Pop Culture
Oct 04, 2023, 06:28AM

The Wild Life of Tippi Hedren

Hollywood actress Tippi Hedren has a big heart and even bigger cats.

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Tippi Hedren didn’t want to be an actress. She had a successful modeling career, loved being a mother, and was happy living in New York. Then her marriage fell apart. She moved to Los Angeles with her four-year old daughter Melanie Griffith and rented a home in Sherman Oaks. In 1961, Alfred Hitchcock saw Hedren in a tv commercial for a diet drink called Sego. He was taken by her beauty and “well-bred” quality. He gave her a screen test and then signed her to a seven-year acting contract.

Hitchcock became Hedren’s personal acting coach and mentor. Her screen debut was the 1963 film The Birds. She said, “I probably learned in three years what it would have taken me 15 years to learn otherwise.” Her early experience with Hitchcock was wonderful, but he proved to be a bully. During production on The Birds, he subjected Hedren to intense filming days including live bird attacks that gouged her cheek and nearly took out her eye. She succumbed to exhaustion and was driven to tears.

Hitchcock cast her in his next film Marnie about an emotionally battered woman. The director became possessive. According to Donald Spoto’s book The Dark Side of Genius, Hitchcock “advised her on what she should eat, whom she should see, and how she should live. He told the cast and crew they were not allowed to talk to her.” Her co-star Rod Taylor said, “No one was permitted to come physically close to her during the production.”

Hitchcock tried to kiss Hedren in the back of a car while being driven to set. Hedren complained to Universal chief Lew Wasserman. Nothing happened. Hitchcock was the premier director in Hollywood and Hedren was expendable. Hitchcock’s obsession grew darker. He told Hedren he had a recurring dream where she told him, “Hitch, I love you—I’ll always love you.” One day he asked her to touch him just before shooting a scene. Hedren was humiliated. She said, “He expected me to make myself sexually available and accessible to him.”

They had a brutal fight on set. Hedren called Hitchcock a “fat pig” in front of the crew and said she would never work with him again. He vowed to destroy her career, refusing to let her out of her contract. The contract gave Hitchcock final say on the acting roles she could accept. He used his power to prevent her from getting work, effectively ruining Hedren’s acting career.

Hedren’s husband Noel Marshall offered emotional support. Marshall was Hedren’s agent and the two were married in 1964. In 1971, the couple wrote an original screenplay about a family with three children who adopt and live with big cats. The project’s original title was Lions, Lions and More Lions. They approached animal trainers for advice. The trainers told them they were “brainsick” and “completely and utterly insane” to let big cats roam freely on a film set.

A trainer named Ron Oxley, told Hedren and Marshall that “to get to know about lions, you’ve got to live with them for a while.” They raised a lion cub named Neil in their Sherman Oaks home. They let Neil sleep with them in their beds including the beds of Hedren’s daughter Melanie and Marshall’s two sons, John and Jerry. Hedren now realizes it was “stupid beyond belief” to put her family at risk living in close proximity with animals. Photographer Michael Rougier documented their unusual family existence in a 1971 Life magazine story.

Marshall raised funds from Japanese and British investors. He changed the name of the film to Roar and purchased a 130-acre property in Acton, California 40 miles north of Los Angeles. The site was a paradise with cottonwood trees nestled beside the Santa Clara River. Water was channeled into the location to create ponds and a large lake for migrating birds. Marshall procured wild cats from circuses, zoos,  and private owners no longer able to care for the animals. The animal cast grew to 132 lions, tiger, leopards, panthers, jaguars and cougars.

Film production began in 1974. Marshall was an investor in The Exorcist and used his profits to fund Roar. Hedren starred in the film with daughter Melanie and Marshall’s two sons. Marshall directed and acted in the film. The production was considered the most dangerous movie ever made. More than 70 cast and crew members were mauled. Hedren was bitten in the neck by a lion and required 38 stitches. Cinematographer Jan De Bont was mauled by a lion and needed 220 sutures in his scalp. 13-year-old Melanie Griffith was also attacked, requiring 50 stitches. After a cheetah attacked Marshall, his wounds became gangrenous and he nearly died.

Production lasted five years. In 1978, a flood destroyed the set and killed three lions. A year later, a brush fire required animals to be evacuated. There was also a feline virus that killed several big cats. When Marshall and Hedren ran out of money they sold their homes in Los Angeles to continue filming. The original $2 million budget soared to $17 million. The film was completed and released in 1981. It received horrendous reviews.

In 1982, Hedren and Marshall divorced. He returned to Hollywood while Hedren devoted herself to the animals. (She joked with friends that working with Hitchcock prepared her to work with lions.) In 1983, Hedren established the Roar Foundation as a 501C non-profit organization to care for abandoned and homeless big cats. “After our movie was over,” she said, “it was unconscionable to see the animals go any place else.” She named the site “Shambala,” a Sanskrit term meaning “a meeting place of peace and harmony for all beings, animal and humans.”

The animals of Shambala weren’t adapted to life in the wild and were dependent on humans for their needs. Hedren hired veterinarians and animal caretakers. Shambala became home to 71 lions, 26 tigers, 10 cougars, nine black panthers, four leopards, two jaguars, two elephants, a cheetah, a tigon (offspring of a male tiger and female lion) and a myriad of bird species (cranes, flamingos, peacocks and a stork). Hedren took in two Bengal tigers from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. She also adopted a full-grown lion that had lived in the San Francisco home of Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. The only animal Hedren turned down was a hippopotamus.

Shambala was expensive. By 2010, the food budget was $75,000 a month. At first, Hedren returned to acting in shows like Hart to Hart and The Bold and the Beautiful. She used her earnings to support the animals. Eventually, she allowed visitors to tour Shambala a few days a month at $30 per person. No one on a tour has ever been injured. Hedren turned to her Hollywood friends to raise donations with fundraisers and auctions. Celebrities who’ve served on the Roar Foundation board over the years include Melanie Griffith, Lily Tomlin, Loni Anderson and Betty White.

In 2003, Hedren co-authored a Congressional bill called “The Captive Wildlife Safety Act.” The bill bans interstate trafficking of big cats as pets for financial gain. It was passed and signed into law by President George W. Bush. She works with the American Sanctuary Association to require animal sanctuaries to comply with quality care standards and housing requirements. Hedren says, “I love these animals more than my next breath, but they are not pets and should not be born to be held in captivity.”

Tippi Hedren is 93 and still lives at Shambala.


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