'Crocodile Dundee' Turns 30: How the Underdog From Down Under Became a Box-Office Smash

CROCODILE DUNDEE, Linda Kozlowski, Paul Hogan, 1986
‘Crocodile Dundee’ (Paramount/Everett)

If you look at the list of the top-grossing movies released over the last few years, you’ll find that most are safe bets, like big-budget franchises, sequels, and reboots. But it wasn’t always that way: Thirty years ago this week, a low-budget Australian import about a bushwhacking guy with a funny name was able to arrive from deep Down Under and become a global phenomenon and the second-biggest movie of the year in the United States. That movie was Crocodile Dundee.

In the 1980s, Australian cinema was thriving at home, and filmmakers like Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock) and George Miller (Mad Max) were emerging on the world stage, but the country had yet to produce a true international hit. At the time, Paul Hogan was one of Australia’s biggest TV stars, having headlined a popular sketch comedy series from 1973 to 1984. He’d even become a familiar face in the United States, after appearing in a series of TV commercials for the Australian Tourism Commission that helped to single-handedly boost American tourism to the country by nearly 40 percent (and introduced Americans to the phrase “put another shrimp on the barbie.”)

But Hogan, then 46, was keen to break into movies. With his TV collaborators John Cornell and Ken Shadie, Hogan wrote Crocodile Dundee, in which he played the title character, a bushman who’s survived an incredible ordeal with a hungry croc. (Hogan has always maintained he invented Dundee, but the story had some similarities with the real-life tale of a celebrated Aussie survivalist, Rod Ansell, who, years later, would die in a gun battle with police.) The news of Dundee’s exploits attracts the attention of New York journalist (American actress Linda Kozlowski), who travels to Australia for a story on the local hero.

There, the amiable Dundee shows her the way of the bush, with the pair facing down snakes, crocodiles, and rowdy local kangaroo poachers. But soon, she’s not the one who’s a fish out of water, as she persuades the Aussie — who’s falling for her fast — to accompany her back to New York City, where he’s as baffled by the nightlife, muggers, and social customs as she was in the outback.

CROCODILE DUNDEE, Paul Hogan, 1986
“Crocodile Dundee” (Paramount/Everett)

It’s an oddly structured film in some respects — divided almost exactly into two halves and loosely plotted at best. It was billed as an adventure, but feels closer to an old-fashioned, almost-screwball rom-com. And it sits uneasily for a viewer with 2016 sensibilities — at times, the film is casually sexist, homophobic, and racist (“What tribe are you in?” Dundee asks his African-American limo driver, played by Die Hard costar Reginald VelJohnson.) What helps alleviate some of the film’s more problematic moments is Dundee’s genuine goodwill towards everyone he meets — everybody remembers the famous “That’s not a knife” scene, but they’ve probably forgotten the way our hero brushes off the muggers afterwards as “Just kids having fun.”

It’s also hard to deny that the movie has gallons of charm. That’s mostly thanks to Hogan, who pulls the film along with the sheer force of his charisma. It’s not hard to see why he seemed so refreshing: When compared to the muscle-bound action stars of the era, his leathery good looks, naïve unflappability, and rugged masculinity made him more like an old-school gentleman cowboy.

The movie was released in Australia in April 1986 and became a monster hit — to this day, it remains the most successful home-grown film ever at the Australian box office. But that was far from the end of its success: Paramount won a fierce bidding war to distribute the film in the United States. After test audiences were baffled by some of the Australian slang, the studio cut the film down by about 10 minutes and released it stateside on Sept. 26, 1986.

The results were immediate — the film opened at No. 1, and kept bringing audiences in, staying in theaters for an amazing nine months. It eventually ended up with $175 million in the United States, and $328 million worldwide (which, put in perspective, is equivalent to $751 million today.)

Watch a trailer for the movie:

It wasn’t just a hit with audiences, either. Reviews were glowing (“delightful!” wrote the New York Times), and the film even did well on the awards circuit — Hogan won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical, and with his co-writers, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay the next year. And who co-hosted the Oscars that year alongside Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase? Hogan — cementing his overnight transformation into a major star in America.

Paramount swiftly produced Crocodile Dundee II in 1988, reteaming Hogan and Kozlowski, who’d become a real-life couple (they were married from 1990 to 2013.) But Hogan’s attempts to diversify were less successful: He turned down megahit Ghost, and his starring vehicles, Almost an Angel, Lightning Jack and Flipper, all flopped.

At one point, Paramount suggested a crossover movie teaming Dundee with Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley from the Beverly Hills Cop movies, but it never got off the ground. A third film was eventually made, 2001’s Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles, but it tanked at the box office, and the franchise’s time was officially over. Hogan all but retired from the screen — he spent much of the next 10 years in a battle with the Australian government over taxes.

Still, Hogan and his most memorable creation remain iconic at home — the actor even appeared riding a giant hat at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. And though the series has faded away in pop culture, Hogan was nevertheless responsible (for better or worse) for introducing a certain image of Australia to the world. From leading men like Russell Crowe to Jai Courtney’s Suicide Squad character Captain Boomerang, they’ve all had a little Crocodile Dundee in them.