U.S. audiences were first introduced to Mick “Crocodile” Dundee on Sept. 26, 1986.
On Sept. 26, 1986, “Crocodile Dundee” hit theaters in the United States, and Paul Hogan became the face of Australia.
The film, about an Australian bushman who shows a New York journalist the outback before following her back for his first visit to the big city, presented a narrative—and a man—that would define the continent to audiences around the world.
For better or worse—and over the past 30 years it has primarily been for better—the 1986 film is intrinsically linked to the continent.
The story of how it happened, and how Paul Hogan became Australia's representative around the world, is about as fantastic as the film's plot.
The star of “Crocodile Dundee” was no stranger to American television audiences of the 1980s.
He had already made an impact on tourism to Australia, as documented by Jesse Desjardins in a master's thesis on the phenomenon of “Dundee,” in an advertising campaign where he offered to put another “shrimp on the barbie” for visitors to the “wonder down under”:
Hogan spent 10 years working construction before brushing with fame, first making a name for himself with Australian audiences on a show called “New Faces.” On the show, contestants would perform a talent only to be ridiculed by the show's judges. (Simon Cowell had nothing on these guys.)
Hogan had joked with his fellow construction workers about the show, and then in 1971 wrote in to be a contestant saying he was a “knife-throwing tap dancer.” He got on (because who wouldn't want to see a knife-throwing tap dancer?) and then he spent his time on the show insulting the judges.
The audience ate it up, and “Hoges”' appearances on “New Faces” got him a regular bit on a television news show where he met John Cornell, a journalist-turned-television-producer who became his business partner. After they parlayed his television fame into two wildly successful advertising endorsements—for Winfield cigarettes and Fosters beer, of course—Hogan donated his time to the tourism ads, slowly but surely building an audience in America for his brand of Australia. In retrospect, the pair's strategy looks like it was all done to lead up to “Crocodile Dundee,” which turned Hogan's Australian everyman bit into a blockbuster movie character.
But while Cornell and Hogan had their eyes on the Hollywood prize, as the The New York Times reported in 1988, they incidentally filmed the best destination advertisement ever created.
The iconic images of the “outback” in “Crocodile Dundee” (and “Crocodile Dundee II”) were filmed in Kakadu National Park, the location of a former uranium mine in the Northern Territory outside of Darwin.
“In ’86, Australians hadn't even been to Kakadu, let alone Americans,” Peter Hook, communications manager at Kakadu Tourism, told Travel + Leisure. “Basically Kakadu was a mining area. Uranium was its biggest mineral. The government actually built a road from Darwin to Kakadu—not for tourism, but for mining.”
Today, there are roads to take visitors to those ancient, scenic vistas, but that wasn't the case in 1986. To get a professional film crew to the area was a feat.
The choice of Kakadu for “Crocodile Dundee” came down to a man named Craig Bolles.
“The location was terribly important for the film,” Bolles, who did all the location scouting in Australia, told Kakadu Tourism earlier this year. “It showcased a part of Australia that I don’t think had been seen...and it was inherent in Paul’s nature. He seemed to fit into the landscape perfectly.”
Hogan had grown up in a Sydney suburb, but it was Kakadu that became his cinematic home.
“I had an open brief to choose anywhere in Australia that I thought suitable,” said Bolles, who also considered the northwest region of Kimberley, but ruled it out as too extreme. And Kakadu already posed many challenges for filming.
“Kakadu was a very different place in the 1980s to what it is today,” he said. “Only the main road was sealed (paved) and there were no hotel facilities at all as far as I can remember.”
In fact, it didn't seem there was anywhere for the crew to stay, until Bolles—who spent weeks on making it physically possible for crews and equipment to reach places like Jim Jim Falls and Gunlom Waterfall Creek—happened upon abandoned housing for miners the government had put in.
As anyone who has seen the film knows, the effort paid off.
“Certainly there has been no other place in Australia that has been so well represented and well captured as Hogan did for Kakadu,” Hook told T+L. “It's hard to imagine that anybody could do it as genuinely as he did. ”
On a budget of a little more than $7 million, “Crocodile Dundee” brought in more than $300 million at the box office.
Released two years later, “Crocodile Dundee II” repeated that success, bringing in almost $240 million.
Hook says “Crocodile Dundee” couldn't have come out at a better time.
“The timing also was very important, because mid-1980s was when we had a massive wave of American interest in Australia,” he said. “Airfares became a lot more accessible. The Australian dollar was quite low...and, interestingly, that's the scenario now.”
As for why it worked, Tourism Australia's Managing Director John O'Sullivan credits authenticity.
“It's about the genuine nature of the message and the characters within those films,” O'Sullivan told Travel + Leisure.
Today Chris Hemsworth has taken on being the spokesperson for Australia, but Hogan's legacy is anything but forgotten.
“I think the tourism industry in Australia owes Paul Hogan a hell of a lot of gratitude,” said O'Sullivan.
In the past decade, local tourism offices and businesses all around Australia have joined together in an unprecedented effort to promote tourism to not just Sydney or Melbourne, but to all around Australia.
“One of the big challenges we're really seeking to address is certainly opening up more parts of the country,” said O'Sullivan. “A lot of people think that if you've come to Australia and you've done Sydney Harbor and the Great Barrier Reef, that's it.”
And though Tourism Australia and its many local counterparts are looking to the future, they can also look back for how to inspire travelers.
“In [the first 45 minutes of the film], you see the incredible billabongs...you see the landscapes, which people can see just as Hogan did in the film,” Hook, at Kakadu Tourism, told T+L.
“You look down, and you could be just like Paul Hogan, as if you're the only person in Kakadu. The sense of that you are seeing something special, and quite exclusive, I think that is still very much true to today,” he said. “You can go somewhere and be the only person in your own private rock pool.”
But there's more to it than landscapes, and as Mick Dundee emphasizes in the films, respect for the land and the people is integral to the country.
“The indigenous people of Kakadu go back 50,000 years, and you can get to sites in Kakadu where you can see the story unfolding in front of your eyes: the representations in art over 50,000 years,” said Hook. “I think that's the lesson for anyone who wants to come to Kakadu. Don't look at it like a theme park.”
There have been other films that have featured Australia's amazing landscapes, but according to many observers, “Crocodile Dundee” was unique.
“For me what that film and what he did [was bring] to life that we're a country of friendly and welcoming people,” said O'Sullivan. “[Hogan] certainly introduced the indigenous Australian culture into the U.S.”
“The difference with ‘Crocodile Dundee’ is the actual narrative of the film, this man outside his comfort zone, really resonated,” said Hook. “There was a depth to the film that's made it last.”