Sunday, July 14, 2002
Los Angeles Whether he's talking about falling in love with his wife or wrangling nature's toothiest beasts, the Crocodile Hunter has the wild-eyed glee of a little boy showing off squirming critters beneath a backyard rock.
A crooked, earnest smile reveals the goofy good nature at the heart of Steve Irwin, the excitable Australian naturalist known around the world for his offbeat nature documentaries.
"The Crocodile Hunter" series shown in 130 countries has charmed millions with Irwin's cries of "Crikey!" as various snakes, crocodiles, spiders, lizards and sharks have tried to snatch bites of him.
Now the 40-year-old zookeeper is taking his conservation message to moviegoers with the part-fiction, part-documentary comedy "The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course."
"Shooting some of those swamp scenes for the movie, I was wet for 10 days, 16 hours a day," he says. "I got a rash under me arm and lots of other places you can get a rash and, crikey, things biting me, salt-water lice and jellyfish ..."
But the challenges of the wild weren't bad for a man raised in the bush. Show business bothered him more.
"Learning lines, that was ï¿½ are you kidding me? ï¿½ that's pressure," Irwin groaned. "I have neither the patience nor the stamina for learning scripts."
This from a man who didn't mind the scene where he tackled a real thrashing crocodile and was dragged beneath his boat in the struggle.
Irwin's spirited monologues about the animals he encounters have always been improvised, so director-writer John Stainton gave his star only a brief outline of each scene and let "Steve-o" make up his own lines.
The movie co-stars Irwin's real-life American wife, Terri, and his 14-year-old, ailing, "stone-deaf" dog Sui (pronounced Sooey) as they attempt to capture and relocate a rogue 12-foot crocodile.
Most of the footage of them capturing the ornery creature is real, but a fictional subplot involves a group of CIA agents attempting to retrieve part of a fallen spy satellite the crocodile swallowed.
The Irwins, who own and manage the Australia Zoo in Queensland that his parents founded, are among that nation's highest-paid entertainers, earning nearly $9 million last year. They said they use all the money they make from "The Crocodile Hunter" name to preserve natural wildlife habitats and encouraging conservation.
Terri Irwin, who turns 38 this month, is a contrast to her husband's theatrics, the calm and collected one who avoids danger until he needs her help. They have a daughter, Bindi Sue, turning 4 this month, whose name came from one of the zoo's crocodiles and her father's dog.
Although there's no shortage of people trying to preserve cute and cuddly endangered species, the Irwins are unusual for championing dangerous predators.
"They're not sinister," Irwin said. "In this movie, the croc is the hero ï¿½ not me, not Terri."
The couple fell in love in 1991 amid the snapping of crocodile jaws and married after just a few months.
Steve Irwin, wearing his standard khaki shorts and shirt, hops eagerly up from the couch of a Los Angeles hotel and recounts the tale with animated ferocity.
Besides the movie, the Irwins are busy trying to have another child and they return to the Australian wild later this month to resume filming TV documentaries.
"Ten years of wedded bliss," Terri Irwin said of her relationship with the Crocodile Hunter. "Ten years of wondering if I'm going to die."