Lions and Tigers and Hitchcock… Oh My! Tippi Hedren Tells All In New Memoir

(This article originally appeared on Huffington Post on 11/1/2016.)

In 1963, American moviegoers were terrified en masse by a new, very different kind of horror film: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The thriller was a critical and commercial success, and it made a star out of its leading lady— a beautiful 33-year old blonde named Tippi Hedren. Hedren, then a successful model (A high point was her appearance on the cover of Life Magazine in 1952.), was personally chosen by Hitchcock after he saw her in a commercial for a meal replacement shake called “Sego”. Born Nathalie Kay Hedren, the neophyte star had never been in a movie before, but she would go on to become one of the most recognizable women in the world. For her work in The Birds, Hedren would win a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year as well as the Photoplay Award for Most Promising Newcomer. Hedren would go on to star in Hitchcock’s next film, playing the title character in 1964’s psychological thriller Marnie.

It was an infamous movie called Roar, however, that was most personal to the actress. Hedren and her then-husband Noel Marshall conceived the adventure film, featuring real lions and tigers, after the two had completed a film called Satan’s Harvest together in Africa in 1969. Hedren fell in love with the big cats, and was concerned about their dwindling populations in the wild. Today, scenes of lions, tigers, and elephants running amok would likely be done entirely with CGI. All the footage seen in Roar, however, was done with real animals— along with some very real risks. The production of Roar spanned 11 years and resulted in 70 members of its cast and crew being injured. Today, Roar is considered by some film buffs to be “the most dangerous movie ever made”. Roar would eventually see a completion, but Hedren’s dedication to big cats and other animals has remained stronger than ever. Always an animal lover, Hedren tells me about how Roar stimulated a much larger mission:

The script was written, and we gave it to several people who were training animals for movies and that sort of thing. The way the script was written, there were so many animals, and every one of the trainers said, “I don’t have enough animals to do this movie— and besides that, I wouldn’t have my cats work with an animal that they don’t know.” They suggested, “Why don’t you get your own animals? Rescue them.” So, we did it. It was just stunning to me that our government was doing nothing about having these animals bred. These are apex predators, not house pets. There were no laws against breeding these animals and then selling them to whoever had the money to buy them. Many people were buying these adorable, darling little lion and tiger cubs and not even asking themselves, “What have I got here? What is it going to grow up to be?” Of course, many people were hurt. There were so many accidents from the animals hurting the people that they were living with. I asked myself, “Why aren’t there laws?” So, I put a law together and took it to my Congressman. He helped me with it. It’s entitled The Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act. It’s a working bill. I’m very proud of that. I’m very happy that I was able to get attention drawn to those issues, and to get something done to stop it— or at least to regulate it.

At 86 years young, Tippi Hedren has just released her autobiography, simply entitled Tippi.  In the book, the actress candidly reveals many fascinating details about her own life, starting with her name: “Tippi” is a nickname for the Swedish word “tupsa”, which means little girl or sweetheart. We also learn that the menacing avian co-stars of her most famous film, ornery as they were, were not the biggest challenge she faced on the movie set. Hedren was sexually harassed by Hitchcock, who famously referred to her as “The Girl”. She was contractually obligated to appear in the director’s next film, Marnie, but she then left his possessive hold afterward. Despite Hitchcock’s attempts to blacklist the actress, Hedren would go on to appear in over 80 movies and TV shows. Humorously, one of her credits is a 1985 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In Tippi, the book, the actress shares many priceless recollections of her career in the entertainment business, and even dispels one longstanding urban legend about The Birds (I’m not revealing it here!) However, Tippi Hedren’s most passionate cause has been her animal rights activism, to which she devotes a great number of pages in the book. She seeks to protect big cats from human abuses, and that includes discouraging people from breeding and keeping them as pets. She founded her own big cats sanctuary, The Shambala Preserve, in Acton, California, where she lives.

The actress spoke to me about her new book, her life as an actor, and her unyielding love and devotion to animals:

JR: Thank you for speaking with me. Congratulations on the new book Tippi!
TH: Thank you. I’m thrilled with it, and I’m thrilled with all of the attention it’s getting. I had a wonderful time with Lindsay Harrison, the woman who helped me write it. We really got along so well together. She taped our interviews, and she remained so true to what I said. I was very pleased with the outcome.
JR: Both film lovers and animal lovers will really enjoy your story.
TH: Thank you. I’ve had the best of both worlds. I really have.
JR: In the introduction to Tippi, you write about how it was time to stop letting everyone else tell your story and to finally tell it yourself. Was there something about 2016 that made it just the right time to do this? Was it a “calling” of sorts?
TH: I guess so. I don’t know… It really just seemed like the right time to do it. And I’m not getting any younger, you know!
JR: (Laughs) None of us are!
TH: None of us are, but all of a sudden you think, “Oh, I’d better do this! I’d better do it, and I’d better do it now!” (Laughs)
JR: Well, we’re all grateful for that! So, your role as Melanie Daniels in The Birds really cemented your status in pop culture. It was such an iconic character, largely thanks to the way you portrayed her. But in your memoirs, you reveal to us that behind the glamour, working with Alfred Hitchcock was actually a very difficult time for you. As a new actress, what gave you the strength to get through that tough time?
TH: I think that I have very little fear. There isn’t much that frightens me. When I take on something, I’m ready for it. Being fearless is a wonderful thing, but it can also be very dangerous too, of course. Taking on lions and tigers, for example! (Laughs) But it does give you the opportunity to do things that a lot of people would fear and would stay away from.
JR: A lot of young stars, male or female, probably wouldn’t have had the same moxie that you had to get through that really tough time as a new actress.
TH: Yes, it was a little daunting at times. Just a little!
JR: How true! So, You are in a unique position in that you have both a daughter, Melanie Griffith, and a granddaughter, Dakota Johnson, who are both successful actors as well. In your memoir you write so lovingly about Melanie— calling her “my great fortune, my best friend, my love, my luckiest blessing in a life that’s been filled with them”. On a personal note, I’ve always admired Ms. Griffith as a performer, not just for her beauty but also because she’s very bold as an actress…
TH: … as is Dakota!
JR: Yes! Does the fact that they are also actors enable you to see how show business has changed through the years?
TH: Yes. I think it has become more of a “natural” way of life for actors. It’s now more than just about “celebrity”. It’s a much more comfortable time for an actor to be an actor.
JR: Both Melanie and Dakota chose their careers. In your book, you reveal how you sort of came into acting unexpectedly!
TH: Totally.
JR: So many people have seen your movies, but may not know that you started out as a model, and that you were handpicked by Alfred Hitchcock to be in The Birds.
TH: Yes. I was in New York with the Eileen Ford Modeling Agency, which was at that time the biggest agency. I was modeling for 10 years. That’s a long time to be a model! Work was slowing down a little bit, and I had a little girl to support, and so I thought, “I’m just going to move back to California.” I really didn’t know what I was going to do to make some money and to live the way I was living— which was wonderful. I was really getting very nervous about what vocation I was going to go into. It was just out of the blue that I got the call asking me, “Are you the girl in the Sego commercial?” I said, “Well, yes. Why do you ask?” They said that there was a producer who was interested. Bingo! It just landed right in my lap.
JR: Wow! So, in the book you spend a great deal of time telling us about your love for the big cats— and, from what you experienced, it really does take a lot of love to have gone through what you did.
TH: Yes, it does… and a lot of determination. It really is about dealing with some of the most dangerous apex killers— literally— on our planet.
JR: Right! In the book, you write about how you had to learn about the behavior of lions and tigers in preparation for the movie Roar: As a human being, you needed to learn why wild animals act the way they do. Did you feel like you had to “get inside the mind” of the big cats to understand them?
TH: Well, if we could ever do that, it would really be ideal. All we can do is read what has already happened, and learn from those kinds of situations. I wish we could get into their brains. I wish I could get into the brain of a couple of people that I know! (Laughs) Unfortunately, we can’t do that. All we can go by is what has been learned about them: how they react and how we can see that, visually… and how tough they are, and how gentle they can be, and how absolutely fascinating they are.
JR: It is interesting how you say “gentle”… because in the book, we learn that it was their choice when they wanted to be gentle. It was a rare gift to you when the big cats chose to be sweet-tempered!
TH: Absolutely!
JR: As human beings, what is our responsibility to the big cats of the world?
TH: We have taken it upon ourselves to either look at them as food or— the worst of all— for hunting. I call hunters murderers— because these cats are thinking, feeling beings. The fact that we, as humans, can decide whether they live or whether they die— and whether we put their head on a wall, or stuff it, or whatever— is unconscionable to me. Absolutely unconscionable.
JR: From your experience working with the big cats, do you believe that they— as apex predators— feel a certain way about human beings?
TH: Oh, If I can honestly tell you what they think, I’d be a very rich woman! (Laughs) I have no idea how they think or what they think. All you can do is judge from their actions. And, you know, that’s pretty much with people as well. It’s hard to know what somebody is thinking. You can’t know! There’s no way we can know what another person or animal is thinking.
JR: Good point! As one of the most visible and hardest-working animal rights activists, what’s the most important thing you’d like the public to know about human beings’ relationship with animals?
TH: I think that the most important thing is to look at animals as thinking, feeling beings— and not something that we can just toy with, or have around for purposes of ego or that sort of thing. Animals all have a job to do. Every being on our planet was born with a job, and unfortunately these animals, as apex predators, can be killers. They have to be treated very carefully. When you are out looking for an animal as a pet, be careful of what you choose! Be very careful and very knowledgeable about the animal that you bring into your life… because today, we do have access to almost everything.
JR: For the right amount of money, then yes it’s true that you can buy almost any animal as a captive. But there’s a reason why we keep going back to dogs and cats. When you take a domestic animal as a pet, you’ve let our ancestors do all the hard work. When you choose a wild animal as your companion, you’re doing all the work yourself.
TH: Also, when you buy an exotic animal, you’re really taking their life away from them. They should be out in the wild. It’s tragic. At Shambala we don’t have the animals in cages. They are in big areas. We try to give the animals some semblance of not being confined. We also have tours, but we control the numbers; We’re not open every day. We are only open one weekend a month for the tours. We feel like the animals are not beings that should be ogled or stared at. We take people on the tour, and we explain what the animal is like, and all of the issues that are involved with having an exotic animal. We try to educate everybody as much as we can, and remind them that they are not pets!
JR: How true. Thank you again for speaking with me!

by Tippi Hedren is now available from Harper Collins.

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