Crocodile Hunter, Audience Charmer

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Steve Irwin spent much of his life not just tempting fate but petting it, riding its back and swinging it by the tail. In the end, fate snapped back.

Irwin, television's "Crocodile Hunter," died yesterday at the age of 44 in his native Australia after being stung by a stingray while shooting a new TV series along the Great Barrier Reef. It was a freaky way to go -- stingrays are rarely lethal -- but perhaps morbidly fitting, since imminent death was the unbilled co-star of Irwin's fascinating and entertaining career.

You watched Irwin as you watched a high-wire performer, never hoping for a slip but fully aware of how awful (and interesting) one would be. In his showman's heart, Irwin knew that "Crocodile Hunter" would never be captivating television if the animals he touched, held and occasionally provoked couldn't take him out with one snap of the jaws.

So, in his trademark safari shirt, khaki shorts and hiking boots (did the man ever wear anything else?), Irwin bounded gleefully into the viper's pit and the scorpion's den. He traveled the world to show off new nasties -- pythons, Komodo dragons, monitor lizards, tarantulas and, of course, massive crocs -- all without a doctor or rescue team anywhere in sight, the herpetologist's equivalent of working without a net.

There was a bit of gleeful, heedless joy in the way Irwin went about his adventures, as if he were a kid playing in a mud puddle. He actually seemed to like all the icky stuff. In one episode, he walked through a bat cave, taking a bat "shower" in the process. In another segment, he combat-crawled up to a pack of vultures as they fed on the remains of a hippo.

"One of my wildest boyhood dreams was getting close enough so that I was sharing the carcass with vultures," he said, by way of narration.

It was the kind of thing that invited the viewer to invoke Irwin's signature line: "Crikey!"

Irwin was also a relentless hype artist, forever pointing out the sheer folly, the craziness -- the "dain-jah!" -- of whatever he was doing. An unusual number of snakes seemed to rate his breathless description as "the world's most venomous," and this or that creature would be "one of the biggest I've ever seen," or "the most aggressive animal I've ever come across!"

But the man could hold viewers spellbound, beguiling them just as he charmed his snakes.

"I don't want to seem arrogant or bigheaded, but I have a real instinct with animals," he told me when I interviewed him several years ago. "I've grown up with them. . . . It's like I have an uncanny supernatural force rattling around my body. I tell you what, mate, it's magnetism."

Herpetologists scoffed at that, pointing out that many professionals handle dangerous animals without incident. (In fact, Irwin got bitten fairly regularly by non-venomous snakes and had one or two unpleasant encounters with crocodiles.) The pros were generally none too pleased with Irwin's antics, saying they simultaneously inflated the dangers of wild animals (most animals run away when confronted by humans, for example) while making wildlife handling seem like casual fun.

All of which may be true, but it missed the real appeal of "Crocodile Hunter." The concept -- guy meets nature's meanest -- would not have worked, or worked as well, had Marlin Perkins or Jack Hannah been the host. Only a personality as vivid and exuberant as Irwin's could have made the adventurer-among-the-beasts bit such compelling television.

American viewers, who saw the series on the Animal Planet channel, "got" Irwin immediately, I think. We've been trained to identify his type by a generation of Qantas airlines and Foster's beer commercials and "Crocodile Dundee" movies. Irwin was another of those unpretentious, outdoorsy, can-do Aussie blokes who seem so much more "American" to Americans than the British ever will.

In person (or at least on the telephone, which is how I spoke with him and his wife, Terri), Irwin seemed a lot like he did on TV -- amped-up, emphatic, sincere in his passion for preserving and protecting wildlife. He also sounded a bit humbled by his then-dawning TV career. Trained as a diesel mechanic (he never received a degree in any animal study), Irwin credited his love of the animal kingdom to his father, a plumber turned zookeeper. He said he never expected to be appearing on TV screens around the world.

One other thing: He really did say "crikey!" a lot.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company