On October 9, Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read finally submitted to his long battle with liver issues, and passed away. He was, to many, an archetypal villain. A prolific stand-over man, he once claimed to have killed nineteen men in his life, but was never sentenced for murder, instead spending a good portion of his adult life behind bars for kidnapping, assault, arson, and armed robbery.
Chopper was a man of significant, almost theatrical charisma. With the crafted swagger of a larrikin “bloke’s bloke” persona, he became an Australian icon, and a hero for the underclass. Australia, and Melbourne in particular, has always had a curious fascination with criminal figures, quite likely stemming from our convict past and to Australia’s most-loved folk hero, Ned Kelly. Chopper was only too happy to exploit that fascination. As a personality, he was so unique that Eric Bana’s remarkably accurate portrayal in 2000’s film Chopper catapulted both Bana and Read to international fame, and launched Bana’s Hollywood career. An impersonation also helped secure Heath Franklin a comedy career.
Yet, one of Chopper’s most defining traits was his ability to inspire fear in the hearts of the public, even in death. As I mentioned in passing to friends that I would be writing this article on the life of Chopper Read, reactions were largely of apprehension and concern.
I once, very briefly, crossed paths with Chopper on cold night in 2008 at the Leinster Arms Hotel, hidden away in the back streets of Collingwood. At that time, news of his illness had just become public knowledge. Pausing for just a moment to subtly analyse the hunched figure, I saw Chopper as a sickly, jaundiced figure, so far removed from the caricature of him that exists in the minds of the public. Here was just a man… where was this myth?
According to his own accounts, Mark Read was once a fat kid living in the suburbs of Melbourne, where he was routinely bullied by his peers and beaten by his father. He became a ward of the state at the age of 14, and spent his teens in and out of psychiatric care. His teens were spent swinging between the dual pains of street fighting and electro-shock therapy. His brutal upbringing was the catalyst for his life of crime.
In a twisted offshoot of vigilantism, he established his own moral code, and began to target fellow criminals, recognising that it was far more profitable, but also more importantly that his victims were far more deserving of his wrath than the general public. He was particularly noted for torturing drug dealers with blowtorches, and using bolt-cutters to avail members of the criminal underworld of their toes, in a less-than-subtle attempt to inspire them to pay their debts. It was these actions as a ‘headhunter’ that he became feared, first in the world of organised crime, then in the public realm at large.
Years of incarceration followed. Between the ages of 20 and 38, Read spent only 13 months outside prison walls. Whilst inside, he waged a relentless and savage prison war, famously asking a fellow inmate to slice off his ears so that he could be transferred to the mental health wing of the prison, so that he could retreat to relative safety. Yet, despite his violent past, Chopper walked out of prison for the final time in 1998 as both a more mellow, mature man, and an accomplished best-selling author. On the birth of his son Charlie, not long after his release, he wrote, “Fatherhood changed me. I reckon I became a human being at 45, when I saw my first boy born… that’s the moment I joined the human race.”
Now feeling truly human, he once again capitalised on the public’s penchant for celebrity criminals, this time parlaying his fame into new ventures: a comedy career, an endless stream of writing gigs, a terrible rap album – even a children’s book, Hooky The Cripple. Grappling with more serious issues, he also appeared in advertisements speaking out against drink driving and domestic violence, and along with his film royalties, the proceeds from those appearances were donated to charity in full. And throughout his illness, from the initial diagnosis of Hepatitis C, until the liver cancer and cirrhosis that cost him his life, he continuously rejected the offer of a liver transplant, saying that he was undeserving, and didn’t want one when it could be used to save another life. When once he boasted that he had killed 19 men, in his final days he conceded that he had lied, and had only killed “about four or seven, depending on how you look at it”, as he allowed his hard man persona to fade.
Even in the criminal world, nothing is black and white, good and evil. Chopper Read was a violent criminal and an admitted killer, and no-one could ever condone or absolve him of his actions. But he was also a victim of circumstance – a hurting child, a mentally ill teen, and a complex, troubled soul. We can only hope that he, like his claimed victims, can finally rest in peace.