Played by Paul Hogan, Crocodile Dundee was an Aussie outback hero who took the 1980s box office by storm with a mix of strength, fearlessness and unashamed political incorrectness. But the man who actually inspired the series of adventure comedies made his big screen counterpart look tame in comparison. Here’s a look at the astonishing true story of the real-life Crocodile Dundee.
The man nicknamed Crocodile Dundee was, of course, born with a slightly more conventional name, Rod Ansell, in 1954. After growing up in the Queensland town of Murgon with his parents and three siblings, the future croc wrangler left for the Northern Territory in his mid-teens. There he began his adventurer career hunting for wild water buffalo.
Ansell became a household name in 1977 after a disastrous trip to the Victoria River, which nearly cost him his life. His ordeal began when the motorboat he was traveling in suddenly capsized. In the first of many incredulous claims about the incident, Ansell told the press that none other than a whale was responsible.
Ansell not only managed to save himself by boarding the small dinghy that had been on the motorboat. Incredibly, he also managed to rescue the two very young bull terriers he had taken with him for company as well as sundry vital equipment. But Ansell’s nightmare was only just beginning.
Indeed, Ansell’s dinghy was still approximately 120 miles away from human civilization. And one of his poor terriers had broken his leg during the capsizing. Luckily, Ansell and his two dogs eventually drifted out to a tiny Fitzmaurice River island. Unluckily, the adventurer had to spend the next two full days completely dehydrated before finally discovering fresh water.
Ansell’s natural hunting skills sure came in handy for food. He and his dogs mostly lived on a diet of buffalo and wild cattle during their marooning, with the latter’s blood sometimes used as a water substitute too. Ansell was also forced to spend the night sleeping in trees to avoid the crocodiles below, but he did manage to kill one while he was up there.
Ansell didn’t bank on anyone coming to his rescue. Not only had the hunter told folks he’d be absent for several months, but he was miles away from the Victoria River, which he was supposed to be sailing on. In the end, he was saved by a cattle manager and two Aboriginal cowboys, who had come nearby. Initially, Ansell decided to keep his survival story to himself for fear of getting a slapped wrist from his mother.
In fact, he initially remained rather blasé about the whole incident. In an early interview, he said, “I think the opinion is that if you come through in one piece, and you’re still alive, then nothing else really matters. It’s like going out to shoot a kangaroo. You don’t come back and say you missed by half-an-inch. You either got him or you didn’t. So that is how I looked at it.”
However, somehow the local press heard about Ansell’s ordeal and splashed it on the front pages, christening him the “modern-day Robinson Crusoe” in the process. Shortly after, the hunter embarked on a different kind of adventure: marriage. Ansell walked down the aisle with radio operator Joanne van Os, with the pair then welcoming sons Callum in 1979 and Shawn two years later.
Despite marriage and children, Ansell didn’t exactly settle for a life of normal domesticity. In fact, he and his family spent most of their first few years together sheltering under nothing more than a canvas sheet. They used a campfire to make their food, and they went without both running water and electricity.
Ansell continued to maintain a public profile thanks to To Fight the Wild, a 1979 documentary exploring his island ordeal by Richard Oxenburgh. However, not everyone took the claims made in the film at face value. Indeed, many Top End natives couldn’t understand why Ansell decided against simply going downstream to the closest town. Other more skeptical locals even believed that Ansell’s story was nothing more than an attention-seeking stunt.
There was also an air of mystery over what the point of Ansell’s journey to the Aussie wilderness was. The hunter had initially claimed that he had simply been fishing. But he later admitted to his nearest and dearest that he’d gone out to establish his status as a crocodile hunter.
Ansell’s story soon began to gain traction across the world. In 1981 he was interviewed on TV by celebrated British talk show host Michael Parkinson. Ansell appeared barefoot during the chat and recalled how he was left mystified by the five-star hotel that he’d recently stayed at. Indeed, the hunter admitted that he had eschewed the king-sized bed to sleep on the floor and that the concept of a bidet had completely bewildered him.
Ansell’s Parkinson appearance, and his big city tales in particular, attracted the attention of a certain Paul Hogan. Alongside John Cornell and Ken Shadie, the Aussie actor subsequently penned the screenplay for a little fish out of water comedy you might just have heard of, Crocodile Dundee. Hogan’s leading character actually sleeps exactly the same way as Ansell during the scene in which he stays at a New York hotel.
Despite his obvious influence on the movie, which also spawned two sequels, Ansell never made a penny from it. Not that he didn’t try. In fact, the real-life Crocodile Dundee ended up taking legal action against Hogan for compensation. But his trip to court didn’t end in the result he wanted.
Ansell had only became aware of Crocodile Dundee when he started to receive calls about the similarities between his story and the film. In 1988 he gave his review to People magazine, saying, “An excellent movie, hey? Good fun. But it was so obvious where he got his material from.”
Before heading to court, Ansell asked Hogan whether he could describe himself as “the real Crocodile Dundee” in a new adventure-tour business venture. The Aussie actor’s partner then replied with a letter that threatened legal action if Ansell was ever to refer to himself in such a manner. Understandably, Ansell felt aggrieved.
Indeed, he told People, “I really can’t understand their position. I explained very carefully that I was willing to sign a piece of paper saying I had no rights to royalties. All I want is the right to say what they’ve already said: that Hoges got the idea from myself. It could really help my little thing here.”
As well as failing to benefit financially from his big screen portrayal, Ansell also found that his new-found high profile cost him many friends. The survivalist described what had happened, “People up here have a phobia about appearing on the media. So that was detrimental to my standing in their eyes… they thought it was a terrible thing to do.”
Ansell may have fallen out of favor with some of the locals. But not everyone was dismayed by his rise to global fame. Indeed, in 1987 the buffalo hunter was crowned Territorian of the Year by the Northern Territory government for helping to boost the Top End area’s international profile.
Meanwhile, Ansell returned to a relatively normal life on his Melaleuca cattle station situated close to Kakadu National Park. His family also lived on the station, which was named after the type of paper bark trees that could be seen throughout the area. But sadly, Ansell once again soon suffered financial heartbreak through no fault of his own.
Indeed, in the late 1980s the Northern Territory government forced Ansell to slaughter roughly 3,000 feral buffalo and without any compensation too. This was due to the BTEC campaign, which was devised to completely eradicate the cattle industry’s problem with disease. Understandably, Ansell was not happy with the situation.
In fact, Ansell felt that the government’s initiative was entirely unnecessary. The adventurer had initially intended to singlehandedly catch the wild buffalo before domesticating them to create a pastoral herd. Ansell claimed that the costs of the BTEC campaign would have been more useful had they been put towards AIDS research instead.
To make matters worse, the Ansell family didn’t receive a cent from the Northern Territory government for what they said was the destruction of their livelihood. Meanwhile, three graziers who lived nearby did receive a six-figure loan to help out with their predicaments. And just a few years later, things became even worse for Ansell.
Indeed, in 1991 the Ansells were left with no option but to put their cattle station up for sale. Alongside the devastation caused by the BTEC initiative, the family had been hit hard by a particular type of weed, Mimosa pigra, that had started to dominate their floodplain. Strapped for cash, the Ansells couldn’t deal with the problem and had to move elsewhere.
The change in situation precipitated the end of Ansell’s marriage to wife Joanne. With both his personal and professional life in tatters, the survivalist turned to drugs. As well as starting to grow his own marijuana crop, he also developed an amphetamine habit that would ultimately contribute to his downfall.
Ansell also got into trouble with the law in 1992 when he was charged with and convicted of stealing cattle. The hunter was found guilty of assaulting the eastern Top End cattle property’s owner too. However, his conviction seems to have resulted in a relatively lenient punishment – a fine and a placement on a good behavior bond.
In 1996 Ansell entered into a relationship with Cherie Hewson, a fellow drug user. The pair lived at an Aboriginal outstation approximately 300 miles south of the nearest major city, Darwin. Subsequently, Ansell entered a downward spiral of dependence that reportedly resulted in Ansell developing a psychotic state of paranoia.
Ansell’s descent ended in tragedy in August 1999 after a gunfight with police near Acacia Hills. The shootout began when, for reasons still unknown, the hunter fired at officers James O’Brien and Glen Anthony Huitson at a roadblocked highway intersection. The latter died after being struck in his stomach by a shot that ricocheted off a police vehicle.
A five-minute shootout between Ansell and the Adelaide River Police then ensued in which the former was also fatally struck. Twelve hours previously, Ansell had also fired at two homes close to the same area while accompanied by his girlfriend. After that, Hewson had fled before the next morning’s shootout and handed herself in four days later at a Brisbane police station.
Officials were initially baffled why Ansell turned his gun on them when it would have been much easier for him to simply bypass the roadblock. However, it was eventually discovered that his amphetamine use had played a major part. Ansell believed that his two children had been abducted by Freemasons and that he was their next target.
Psychiatrist Robert Parker backed up the theory that amphetamine intoxication had been instrumental in Ansell’s behavior. Indeed, in the coroner’s inquest, Parker listed restlessness, anxiety, hypervigilance, impaired judgment and anger as some of the obvious side effects displayed by the hunter during the shootout. And that wasn’t all that he had discovered.
Indeed, Parker reported that Ansell had formed a shared psychosis with his girlfriend Hewson that had proved to have fatal consequences. This state of delusion is more commonly known as a folie à deux. The psychiatrist also determined that the couple’s abuse of amphetamines had more than likely intensified their respective mental health vulnerabilities.
Apparently, the tragedy first started to unfold the night before with a disturbing vision Hewson claims that she had. The troubled individual told Ansell that she’d seen three camouflaged bow hunters, complete with night vision goggles, moving around the bush camp that the pair were staying at. This apparently sent Ansell into a heightened state of paranoia.
Ansell and Hewson then traveled 250 miles to a small hamlet known as Livingstone where the former shot at a house. Incredibly, those inside the property didn’t report the incident. Ansell was subsequently free to open fire at another home in the rundown area, which was a hotspot for the growth of cannabis.
This time around, Ansell began shooting at a family of three before being thwarted by a heroic neighbor. The man in question first drove his truck directly into Ansell’s field of fire and later attacked him with a baseball bat. The brave individual suffered a serious injury and lost one of his fingers during the ordeal before Ansell managed to escape.
Ansell’s autopsy reported that he was struck 30 times by police officials’ shotguns during the shootout the following day. And the deadly shot was the one that pierced his aorta. The adventurer was buried at the Mount Catt area of Arnhem Land. His two children had requested an Aboriginal ceremony. Along with Callum and Shawn, Ansell’s parents also attended the funeral.
You may be wondering why Ansell was given an Aboriginal funeral. Well, before his death, he had been residing at an Aboriginal outstation 300 miles south of Darwin on the Roper river. The Aboriginal community had accepted the cattle grazier as one of their own. And he often spoke of his affinity with the indigenous tribe.
In Ansell’s coroner report, Magistrate Wallace commented on how the real-life Crocodile Dundee ended his days in a state far removed from his fictional counterpart. In fact, Ansell was only just over 50kg at the time of the shootout compared to the muscular action hero portrayed in the movie. And Wallace had some scathing final words about the man too.
Indeed, Wallace ended his report ensuring that Ansell would become far more renowned for his cowardice than his heroics. He said, “His drug abuse rendered his mind so addled he believed fantasies that a child would dismiss with contempt. His pointless and destructive actions caused immediate agony and suffering to the men he wounded.”