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John (Strop) Cornell (1941–2021)

by Alan Howe

from Australian

John Cornell, journalist, entrepreneur, and businessman.
Born March 2, 1941; died at Byron Bay, July 23.

The kid from Kalgoorlie had a country boy demeanour, but was city shrewd. He described himself often as being a “ratbag” while at school, but topped the class in economics and English.

His early years by the beach at Bunbury might have prepared him perfectly for the television character of Strop, a monosyllabic bogan before Australians had words for it.

But he negotiated directly – without lawyers – to sell the Crocodile Dundee movie to Paramount Pictures, whose aggressive frontline consisted of film executives, smart lawyers and usually with a few grasping agents thrown in.

Cornell had learnt a few commandments of the business, including rule number one – never invest in your own movie (to his eternal relief, he broke that rule).

It had all happened so quickly – a potent mix of happenstance, hard work and tactics. He rocketed through the ranks of journalism at Perth’s afternoon Daily News – he was running its London bureau after four years – in an era when that masthead was adorned by journalists who would make a mark across the country and in newsrooms overseas, including Ron Saw, Mike Willesee, cartoonist Paul Rigby and long-time News Corp editor Piers Akerman. “He was a livewire, a very funny guy,” remembered Rigby from New York years later.

Colleagues described him as enthusiastic, dedicated reporter who always found time to tell stories at Perth’s Palace Hotel, a short stroll from the newspaper office. Not that any of the above strolled there. But, despite the city’s attraction, most of Perth’s ambitious newspaper guns looked beyond the Nullarbor for opportunities and when Cornell returned from the London assignment, he did too.

Willesee, his former colleague at the Daily News, had also headed east, first to the ABC and then to Channel 9, and was hosting a new evening news program called A Current Affair. Cornell signed on as its Melbourne producer.

That was October 1971 at a time when GTV-9 in Melbourne also produced the popular Sunday night talent quest show, New Faces, on which, eight days before A Current Affair debuted, a Sydney Harbour Bridge worker named Paul Hogan had appeared self-mockingly as a knife-throwing tap dancer “from Lightning Ridge”. Hogan made it through the heats, the first final and came second in the grand final (pipped at the post by a folk singer, the never-heard-of-again Susie Coles, granddaughter of businessman G J Coles).

The New Faces audience had warmed to Hogan, and Cornell – who said he had been on the lookout for a “verbal cartoonist” – understood they would want to see more of him. He arranged a three-minute segment on the fledgling A Current Affair and Willesee instantly saw Hogan’s potential and soon booked him for regular contributions, Hogan knocking off work before heading to TCN-9’s studios in Sydney’s Willoughby. Soon Cornell was Hogan’s manager and two years later they were co-writing and starring in The Paul Hogan Show.

Hogan and Cornell developed an array of uncultivated, sometimes crass, characters for the series: Super Dag, the beer belly-wielding copper; stuntman Leo Wanker; television reporter George Fungus (who some believed mimicked George Negus); and Perce the Wino, a silent Sir Les Patterson-like character without ministerial appointment. Cornell’s Strop character, Hogan’s housemate, played a man always without a woman, the irony being he had been married twice and would soon marry Hogan Show guest performer Delvene Delaney, who worked on the Nine’s Sale of the Century. We might cringe at it all now, but it was syndicated around the world. The show was successfully launched on the Seven Network, and opened up a new era for Australian television – then colonised by stodgy but inexpensive second-division American and British comedies – with an astute Kerry Packer luring Cornell and Hogan to Nine in 1976, a move that would prove very valuable to Packer and Cornell.

Both assertive men, Cornell and Packer shared many characteristics, with each having a fine instinct for what people wanted.

On April 19, 1986, Cornell’s full-bodied self-confidence was on display. He told a reporter about the film he had co-written, and that would premiere five days later: “Crocodile Dundee will be a huge success and will out-gross every other Australian film ever made.”

But well before then, Cornell had made his mark on Australian sport and culture as a more self-assured nation emerged from the black-and-white days when we were too often hesitant about our Australianness.

Australian cricket captained by Ian Chappell was enjoying a golden era in the mid-70s with Dennis Lillee, Rod March, Jeff Thomson and Greg Chappell becoming rock stars of the game. But they were still paid like support acts, mostly because the Australian Cricket Board, under the old mates act, sold the rights for broadcasting to the ABC for peppercorns.

When Packer, a cricket fan, offered the ACB eight times as much for Nine to televise the game, he was snootily dismissed and the ACB almost donated the rights to the ABC for just $210,000 for the 1976-77 season. But by the end of that season, cricket, urged on by Cornell and Packer, would be permanently changed.

Cornell, who by then managed Lillee, and former Perth footy great Austin Robertson put to Packer the idea of televising a few exhibition matches between some of the sport’s stars. A still fuming Packer thought bigger. He had no grounds, no players and no administration, just a bulging wallet and fierce ambition to pull the monogrammed rugs from under cricket’s old-boy network.

With the help of Cornell and Robertson, but particularly Cornell, Packer quickly signed recently retired Australian captain Ian Chappell and, in a coup, England captain Tony Greig. It is some measure of the unrest among the cricketers – dozens were quickly signed – that Packer’s cloudy plan for his work-in-progress competition was enough to lure them so easily from the hallowed portals of the sport’s headquarters.

England’s and Australia’s cricket authorities famously underestimated the Packer team while stripping players’ captaincies and threatening bans. After a lengthy court case he mostly won, Packer launched his World Series Cricket with a strong Australian team against the international superstars – Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Imran Khan, Michael Holding; WSC was off and running between its brightly coloured wickets.

Cornell then hired the Mojo ad agency to help promote the series and a memorable television advertisement was born, along with its chart-topping soundtrack, C’mon Aussie, C’mon.

Ultimately, and inevitably, Packer won the rights to Australian Test cricket, for years one of the pillars of the network’s programming.

Cornell liked being wealthy. “Being rich, I am my own boss.” But he still liked life on Kalgoorlie time, once admitting he enjoyed “the atmosphere of a hammock in my life”. He bought hammock time with some hectares at Byron Bay, long before it was superstar hangout; he effectively made it one. Not long after he purchased the corpse of the bone-tired Beach Hotel and transformed it into one of the best-run, most valuable pubs in NSW. He sold it in 2007 for $44m. It sold again two years back for $100m.

Not everyone is happy with the new Byron Bay, but most locals will remember the Cornell family for their generous assistance to the local community, its artists, sports clubs, youth groups and schools. Cornell was creative, funny and industrious – and he helped wake up a nation that in the 1970s was wide asleep.

Original publication

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Citation details

Alan Howe, 'Cornell, John (Strop) (1941–2021)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 16 April 2024.

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