Lions and Tigers and Birds, Oh My!: A Conversation with Tippi Hedren

By Jason Anders - Illustration by Kaelin Richardson
She's appeared in over 80 films and TV shows. She's worked with everyone from Charlie Chaplin and Ed Wood to Alexander Payne and David O. Russell. She's voiced characters for Batman animation, and played herself in sitcoms like Cougar Town. She took artistic risks like starring in Ted Post's controversial film THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT (1973), and producing and starring in what has come to be known as "the most dangerous movie ever made", ROAR (1981). She is a single mother to daughter Melanie Griffith, a successful actress and producer, and granddaughter, actress Dakota Johnson. As an animal rights activist, she started her own non-profit organization to support an 80-acre wildlife habitat where she personally contributes to the care and preservation of animals like elephants, lions and tigers. She was instrumental in the development of Vietnamese-American nail salons in the United States. Cary Grant once called her "the bravest woman I've ever known." Finally, and perhaps most famously, she starred in two Alfred Hitchcock films, THE BIRDS (1963) and MARNIE (1964). In 2016, she published a memoir in which she spoke openly about the dark pain she endured while working with the controlling Master of Suspense.  

The legend, the star, the icon. Tippi Hedren was kind enough to join me on the Universal Pictures Lot in the summer of 2017 for an evening of conversation in front of a live audience to discuss the jaw-dropping stories of her career and remarkable life.

Jason Anders
: How much time would you say you've spent here on the Universal Lot during your career?

Tippi Hedren: I practically moved in! Your calls are very early and you work late, so it became a home for me. Things have changed dramatically - in fact, yesterday I decided to try and drive by my old dressing room and see if it's still there. I didn't arrange the time correctly, but maybe on my way out. I had a really wonderful dressing room and a whole makeup room with a shower, all done in French blue and French furniture... I was spoiled. It's good to be spoiled.

Have you been on the Studio Tour recently?

No, I haven't. We should do that, (to audience) let's do that!

Was your first visit to Universal Studios for the casting of The Birds?

Yes, it was. I received a phone call asking if I was the girl in the Sego commercial, which was a diet drink. I had been doing a number of commercials, which was great because they pay so well. I was doing one commercial after another which came about at the end of my modeling career with Eileen Ford. I had been modeling for about eight years and that's a long time. It was dwindling and I had my little girl, Melanie, thinking what am I going to do, I don't type! Melanie and I packed up our dog, cat, and bunny and moved back to Los Angeles.

All of a sudden I get this call telling me, "there's this producer who is interested in you." I said, "Oh? Who?" They said, "come down to the studio and we'll talk about it." That's how that whole thing happened.

(Tippi Hedren being interviewed by Jason Anders)

Growing up in Minnesota, when did you know that you wanted to become a model?

I got off the streetcar coming home from high school one day and this woman came toward me and handed me her card saying, "Would you ask your mom to bring you down to Donaldson's department store? We'd like to have you model at our Saturday morning fashion shows." So, bingo!

A lot of people may not know that your real name is Nathalie...

Yes, and I married a Griffith so I was Nathalie Griffith! I never went by Nathalie, in fact if anyone said my name I would never have blinked an eye. My father was Swedish and he started calling me Tupsa, which was a term of endearment. From Tupsa it went to Tips, and from Tips it went to Tippi.

Was acting ever the goal while modeling?

No. It wasn't until the Hitchcock thing.

And you didn't even know that was who you were coming here to meet, he really is the Master of Suspense!

I think that was sort of a fun thing for him to do. It really was fun, interesting, and exciting. When I realized it was Alfred Hitchcock it was mind-blowing. The first meeting with him was a little bit awesome, a little bit scary. He sat there looking very pleased with himself. We just talked about the weather, didn't even get close to talking about the movie. It was just a simple conversation. You know how he was on his television show? He was very similar to that.

When the conversation finally comes to The Birds, did you have any indication of how physically grueling it would be?

I had no clue. We didn't have the capability then of making movies the way that we do today, so we used real birds. I became very friendly with a raven, his name was Buddy. He was big, shiny, and beautiful. The animal trainer, Ray Berwick, was so kind to all of the birds. I was so happy to see that he cared so much about them. He would tell Hitchcock when the birds were tired and had to rest, and we'd stop filming. He introduced me to Buddy, who got to know where my dressing room was, and he'd come over and jump up onto the table with all my makeup, then sit on my shoulder, then on my head. He really was my buddy, a great relationship. I missed him a lot when it was over, I really did.

Is Buddy the bird holding the match to light your cigarette in the infamous photo?

Yes, that's my favorite picture. I'm sorry that was even taken because it was just plain wrong.

I believe Cary Grant once called you the bravest woman he's ever known...

He did call me that, and now I'm proving it by playing with lions and tigers. He said that because of working with the birds. They weren't tiny and they had great claws, but I was never hurt. I did get really tired, especially at the end when they had me lying on the ground with the birds attached to me - they were all on elastic so that they could move around and jump but not leave my body. The bird on my shoulder jumped at my face and the claw was too close to my eye, and with one swoop I got them all off of me. But I liked the birds and had a good time with them.

What was this whole transition in life for you like?

It was life changing. The whole business was so different - I was certainly used to the photographs, but to be in a film directed by a man as powerful and knowledgable as Alfred Hitchcock was just amazing. I felt so fortunate having that education. It really was stunning.

You'd go on to star in another Hitchcock film, 1964's Marnie, alongside Sean Connery...

It was fabulous! When Hitchcock was looking for the Mark Rutland character he was going through all the different actors trying to find the right man and he couldn't find anybody. Finally, he said he got Sean Connery and I said, "Hitch, in this movie I'm supposed to be a frigid woman who screams if a man comes near her... Sean Connery?! How am I supposed to do this?!" And he said, "It's called acting, my dear."

Tell me about suddenly being surrounded by celebrities, such as Marilyn Monroe... 

I met Marilyn Monroe, but we never had a conversation. It was at photographer Milton Greene's home in Connecticut. He had a party and she was at the house - she came down and sat in the corner of the stairs and didn't move... I'm sorry, that's all I have to say (laughs).

I believe you are the only actor in history to have been directed by both Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin. What was your experience appearing in Chaplin's final film, 1967's A Countess from Hong Kong, like?

The fun thing about being directed by Charlie Chaplin was that his modus operandi in directing was to act out all of our roles, he would get out on the set and become our characters, then he'd say, "and now you do it." I thought it was awesome to watch this magic being performed in front of us, I loved that whole thing. However, Marlon Brando wanted to quit. He really didn't appreciate this method of direction at all. He couldn't quit because he was under contract, so he just had to suffer through it.

You wrote in your memoir about some very important work that you did during a trip to Vietnam, tell us about that experience and what significant events unfolded as a result. 

My mother was always involved in church work and doing things for other people who were having a tough time, and I kind of did that as well. At one point, I was asked to go to an organization called Food For the Hungry at a time when they were working on hurricane relief. I liked that idea a lot and spent several years traveling around the world with them to various places that had been in bad shape because of everything from war to weather.

(Charles Chaplin & Tippi Hedren)

You wrote that the Vietnamese women were the strongest people you had ever met...

I still think that. Food For the Hungry had a place outside of Weimar, California - it was an abandoned tuberculosis sanatarium with these big buildings containing bedrooms and baths, a perfect place for them to reside until they could find their way in the United States. I went up there and met with these women, trying to figure out how we could assimilate them into our communities with a job. All of them were fascinated with my fingernails, which were longer than they are now with some kind of wonderful red on them, and after a few days of them talking about them I decided to bring my manicurist in and see if any of them would like to become one. That's how the whole Vietnamese manicure thing started.

They're still my friends and we meet every now and then, it's really wonderful.

What an incredible spark to have been responsible for... 

Yes, it was. To know these women and how strong they were and are, and how they so wanted to not be a burden on the United States - they all wanted to work and assimilate into our society. It was an amazing time.

Other important work that you are doing is that of the Shambala Preserve. I understand that you found your passion for animals on the set of the 1970 film Satan's Harvest, which by the way sounds like a pretty metal picture. 

(laughs) Yeah, I think so. It was after me and my then husband had been to South Africa, I did two films there and it was thrilling and powerful to see the animals in their natural habitat, running free and not in cages.

We decided to do a movie about the animals in the wild and the problems they have out there, and we chose the great cats to be our movie stars. We're dealing with apex predators here, folks! We contacted several trainers who had a lion or tiger that they would use for movies. Well, they wouldn't let their cat work with a cat it didn't know because they'd kill each other. It became evident to us that we'd have to acquire our own animals to do the movie. It's a romantic notion, isn't it?

Well, that's what we did. The first young lion was about four months old and he came to live with us in our house... in Sherman Oaks. We got to know that little lion. He just kind of took over the whole house like a one-man demolition crew. He'd walk past the couch and just take a bite out of it. I had to hire an expert re-upholsteror! Another little lioness came to live with us and then we learned how unique the male is to the female. At one point we had seven lions and tigers. They grow like you're blowing up a balloon!

One day, one of the little lions looked down over the fence at our neighbor, who looked up and said, "That's a lion!" The next day animal control came pounding on our door saying, "I hear you've got some lions here? You've got 24 hours to get them off of the property." Oh, I've had such a fun life. We got them off the property for a while, but they eventually reached an age that we couldn't keep them at the house in Sherman Oaks anymore. We boarded the cubs with the place that they came from in Acton, but the more we acquired the higher the board bill went, so we eventually bought the place. That's now where I live. I hope that you will all come visit and see the lions and tigers.

The whole time that we were rescuing these animals, I was wondering why our government doesn't have laws against the breeding and the selling of them as pets to anyone who has the money. These are apex predators, top of the food chain! One of the four most dangerous animals in the world and our government wasn't doing anything. There were a few state laws, such as needing a permit to have the animal on your residence, but there was no real control over it... so I put a bill together. It was quick, easy, and to-the-point. I took it to a congressman at the time who said, "Tippi, you're dealing with a huge business. You'll never get this passed." I said, "Well, we're going to try, aren't we?" He joined me in this effort and I eventually went to Washington and testified, not pulling any punches. That bill was passed unanimously and President Bush signed it on December 3, 2003. 

You really are the strongest woman in Hollywood.

Oh, I think so. Definitely. Modest, too. 

Speaking of strength - on the set of ROAR did you ever fear that one day you'd end up being lunch?

I knew I would! It's amazing that we lived through that, and that nobody was killed. Our photographer Bill Dow, who is here, ended up in the hospital at one point. I did, too. There were so many people who had bought these animals as adorable little cubs and what do you do when it starts tearing up your house and taking a good chunk out of your child? So we were taking in a lot of these animals, at one point we had close to 100. That's when I really thought, "I've got to get this bill passed." We are now down to 30 cats and don't have anyone calling to ask if we can take their lion or tiger. 

Is it true that 70 cast and crew members were injured on that film?

Something like that, yeah. But everybody lived. (laughs) That's a strong point.  

What kept you persevering through that at the time?

Just a real determination to get it done. There were a lot of times that we would run out of money, and there we were with all of these animals to support - and they kept coming in. But it was great because we were doing a wonderful service in having this facility where people could bring their little monster that was originally so cute and cuddly. It all worked out. 

I'm really glad that I wrote the book because I have been so fortunate in having one hell of a life. I've just had the best life ever. I've been scared to death so many times. I almost called the book "The Open Door" because I've had all of these doors that would open for me - some of which I slammed shut and some of them I walked through. It's been a good life.

Since we are on the Universal Lot, I have to ask you about MURDER, SHE WROTE. 

Angela Lansbury was absolutely delightful. I wish I had a copy of that episode. 

I doubt you'll remember this, but the first time we met I ranted to you about how much I loved I HEART HUCKABEES. 

That was fun because David O. Russell is fun, that was an amazing time. 

Your first experience working in comedy was actually with John Landis in DREAM ON.

That was so much fun. I didn't have an education in comedy, so I was just watching all the other actors trying to get some kind of information that I could steal. Oh, it was wonderful fun, it really was. 

What is it like for you to have not only your daughter, Melanie Griffith, but also your granddaughter, Dakota Johnson, find success in film? 

I didn't encourage either one of them to get into the business. I always wanted them to do what they wanted to do, not be influenced by me or what I did - or what I would want them to do - that is something that your child should be able to choose freely, what they want out of their lives. All of those things have just been a big surprise to me. They are both incredibly talented. 

Any chance of you working with them in the future?

Oh, I would love that. All that we need is a script. We need a story. We need the money. (laughs)

I think it is important how open you've been about what happened on set with Alfred Hitchcock, I feel you've helped make women stronger in this industry by not being afraid to tell your story. 

Thank you for saying that, because I really do believe that we have every right in the world to say "NO." The earlier a young woman learns that, and knows that there isn't anything that she has to do or be talked into doing if she doesn't want to, is really important. 

What do you love most about acting?

Becoming somebody else. Trying to think like a particular character in what they're doing. Acting is an amazing career to have, I wish I could do more of it. There aren't many roles, though, once you get older. I'm old. I can't believe it, and that's the way it's going to be for the rest of my life. I plan on staying that way. 

How is it that you retain such youth and health?

I practice eating right all the time. I watch my weight, I will not gain a pound without cutting back on my eating - I just refuse to do it. But I also have no sense of taste or smell.

I had two accidents that affected my nerves. I also can't drive because I cannot turn my head, so I am limited in that. But it took my sense of smell and taste away, which is a huge loss. Every day, it's a huge loss. It's dangerous, I had to install more powerful smoke detectors. And I can't even enjoy a glass of champagne. I'm going to cry now. 

It seems you had a good relationship with the great costume designer, Edith Head... 

We became very, very close friends - which was not wonderful only for the clothing aspect, but because of her charm and her wit. Juadavive for life. She was an exceptionally, wonderfully fun and exciting woman to become friends with. We were not only together on the Hitchcock films, we saw each other socially and would have lunch together and do girl stuff. It was a great honor to be a good friend to her and have her as a friend, it was just amazing. 

I had a dress form that was made of my exact measurements which was given to me by her, which I of course brought home and had in my bedroom... sometimes I'd dress it. I'd put scarves and jewelry around it, it was really fun. And then came the little lions... the bedrooms were built into the lower floor in our house on the hill, I came down one day and my little lions had killed that body. It was torn and ripped with the stuffing coming out and I just sat and cried. I eventually took all the stuffing and put it back in, taking a needle and sewing it back up, and I still have it. 

What was Hitchcock's method of directing like?

His method of directing was just having conversations about the character and situation of the scene. There wasn't any real solid direction, it was all kind of a thought process. It was sort of magical, actually. It was wonderful. It spoiled me, though, real bad. We would talk about the characters, the film, and the story - everything was discussed in-depth. He was amazing. 

I had the opportunity to see the dailies, which was part of my education... and what better teacher? Couldn't be better. 

What was it like reacting in THE BIRDS to elements that you couldn't see or hear? 

It's called acting. (laughs) On occasion they'd try and make sounds that would get our attention, but mostly we were reacting to nothing. No sound at all. 

Were the other directors who had a unique method besides Chaplin and Hitchcock?

I don't recall any other directors that had as much of an effect on me in their methods. That's aiming pretty high to find anybody better, or anyone even like them. It was pretty amazing. I don't know of another actress who worked with both. I'm it.

(Dakota Johnson, Tippi Hedren & Melanie Griffith)

What was your experience like on THE 4400?

That whole storyline itself was so fascinating, it was wonderful to do. I love stories like that.

Do you prefer working in film or television? 

I prefer film, just because of the time that you can take. It's just totally different. 

Have you noticed a difference in film vs. digital? 

Digital is a lot faster, but I like taking the time with film and putting all of the effort into each scene better. 

Have you ever found yourself starstruck? 

I was starstruck with Sean Connery. I thought, "Oh my god this man is so handsome, so beautiful. How dare he be married!" 

Does everyone here know that you were the mayor of Universal City?

I was! Did you all know that? I ran a very tight ship. I was very concerned about everything. Actually, it was nothing but fun. Just going to parties, it was great. 

What did that entail?

Absolutely nothing. (laughs) It didn't entail anything except that I'd be going to lunches and the cocktail parties, it had nothing to do with any kind of real position of running Universal City. But it was fun and I absolutely loved doing that.

Who initially approached you about it?

Hitchcock! It was he. 

Thank you for being such a wonderful mayor to us all. 

Thank you so much. (laughs) I enjoyed it tremendously. 

Do you have any fun stories from THE BIRDS II: LAND'S END?

Oh god, I forgot all about it. (laughs) I don't, in fact. 

How can we actually get involved to help you when it comes to animal rights?

I would love to invite all of you to the Shambala Preserve. We are not open to the public, it's reservation based and open one weekend a month - and we offer summer sunset safaris, which are quite lovely. The lions roar more at night than they do during the daytime. 

Who's down for a field trip? (audience cheers)

That would be wonderful, let's do it!

Have you been back to Bodega Bay recently? 

I go back to Bodega Bay almost every year, usually around Labor Day. I love going back there - there's so many people who are visiting, it's a very popular place. I'll sign autographs and just have a good time with everybody. It's nice. 

You seem to be a very confident person, is that chutzpah something you've always had?

You know, I found my strength when I was really young. I was a very shy and frightened little girl. Do any of you bite your fingernails? I remember exactly where I was - I was coming home from grade school, I must have been 7 years old, walking up a hill. In the middle of walking up the hill I thought, "I'm not going to bite my fingernails anymore." Now, if any of you used to bite your fingernails, you knew it was a bad habit and you could hardly not do it. I think that was one of the most strengthening things that I ever did because I said to myself, "I'm not going to do that again,".. and I didn't. It was my little coming into a different phase of my life completely. 

... and then you made history with your fingernails.

And then I made history! I see all of these commercials saying "we have the method to help you stop smoking," - you know what stopped me from smoking? It was the first time that they presented the scientific facts that smoking will kill you, make you very ill, or make you look older faster - that one got me. I said, "I'm not going to do it anymore," and I didn't. I put the cigarette out and did not have another one. (audience applause) Yeah, no kidding, I am strong! You have to be able to say, "This could kill me, make me very sick, or make me look older faster. What's attractive about all that? Nothing." 

So, anyway, if any of you smoke just stop it. 

What are your future plans for Shambala?

The plan is to keep it open. The bill that was passed has, fortunately, had a huge impact on the animals being purchased and people breeding them to be sold as pets. We actually do see a light at the end of the tunnel. People will not be buying predators to be a pet now. But as long as there is a lion or tiger that needs a home, we will be there. 

We also had two elephants who lived out their lives with us, Timbo and Cora. I have to say that those were my best years of my life with these animals - they were just so amazing, it's an incredible thing to be a friend of an elephant. I wish I could explain how it feels to walk up to that gigantic being and hear that rumble of thunder - it's not a purr, but it's a welcoming sound that they say to each other, and they would say it to the man who was taking care of them, Chris Gallucci. You'll meet him when you come to the preserve. 

Chris was a Hell's Angel. I was on the roadside and this big black Harley came down the road with a man all dressed in black, long black hair, and black beard. He pulled up and said, "I hear you're hiring," and I asked, "What can you do?" He said, "Everything." And you know what? He was right. So we hired him and he learned all about the animals and the care that they need. Everything. It was just stunning. I have now made him Vice President of Operations & Director, he runs the place. 

I don't think there are enough stories out there about Hitch's wife, Alma Reville. 

Alma was a wonderful woman. I liked her very, very much. We became very good friends. I thought they were such a bizarre couple. I went to their home often for dinner and she was just charming and a good friend. 

Do you still have the bird pin that Hitch gave you?

When we were on our way here I said, "I forgot the bird pin!" But I do have a tattoo on my shoulder of a bird if you would like to see that.

Thank you so much for a beautiful evening of stories, and thank you for writing one of the most beautiful memoirs ever written. You did an incredible job writing this. 

Thank you! It was such a pleasure to be here, very lovely. Thank you for being such a wonderful, caring, informed audience - I'm impressed. I look forward to seeing all of you at Shambala. I will have more books in the gift shop, just in case. 

(Tippi Hedren & Jason Anders)

Watch the full video interview HERE.