After being subjected to some terrible treatment from Alfred Hitchcock, actress Tippi Hedren is much happier looking after her tigers and other big cats, writes Lorraine Wylie

FOR many, Alfred Hitchcock will always be the master of suspense. Actress Tippi Hedren agrees he was “a man of unusual genius”, but among the chorus of accolades some of her descriptions, including “evil and deviant” strike a darker note.

According to Hedren, the events that curdled her opinion of Hitchcock occurred during production of The Birds. It was her first major role and Hitchcock’s 49th movie. Now, over half a century later Hedren recalls how the psychological dramas on set spilled over into real life.

“At the time Alfred Hitchcock was a big name. Everyone knew him. He had immense talent and could be very charming, very witty. Initially, he was my mentor and taught me a lot about acting. But, I sensed an infatuation on his part that gradually became an obsession.

“He watched me constantly, it was really a form of stalking. Any woman who has experienced a similar situation, will understand the stress. It’s horrible. As Hitch’s behaviour became more controlling and more inappropriate, I struggled to cope,” says Hedren, 87 next month.

The aggravation continued though 1964 while filming Marnie, where the director would visit her dressing room, and become aggressive when she resisted his physical advances.

However, it was two decades before she talked openly about the problematic relationship. In 1983, author Donald Spoto published the revelations in his book The Dark Side of a Genius. Her reason for not speaking sooner may resonate with other victims of abuse.

“There were a lot of reasons but mainly, I was embarrassed. Having said that, there was really nothing I could have done. Back then, things were very different to today. There were no laws against sexual harassment. It many ways, it was accepted as the norm.

“Women knew if they wanted to get on in their career, they had to pay a price. The casting couch was regularly in use. I never wanted to go down that route and never did. I simply refused,” she says.

Rebuffing the advances of such a powerful boss must have taken a lot of self confidence.

“I’ve always been a strong character but I also knew right from wrong. My parents were both Lutheran and gave me a strict moral code. I would never have devalued anything my parents taught me,” she says.

Tippi Hedren recalls the events that curdled her opinion of Alfred Hitchcock

Does she think women in today’s work places have an easier time?

“Sexual harassment still exists. As long as there are men and women around, it will always be an issue. But now when it occurs, there is a framework in place to deal with it. The problem is that, for whatever reason, people are afraid to tell. Some find the details humiliating. For my generation, it was a lot harder. No-one wanted to listen. Nowadays, the subject is taken seriously. It’s okay to say no,” she says.

Inspired by Spoto’s book, the film The Girl was released in 2012, sparking further controversy. Now, once again, the subject is back in the public domain. Her latest book, Tippi released in November 2016, devotes just two chapters to the Hitchcock era but there are many who dispute Hedren’s claims. The star isn’t about to become embroiled in a debate.

“I know what happened. I was there!’ Whatever went on behind the scenes, onscreen Tippi Hedren was the epitome of Hollywood chic. In 2012, visitors to the Museum Of Style Icons in Newbridge, Co Kildare, witnessed her star quality at first hand. Initially, some weren’t too sure who the glamorous but elderly lady could be. Her jewel-encrusted brooch depicting three birds in flight, provided a major clue.

“I considered it a great honour that the museum featured my suit from The Birds in their collection. The place is amazing, I could spend all day there! I loved Ireland and really enjoyed my stay. It’s a beautiful country and the people are so very friendly. I’d love to come back again.”

Nowadays when Hedren’s thoughts turn to ‘predators’ and ‘beasts’ it’s more likely to be the four-footed variety. She runs a sanctuary in California for exotic felines — lions, tigers, leopards, etc, that have been discarded by zoos or by owners not up to the challenge of keeping them as pets.

“I spend most of my time here at the Shambala Preserve where we look after our rescued animals. These big cats are incredibly beautiful and in desperate need of a sanctuary. As well as caring for their overall welfare, I’m determined to help them by changing the law. We need to put an end to the practice of private breeding where people sell the cubs to the highest bidder. Buyers don’t seem to realise that big cats do not make good pets. They are apex predators, and very dangerous.”

Having entertained a fully grown lion in her home, Hedren knows what she’s talking about.

“We once had a huge lion living in our home. Looking back, it was a stupid thing to do. These animals can be unpredictable and very, very fast. It was crazy!”

Fortunately, her 180kg feline house guest, known as Neil, was on his best behaviour and no-one was hurt.

Hedren with her daughter Melanie Griffith, and grand-daughters Dakota Johnson (left) and Stella Banderas.
Hedren with her daughter Melanie Griffith, and grand-daughters Dakota Johnson (left) and Stella Banderas.

Her daughter Melanie Griffith, 13 at the time, even considered him her best friend.

Living with Neil might have given Tippi an insight into working with lions. However, it made no impact on the overall outcome of the film. Not only did Roar prove a financial flop, but several of the cast members, including Tippi and Melanie, were attacked and injured. Love for big cats clouded her judgement but in the end Hedren found a silver lining.

“Looking back, I’d have to say that Shambala Preserve was among the best decision I ever made.” Many residents at the sanctuary have had wealthy owners. Two of her more famous guests, Bengal tigers Sabu and Thriller, once belonged to Michael Jackson. Thriller died from lung cancer in 2012.

Her daughter Melanie Griffith and grand-daughter Dakota Johnson share her love of big cats.

All three have experience of the film industry, though at different eras. As matriarch, does she think she influenced their choices?

“I don’t know about that. I mean growing up, Melanie saw how hard it can be. Still, children tend to do their own thing. I’m very proud of them both.”

With over 70 big cats to care for, a new book on the go and family to visit, Hedren has a busy schedule. Although, there’s something more spiritual on her mind.

“I think there’s a ghost in this house. I’ve noticed it becoming rather noisy lately,” she says in a matter of-fact tone. Spooky lodgers are not the norm but then again, neither are lions named Neil. Isn’t there any species she’d refuse house room?

“I really draw the line at spiders’

  • Tippi: A Memoir is out now


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