The larger than life Crocodile Dundee is an unlikely candidate for having real life origins, but it's a little known fact that the riotous comedy character was based on a real man named Rod William Ansell, who emerged from much more tragic circumstances.
Although he never intended to become a celebrity, Ansell was shoved into the spotlight after the nation seized hold of his remarkable survival story. Below is an account of just how this reluctant popular figure inspired one of the first internationally recognized Australian comedies, and how his fame eventually indirectly led to him unravelling.
Born in 1954, Ansell lived simply in the 'Top End' territory of Northern Australia hunting wild buffalo for a living, but a remarkable feat of survival in the Outback after completing a contract job ended up thrusting him into the limelight in a spectacular fashion.
In May 1977, Ansell ended up "not lost, but stuck" in unfamiliar territory in Kununurra, Western Australia after his boat capsized on what he told his wife at the time was a 'fishing trip.' With only two 8 week old puppies (one of whom sustained a broken leg in the accident) for company and a rifle, a knife, some canned food and a roll of bedding to keep himself alive, Ansell managed to survive alone in the Outback for a staggering 56 days.
He recalled drinking the blood of cattle he hunted when water was scarce and sleeping in a forked tree at night in order to seek refuge from the crocodiles, who he later admitted he made the trip to poach in the first place.
Rod was eventually discovered when he heard the jingling of bells and was happened upon by aboriginal stockmen and their cattle manager, Luke McCall, Although Rod was emaciated, he was otherwise reasonably healthy and had even managed to nab himself the head of a 15 foot long crocodile as a souvenir.
Thrust Into the Spotlight
Once he was returned safely back home, Rod kept his seven-week ordeal to himself, fearing he would upset his mother with his recklessness. The local newspapers got wind of the story anyway and dubbed Ansell the 'modern day Robinson Crusoe,' but the bushman himself didn't think his feat of survival was that big a deal, he told interviewers that:
All the blokes up in this country, who work with cattle, ringers, stockmen, bull-catches, whatever, all of them, have really narrow shaves all the time. But they never talk about it...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. Until the paper got hold of the story, and that changed a lot of things.
While some people were sceptical about Rod's story and questioned why an experienced outdoorsman didn't just follow the river home, the story captured public imagination and culminated in a series of interviews, a documentary and a book deal - all of which helped to inspire Crocodile Dundee.
A Legend is Born
The legend of Rod Ansell's untamed Outback life really took off in 1981 when he was invited to Sydney to be interviewed by the British journalist, Michael Parkinson.
Ansell attended the interview barefoot, slept on a sleeping bag in the star of his five-star hotel as opposed to getting into the plush bed and was apparently totally bemused by the bidet. It was this interview that caught Paul Hogan's attention and led to him getting together with Ken Shadie and John Cornell to create Mick "Crocodile" Dundee, as you might be able to tell from scenes in the movie such as the one below:
Other aspects of Ansell's life were also borrowed for the comic character including the fact that he spoke Urapunga, the local Aboriginal language, fluently and reports from journalists that he was "articulate and likable, if somewhat intense."
Unfortunately, Ansell's involvement with the press alienated him from his rural peers and he later spoke of his rejection back home by saying:
Proving the point about the story being true or not wouldn't matter that much. Because the people it would affect, who affect me, are the people who live where I work, and know me. And 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.
Drugs and Destitution
The unexpected worldwide success of Crocodile Dundee angered Rod as he received no royalties from the character who was essentially a parody of his life and he eventually unsuccessfully took Hogan to court. The bitterness at remaining in poverty while his image was entertaining people around the world stayed with Ansell his whole life, and a series of devastating events that followed led to drug dependency and destitution.
Along with the upset and alienation caused by his time in the spotlight, Ansell was also forced to slaughter the 3000 feral buffalo that roamed his lang due to a controversial government campaign that sought to eradicate tuberculosis. His plans to domesticate the animals to create a herd to support his family were totally shattered and Rod's 15 year marriage failed as a result.
Although his neighbors were eventually awarded $100,000 in government loans, Ansell was never compensated for his losses and he began to grow marijuana to stay afloat which put him in touch with the drug dealers who facilitated him becoming a habitual amphetamine user.
Ansell began dating a fellow amphetamine user named Cherie Ann Hewson in 1996 and moved to Urapanga station where their shared drug addiction became more destructive, culminating in a psychotic episode that led to Ansell's death in a shootout with police. A police officer was also killed in the incident.
On August 3 1999, Rod was involved an altercation with two men which led to him shooting one of their index fingers off and costing one of them an eye. The motives for the attack are unclear, but the injured men claim that:
He was going on about stealing his children, and Freemasons, and being a baby killer ... oh, just, he was mad, mate.
It is believed that this shared paranoid delusion that Ansell shared with Hewson that members of the Freemasons had kidnapped his sons - Callum, then aged 20, and Shawn, 18 was ultimately what led to his death.
The next day police came to investigate and Ansell ambushed them from light scrub and peppered them with shots, killing Sergeant Glen Huitson in the process. Police returned fire and Rod Ansell was killed at the scene. Autopsies recorded that he had 33 bullet wounds from the approximately five minute long fire fight.
During the coroner's inquest, psychiatrist Robert Parker made the following observations on Ansell's mental state before his death:
There is no doubt that Ansell was affected by amphetamine intoxication prior to his fatal interaction with Sergeant Huitson...Ansell's behaviour prior to the initial shots being fired is consistent with amphetamine intoxication with restlessness, hypervigilance, anxiety, anger and impaired judgement (DSM IV). He was also affected by a paranoid psychotic state which is typical of chronic amphetamine use.