Bob and Lyn Irwin were a plumber and a nurse from a Melbourne suburb, who moved up north to the Sunshine Coast, bought four acres, and started a reptile park. Given a scrub python for his sixth birthday, Steve was more or less his television persona by the time he was a teenager, the larky lad with the winning spiel who talked the punters through his parents’ more ferocious exhibits. A lot of small, broken-down, underfunded animal parks around the world have an Irwinesque figure on the lot, and, in 99.99 percent of cases, the shtick’s good enough to get them that far but no farther. But Irwin was the right man at the right time, just as the cable specialty channels were taking off and just as environmentalism had sapped wildlife education of much of its fun. Irwin was always bursting with joy, and why wouldn’t he be? There are more crocs in Oz than ever before, and they’re larger than they used to be, too.
He also had the advantage of being Australian, which to American audiences puts you in the category of least-foreign foreigner: Australia, as Ishmael says in a book about another famous hunter who came a cropper underwater, is “that great America on the other side of the sphere.” Melville was overstating it a bit, but if you want to make it big in America as a media outdoorsman, being Aussie isn’t a bad idea. An American croc hunter comes freighted with all kinds of baggage: Is he your authentic red-state stump-toothed mountain man out of Deliverance, or some pantywaist NPR Bambi-boomer enviro-ninny like that bear guy up in Alaska who tried to get in touch with his inner self until a grizzly ripped it out of his chest for him? If you’re from Down Under, you avoid all that. Irwin hailed Australia’s (conservative) Prime Minister John Howard as “the greatest leader Australia has ever had, and the greatest leader in the world.” If he’d said that about Bush, he’d have been savaged more thoroughly than by any croc, but fortunately only seven Americans have heard of Mr. Howard.
There’s really only room for one popular Oz character in the American imagination at any one time. Irwin took Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee persona and artfully extended it to actual crocodiles. He stayed in his uniform of khaki shorts and short-sleeved shirt even when attending awards ceremonies. There were moments when he was laying on the “Crikeys!” and “Bonzas!” and “Fair dinkums!” so thick that you vaguely suspected he might be the Strine (that’s Oz talk) version of Maurice Chevalier, who inquired after the run-through of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” “Did I sound French enough?” Irwin always sounded Australian enough, happy in his role as his nation’s most internationally recognized larrikin and ocker and several other words that don’t translate terribly easily into American English. When the larrikin was interviewed by the near homophonic Larry King, the host attempted to pin down Irwin on some of the argot but never progressed much beyond, “‘Bloke’ is a man?” (You can’t put anything over on Larry.)
Some of Irwin’s compatriots were a tougher sell. It must be frustrating to explain to foreigners that your modern confident multicultural nation has outgrown its corked hat/boomerang/kangaroo caricature only to discover that the only Aussie they’ve heard of is the umpteenth variation of it. It’s true that Australians are, statistically, one of the most urbanized peoples on earth, and few have actually spent time in the outback, never mind wrestled crocs there. It’s also the case that Sydney has a lot more Thai restaurants than it used to—and, come to that, Muslim riots. But few national stereotypes are as appealing as Australia’s. By the time Steve Irwin’s countrymen became aware of his global success, he had more viewers in the United States than there are Australians in Australia.
If it was an act, it was very well done. Irwin was forty-four but still a boyish charmer, with a puppy-fat face and long hair that flipped up and down Charlie’s Angels-like in the bush. At the Australia Zoo, if his wife, Terri, caught him bending over to attend to an animal, she’d always give an appreciative wolf whistle. To be sure, it was something of a surprise to discover that Irwin died filming a segment for his daughter’s forthcoming television series, and that eight-year-old Bindi already has her own line of clothing. But the Irwins handled global celebrity less creepily than most.
I spent most of August in Australia, and the first question my children asked was: “Did you meet Steve Irwin?” Sadly, no, but they were impressed to hear I’d met folks who’d met him, like the prime minister and the foreign minister, whose Christmas card showed his family at the Irwins’ zoo. And up in Queensland I had the odd feeling of walking through a deserted set. I passed a weird potato-shaped mountain that seemed strangely familiar and realized I knew it from a picture of the Croc Hunter posed in front of it in his trademark crouch.
Less than twenty-four hours passed before the Animal Planet honchos announced that the channel would continue to air the Crocodile Hunter shows. But will the millions of children who adored Irwin’s life-affirming presence stick with him in posthumous reruns? Or will all those years of close encounters be retrospectively darkened by the very last one? However it turns out, anyone who raised young kids in the half decade either side of the turn of the century will retain a distant memory of a crazy bloke in shorts hugging some leathery old croc or fleeing a Komodo dragon. For him not to be doing it another decade or three seems a great injustice. Or, to modify a phrase, unfair dinkum.