November 10, 1986 12:00 PM

On July 4, 1979, Linda Kozlowski, “dressed up like a Martian with a tinfoil cone on my head,” was hawking “Sky-lab protective helmets” to crowds watching fireworks from Manhattan’s West Side Highway. At $5 a pop, she sold out her entire supply of the whimsical cardboard headgear. None too soon, either. Seven days later Sky-lab—the space station that had begun losing altitude after six years in orbit—finally fell to earth.

Perhaps Kozlowski has a shrewd eye for novelties. What else can you call Crocodile Dundee, the season’s least likely box office blockbuster? The comedy-romance about an Aussie Outback adventurer (Paul Hogan) and the slick newspaper reporter (Kozlowski) who lures him to New York, the movie contains little sex or violence and nothing reminiscent of MTV. Yet Dundee, already Australia’s most successful film, has swallowed its American competition, grossing $51.8 million in one month.

The movie has also plucked Kozlowski, 28, from the relative obscurity of the New York stage and from the drudgery of waiting on tables. “Before Dundee she was unemployed and broke,” says Hogan, “but she delivered the goods. She was a star-in-waiting. When she signed up and was coming to Australia, it sort of worried us a little bit: She was a New Yorker. But she was terrific—a pleasure to work with. I don’t know if I could have gone through a love story with a bitch.”

Raised in Fairfield, Conn., the second child of printer Stanley Kozlowski and his wife, Helen, Linda acknowledges a debt to Dundee. “I skipped a bunch of steps. I went from knocking on doors and hearing, ‘No, no, no,’ to getting scripts sent to me. I’ve been really lucky that way. I’ve never had to do anything I didn’t believe in. Sometimes that meant being poor and waitressing a while longer, but I’ve always stuck with it.”

A 1981 drama graduate of New York’s Juilliard School, Kozlowski skewers stories that she was cast in Dundee on Dustin Hoffman’s say-so. She’d had a small role in the Broadway and TV versions of Hoffman’s Death of a Salesman. When the filming wrapped in March 1985, Kozlowski decided to try her luck in California. “It was cold in New York,” she says, “and I didn’t see any other work in sight, and I was sort of miserable.” To help out, Hoffman and his wife offered Kozlowski use of their Malibu beach house. “It was dreamlike,” she says. “All of a sudden I’m staying at Dustin Hoffman’s house, with a maid and a car.” Six weeks later she auditioned for Dundee. “There was a feeling in that room that was so positive,” she says. “I never once thought, ‘Oh, my God, this might not work.’ ” When Kozlowski told Hoffman about the audition, she recalls, “Dustin asked me, ‘Who are these people? What are their names, and where are they staying?’ Very fatherly. And I told him. So just as they were calling me to say I had the part, they got a phone call: It was Dustin Hoffman. At first they thought it was a friend doing a bad impersonation. Once they realized it was Hoffman, they were just beaming. It was a sign they’d made the right decision.” Says Kozlowski’s longtime pal William DeAcutis: “Dustin’s call was like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, but Linda got the movie because they liked her.”

At first she didn’t know what she’d gotten into. When Kozlowski arrived in Australia’s Northern Territory, where much of Dundee was shot, “It was 4 o’clock in the morning, freezing cold, with kangaroos and wild buffalo roaming around. I was in a daze.”

For six weeks cast and crew camped on the edge of a billabong—a swampy backwater. “My hut was literally right on the edge. Now that they’re protected, the crocs have all gotten huge and fat and cocky. Crocodiles are really bold, and they do come up on land. Late at night, when we were going to the mess hall, we’d be [she prances on tiptoe] very careful.”

Just as treacherous, she says, was the huge mechanical croc used for close-ups, including the scene in which she’s almost pulled under before Dundee saves her. “It worked on air compression,” Kozlowski explains. “Sometimes you’d turn it off, and it decided it wasn’t going to turn off. It’d still be coming at you. It had a mind of its own, that guy.”

Says Hogan: “We thought the bugs and the snakes and the danger of crocodiles would freak her right out. I mean, there have been three or four deaths up there from crocodiles since Christmas, and there were crocodiles in the water where we shot the movie. But she never complained. She was professional. She never said, ‘I won’t do these things.’ Mind you, we had a guy with a loaded Magnum between her and the water.”

After finishing Dundee, Kozlowski made a permanent move to L.A. She’s living with friends in a small apartment, but has been scouting for new digs. Between reading scripts, she and DeAcutis—her closest friend since the third grade—are writing a screenplay.

Still, Kozlowski will be happy if her next film is half as appealing (let alone half as successful) as her first. “What’s beautiful about Dundee,” she says, “is that it wasn’t just a job. It was special to us because it was everybody’s first—my first leading role, Paul’s first film. Everybody really cared and put a lot of heart into it. It’s a simple story, a movie like they made in the ’30s or ’40s. And people are enjoying it. It’s nice to know that that old style can work.”

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