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Chopper, Eric Bana, the chook and me

“It’s not the fastest gunslingers in the Wild West who are remembered. It’s the ones who palled up with the drunken journos on the Penny Dreadfuls who became famous.”

From my 1990 Christmas card.

From my 1990 Christmas card.Credit:John Silvester

In 1990, I wrote a two-page story after Read had – against all odds – been acquitted in the Supreme Court of the murder of Siam Ozerkam. It was not a complimentary piece.

Read responded by sending me a Christmas card. It was not complimentary either. But it was funny.

We corresponded, and I visited him in Pentridge Prison’s notorious H Division. Unlike the movies, there was no perspex shield separating us as we sat at a modest table.

Read didn’t sugarcoat his crimes, bragging about his misdeeds and lampooning his enemies, describing them as mice, wobbly-bottomed and as “dangerous as a ladies’ hairdresser”.

The book fell apart, but the sales were a different matter.

The book fell apart, but the sales were a different matter.Credit:

I wrote another story about his lack of remorse that left the Parole Board with no choice but to keep him in prison for several more months. Rather than sook, Chopper was delighted at the press and suggested we collaborate on a book. He sent me hundreds of letters and with colleague Andrew Rule we self-published Chopper from the Inside.

We failed to use enough glue in the first print run, which meant they fell apart, but at around $10 no one seemed to care. It went bananas.

Chopper was released, vowed to go straight, went to Tasmania, promptly shot local crook Sid Collins in the guts and was back inside by the time his second book Chopper 2: Hits and Memories hit the shelves.

At one up-market bookshop it was placed in the prime position next to the cash register. I asked why and the disgusted staff member said they had no choice because it was stolen so often. Who says crime doesn’t pay?

Both books spent months on the bestseller list, selling more than 500,000 copies in Australia and no doubt leading many real authors to wonder why they bothered.

Crime fiction writer Peter Corris summed up Read’s contribution to literature as “badly written, cliched, chaotically organised and partly bogus”. We put that on the cover of the next book.

Not everyone was critical, and soon we received pitches from would-be moviemakers. We decided to go with the relatively unknown but impressive Michelle Bennett. In June 1993 we signed for an initial option fee of $1500 – hardly Hollywood. Instead of celebrating with cocaine, we ordered cheeseburgers.

The director was novice Andrew Dominik, who specialised in music videos. It was his first feature film. Two years later promoter and music agent Michael Gudinski, looking to expand his Mushroom label into movies, bought in as co-producer.

In the early days it was said Russell Crowe was keen to play Chopper, but after his 1997 breakout role in LA Confidential his fee would have swallowed the whole budget (then around $3 million).

The rookie director and the controversial subject made it a slow process to convince the appropriate government-funded film bodies to invest. The fear was the movie would glamourise a living crook and put taxpayers’ money in the pocket of a gangster.

Slowly it was falling into place, until Chopper nearly blew the whole thing. Released from prison, he became hot property in the media.

In 1998, I received a phone call from a researcher for the brand new ABC comedy/talk show program McFeast Live, hosted by the sassy Libbi Gorr. I was asked if I thought it would be a good idea to invite Mark to be the first guest on the first show.

I thought it was a terrible idea. They pushed on. It was a disaster.

In the Green Room, Read discovered the fridge was full of beer. By the time he staggered onto the set the fridge was no longer full of beer. But Read was.

Spectacularly drunk, Read bragged of killing people and told a story of putting a victim in a cement mixer.

Chopper Read appearing on McFeast Live. When he talked of killing crooks he helped kill the show.

Chopper Read appearing on McFeast Live. When he talked of killing crooks he helped kill the show.

The outrage spread to federal parliament, the show was cancelled soon after and the movie (reliant on government funding) could only proceed if Read was not paid.

He decided to donate his payment ($22,000) to the Royal Children’s Hospital, but they refused. In typical Chopper style he donated it through a police charity which sent it to the same hospital.

While publicly it was stated Read had no involvement in the movie, that wasn’t exactly true. He was the one who suggested Eric Bana, then better known as a comedian, would be ideal for the title role.

After many false starts Bana won the part (only his second in films) and flew to Hobart with Dominik to spend a weekend studying the real Chopper.

The master and the apprentice. Read and Bana in Tasmania.

The master and the apprentice. Read and Bana in Tasmania.

The video of the meeting taken by Dominik shows Read bending down at a farm table to pick up a chicken. It is his pet, Gloria Swanson. As he cuddles the chook he tells his curious guests about his life in crime, including the method he used to rob drug dealers – a scene that appears almost verbatim in the movie.

He shows disdain for the “caffe latte” criminal set, observing: “You can’t kill people by belting them over the head with an American Express card.”

Bana returned and nailed Read’s speech patterns, mannerisms and even his walk.

This led Read to remark that “Eric Bana does a better Chopper Read than I do”. It was only half a joke – by this stage Read was playing himself in front of live audiences.

He was no longer the dangerous psychopath who didn’t care whether he lived or died. He was a husband and father using his reputation to make a living, not as a standover criminal but a stand-up comic.

Mark “Chopper” Read with John Silvester. The peas were overcooked. Bernie “the attorney” Balmer looks the other way.

Mark “Chopper” Read with John Silvester. The peas were overcooked. Bernie “the attorney” Balmer looks the other way.

He confided to me that the old Chopper, the violent psychopath who had spent more than 23 years in custody, was dead. “I can barely remember him.”

The movie boosted both men’s careers. Bana became an international star and Read a national celebrity.

Life imitating art. Chopper Read signs a poster of Eric Bana playing Chopper Read.

Life imitating art. Chopper Read signs a poster of Eric Bana playing Chopper Read.

While Read was not paid for the movie it revived the books, with sales quadrupling. For years he was on the road, playing the old Chopper and selling memorabilia, including signed Bunnings-bought meat cleavers, to adoring fans.

I was invited to the first private showing of the movie. Bana was polite and quietly spoken, a world away from his screen presence. As the house lights went up, his wife Rebecca turned and looked at him with an expression that seemed to say “Who the hell are you?”

Read was hurt that he hadn’t been invited to the premiere (the toughest-looking guy there was footballer Barry Hall) and over time was convinced by the sucker fish who surrounded him that he should have been slung a sackful of cash from the movie.

He had a couple of colourful characters front Gudinski demanding restitution. It was not forthcoming. Michael could have borrowed a classic line from the film: “There’s no cash here. Here, there’s no cash. Cash! No.”

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When Bana and Dominik won a swag of awards, Read felt snubbed. (He wasn’t. Eric always acknowledged his contribution.)

Another star performer was Vince Colosimo, who played Neville Bartos, a character loosely based on Read victim Nick Apostolidis. When the real Read shot and wounded a drug dealer inside Apostolidis’ home, he burned it down to destroy any evidence.

Apostolidis declared: “There’d be 50 crims who want him dead.”

Read was unimpressed. “I burned Nick the Greek’s house down. Big deal. If you knew him, you’d want to burn it down too.”

Mark Brandon Read died of natural causes in 2016. He was wrong to feel dudded by the movie; it helped construct the myth he was desperate to build.

When the first Chopper book was published in Britain, becoming a bestseller there too, they put Eric Bana on the cover. A case of art imitating life – and death.

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