV, cheerfully telling interviewer Michael Parkinson how he slept on the hotel floor because he wasn’t used to beds.
He was also reportedly mystified by the hotel’s bidet, a detail Hogan put into his movie wholesale.
As the money rolled in, Ansell’s role in the genesis of the film became more and more downplayed. He was legally forbidden from describing himself as “the Real Crocodile Dundee” when setting up a tourist getaway on his land, telling People: “I mean, it’s not like Hoges ever called me up and said, ‘Hey Rod, mind if I use bits and pieces of your story?’ When I asked, I thought he’d say, ‘Yeah, sure mate, go ahead.’ But it didn’t happen like that at all, hey?”
Where Hogan’s co-writers had originally mentioned Ansell in interviews, now they insisted the character arrived fully-formed in Hogan’s head. (There is — or was — another claimant to the “real-life Crocodile Dundee” throne. Latvian-born Arvids Blumentals, also known as “Crocodile Harry,” was a former crocodile-hunter-turned-opal-miner who lived in an underground house covered in porn with hundreds of pairs of panties dangling from the ceiling.)
While Hogan became phenomenally wealthy, Ansell didn’t get any money, something he became extremely bitter about. He was named Territorian of the Year by the Northern Territory government for his part in drawing attention to the region, but it hardly compared to Hollywood millions. He and his wife and sons lived on a ranch, where the government’s campaign to eradicate bovine brucellis and tuberculosis forced them to kill their cattle, something Ansell insisted he was never properly compensated for.
Essentially, Ansell’s notoriety couldn’t keep the family out of poverty. They were forced to sell their cattle station, and their marriage fell apart. (Interestingly for anyone convinced everyone in Australia knows each other, Ansell’s former wife, writer Joanne van Os, is the aunt of Chris, Luke and Liam Hemsworth.) In 1992, Ansell was convicted of cattle raiding and assaulting the owner of a rival property. In the meantime, he started growing and selling weed and injecting speed.
In 1996, he began living in an Aboriginal community with his new girlfriend, Cherie Hewson, becoming more and more drug-dependent. By 1999, he weighed barely 115 pounds, a far cry from the muscular outdoorsman he had been, and was prone to paranoid fantasies. He became convinced the Freemasons had kidnapped his sons, and that he and Hewson were under surveillance by Satanic hunters with night-vision goggles.
On August 2, 1999, he fired six times on a caravan belonging to a friend of his, who slept inside with his wife and daughter. A neighbor came to investigate and was shot through his truck window, losing an eye; another came at Ansell with a bat and got shot in the hand. “I smacked him straight down the forehead, and that’s when he blew my hand off,” Brian Williams later told police. “He was going on about stealing his children, and Freemasons, and being a baby killer… Oh, just, he was mad, mate.”
Ansell disappeared into the bush. Roadblocks were set up to intercept him, but he evaded them by clinging to the back of a truck, before returning to fire at police. He shot mover Jonathan Anthonysz through the pelvis, and in the ensuing gunfight, killed policeman Glen Huitson with a shot to the abdomen, below where his bulletproof vest protected him. Two tactical response unit vehicles had crashed into each other, and Ansell was lining shots up to pick everyone off when another officer managed to shoot him dead. He fell, face down, in the dirt, barefoot as ever. In total, Ansell was shot 33 times. He was 44 years old.
He didn’t need to fire at the police. He had escaped, but chose to return. Whether he did it knowing he would be killed, or had some larger plan, or was just fucked-up and confused, will never be known. The magistrate who prepared the coroner’s report said in his findings that “[Ansell’s] drug abuse rendered his mind so addled he believed fantasies that a child would dismiss with contempt.”
Posthumously, Ansell — or a cherry-picked version of his story — was briefly championed by right-wing American figures including Alex Jones, who chose to ignore the “paranoid murderous rampage” elements and reduce it to “the police shot the real Crocodile Dundee for having unlicensed weapons,” the suggestion being that a legend had been killed due to stupid, finickity laws.
Ansell’s descent from beloved rogue to delusional murderer was a brutal one. A life that had been defined by a charmingly-told tall tale and immortalized in comedy ended quite differently, a tragic end for all involved. A third Crocodile Dundee film came out two years after Ansell’s death, an unwanted and unloved sequel. It carried the credit “based on characters created by Paul Hogan.”