Profile: Tippi Hedren on modeling, birds and a certain director

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Actress Tippi Hedren starred in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" (1963) and "Marnie" ('64), after which she wanted to be let out of her contract with his studio. HBO's film "The Girl" (2012) is about the stressful and controlling relationship she had with the director. At 83, the former fashion model continues to work in film, theater and, most recently, on television in the season finale of "Cougar Town," which is slated to air on TBS at 10:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday (April 9).

After making the film "Roar" with then-husband Noel Marshall, she became an activist for animal rights. She runs a reserve for big cats. Her daughter, actress Melanie Griffith, and son-in-law, actor Antonio Banderas, are on the board of the Roar Foundation. For more information, go to

Excerpts from an interview:

Q: What was it about performing that hooked you?

A: I didn't really ever intend on being an actress. I was a very, very successful fashion model. It was during a time in the 1950s when television was taking over the world and our lives. Along with that came the television commercial. I ended up doing a tremendous number of class-A commercials. In fact, I was able to take six months off and go around the world.

Q: Nice. So that's what you liked about acting.

A: Yeah, (laughs) after about 11 years, which is a long time to be a fashion model, I wanted my daughter to have a little bit of freedom so Melanie could say, "Mommy, I am going out to play," which you can't do if you are living in New York City. So we moved to California with the puppy and the kitty and the bunny -- all of us moved. I thought my career would take off as it had in New York. It didn't.

On Friday the 13th of October 1961 I received a phone call from an executive at Universal (Studios). He said, "There is a producer interested in you." I asked, "Who is this producer?" He said, "Why don't you come over and meet with us and we can talk about it." I did, but they didn't tell me at that meeting, so all weekend long it was like a suspense thriller. It wasn't until Tuesday that I was asked to go to an agency and was told that Alfred Hitchcock wants to sign you to a contract. If you read the contract, agree with the terms and sign it we will go over to meet him. So I was under contract before I even met Alfred Hitchcock. That's unique.

Q: You've been really open about his obsession with you. It is hard for girls growing up today to imagine he was able to get away with the kind of control he had over your life?

A: That was the studio days, and that situation apparently happened often.

Q: Working with Hitchcock was a double-edged sword -- fame, but on his terms. Would you change anything knowing what you know now?

A: Well, I was under contract to him, so there was a great difficulty with trying to get out.

Q: But at one point you were brave enough to say, "I'm done."

A: I did. He said, "Well, you can't. You have your daughter to take care of and your parents are getting older." I thought they wouldn't want me to be in this situation in which I am not happy. I said, "I will not put up with this. When 'Marnie' is over, I am gone." He said, "I'll ruin your career." I said, "Do what you have to do." And he did.

He kept me under contract and paid me my $600 a week. He was cheap. (Laughs). Talented, but cheap. He really did ruin my career. After I finished "The Birds" and "Marnie," I was, as the Hollywood expression goes, hot. Apparently a number of directors and producers had called to use me in their films, but to get to me they had to go through Hitchcock, and all he said was, "She isn't available."

Q: I read you said you had nightmares after doing "The Birds."

A: No, I never said that. I never had nightmares. People make things up. It really irritates me. I didn't have nightmares. I was very, very happy with my getting out of that situation. In fact, I love birds. I love ravens. You know, I have been rescuing big cats, lions and tigers. On the preserve we give a wonderful home to these poor, innocent creatures who were born to live in jail for the rest of their lives. We give them a wonderful life here.

We have a flock of ravens (laughs) who live here because they are meat-eaters. We serve between 400 and 500 pounds of meat every day. They are happy and they are smart and shiny and big and I love them. They know exactly what time we start feeding and they follow the staff. They know which of the lions and tigers they can steal from and which ones they can't. They have a huge vocabulary. I think they are one of the most interesting species of birds ever.

Q: Did you ever get to talk to Grace Kelly about her experience with Hitchcock?

A: No, I didn't. She had already married the prince and was off in Monaco. I know Prince Albert, who is charming, wonderful.

Q: Since you knew so much about what goes on in the business, were you apprehensive when Melanie decided she wanted to get into it so young?

A: I was surprised when she wanted to do it. You know, she started when she was about 16. She knew it isn't all red carpet and klieg lights. It's hard work. She knew how difficult it was and that you were always being scrutinized. It is a huge responsibility to be a major part of a motion picture. I was kind of surprised she wanted to do that, but she certainly succeeded.

Q: How much fun was it working on the episode for "Cougar Town"?

A: It was fun. It was shorter than a cameo.

Q: Right. It was easy!

A: (Laughs) It really was. The whole story is trying to find me and at the very, very end they do.

Q: It's been fun to hear your story, especially with the interviews you did for "The Girl."

A: You know, I never talked about it for 20 years because the whole situation was embarrassing to me. I just didn't want to talk to anybody about it until I met Donald Spoto, the biographer. He wrote "The Dark Side of Genius" about Alfred Hitchcock. It shows the real man. It tells about what he was really like and it's pretty brutal. He said, "Tippi, would you consider my doing a chapter on you about this situation?" I thought it is time somebody speaks out about old Hollywood. I mean, old Hollywood still exists, but you can't get away with it anymore. If this situation had happened now I would be a very rich woman. (Laughs)

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