Death Become Him

Mark "Chopper" Read, one of Australia's most notorious criminals, is the subject of a new film. So, how does the villain feel about becoming a cinematic hero?

Mark Brandon Read was 17 when he entered prison for the first time. A young man, yes, but one who had never really been a child. His father had spent 24 years in the Australian army; the old man was battle-scarred, to the point where he always slept with a rifle within reach. His mother was a strict Seventh Day Adventist, a child of God. As for the boy, he had been picked on during most of his childhood. Read was the schoolyard punching bag. The poundings only made him tougher. So did the electric-shock treatments he would receive in the mental hospitals throughout his young life. He was proud of the fact he could withstand a beating, proud that he could take a surge of electricity. He stood up, brushed himself off, then came back for more. He could never get enough.

It didn't take too long for the brutalized to become the brutal: a burly gangster whose entire body was a canvas of stab-wound scars and prison tattoos. Read's skin contained his life's story. So, too, in later years, would the pages of nine best-selling books. So, too, would 90 minutes of celebrated celluloid, the movie Chopper, which is scheduled to open next week at Dallas' new Angelika Film Center & Café.

The brutal has, in time, become the beloved.

Killer in repose: Mark Brandon Read has given up the thug life and now lives on his Tasmanian farm with his wife and 23-month-old son.
Chris Budgeon
Killer in repose: Mark Brandon Read has given up the thug life and now lives on his Tasmanian farm with his wife and 23-month-old son.

Mark Brandon Read left home early, fell in with rough boys, started collecting sawed-off shotguns, tomahawks, meat cleavers, snakes. His friends were his enemies; his enemies, his closest friends. They played violent, torturing each other when disagreements broke out. They made each other eat entire packs of lit cigarettes. They knocked out each other's teeth. They shot each other in the legs. It was just a matter of time before Read landed in prison, the inevitable beginning to what would surely become a tragic ending. The first chapter was written on May 18, 1971, when he was sentenced to four months for "attempted storeroom break & steal"--trying to rip off the door of an abandoned nightclub, in other words. He would spend the next 27 years in and out of lockup, way more in than out.

"My first day in jail, I knelt beside me bed and said me prayers."

On the other end of a phone from his 270-acre farm in Tasmania, Australia, where he has lived peacefully since his last release from prison in 1998, the 46-year-old Read begins telling the story. He will punctuate every other sentence with a big, broad laugh--the chuckle of a man who's seen it all, done even more and come out the other end loathed and loved for his exploits. His Aussie accent almost cushions the blow. That, and he's charming as all hell. You can hear his grin from thousands of miles away.

"Then I got hold of a really big knife, stuck it under me overcoat, and I went out and looked at all these guys that had bad intentions, and I said, 'Right, wanna party? Let's rock and roll.' By the end of the day, it was a different matter." He laughs. "I went back to my cell that night, knelt down, said, 'Thank you, God, and if you're on my side, get me through the day.' He got me through the day. That might sound sacrilegious and very un-Christian, but I was in a bad place, and I certainly wasn't about to surrender to what other people had in mind for me, so I got in first."

By Christmas 1971, Read was back in prison, this time for assault and, of all things, indecent language. That was when he knew that was that: He was locked in a routine, back and forth and back and forth from the outside world to his prison paradise. He went in an apprentice and came out with a Ph.D. in thuggery. Men twice his age cried and committed suicide behind bars. Not he. He loved it: the freedom to stab and bash whomever he liked, without retribution. In the nearly 18 years he spent at the castle-like Pentridge prison, built in 1853 just north of Read's hometown of Melbourne, 11 men wound up dead--stabbed, beaten, tomahawked to death. Read won't take credit for them, but he will say he was "closely linked to them." At Pentridge, inmates banged each other down like tent pegs, and Read, not so long ago the bullies' whipping boy, wasn't going to spend a life in prison being picked on. Not again.

"And then I started something that had never, ever happened," he says, his voice deep with pride. "No one ever in the history of this particular prison had ever stabbed or axed or meat-cleavered or claw-hammered anybody in front of the prison staff, what the Americans call hacks and what the Australians and British call a screw. This one guy was standing right beside the governor of the whole jail. I walked up and said, 'Hello, sir,' and he nodded. Then I spun around and stabbed the prisoner he was talking to straight in the throat." He laughs. "When the rest of the jail saw that, they said to themselves, 'Hang on. We got a serious problem here. This guy doesn't care what he does or who he does it in front of.' And then I let them know. I said, 'I don't care if you're sitting on the Queen of England's knee. If you upset me, I'm gonna get ya. That's all there is to it. There's no escape.'"

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