It’s a story that’s become Hollywood legend: Model Tippi Hedren’s life was forever changed when she was cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” But Variety columnist Army Archerd first reported the news in his column rather banally back in 1962: “Mort Sahl’s gal friend also in the company.”
How did you get cast in the movie?
I had just moved back to Los Angeles because I wanted (my daughter) Melanie (Griffith) to have a little bit of independence. I thought my career as a fashion model and doing all those commercials would continue in L.A. as it had in New York, but it wasn’t happening. Then all of a sudden a phone call came asking if I was the woman in the Sego commercial. And I said, “Yes. Why?” And he said, “There’s a producer who’s interested in you.” It became kind of a joke — nobody would tell me who the producer was. Finally after a series of meetings, an agent said, “I want you to read this contract, understand it and sign it. And we’ll go over to meet Alfred Hitchcock.”
How did you feel when you finally found out who it was?
I actually became rather giddy, and all I could think of was going back to Melanie and saying, “Hey, your mom’s got a job!” I remember so clearly going over to his office at Paramount Studios. Honestly he stood there like he did in the “Hitchcock Presents” opening — you know, with that profile. For three days, I was put through this incredible learning time. Both Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma, were my drama coaches, which was pretty amazing. He tried so hard to break me, make me cry. But I didn’t do it. And then after everybody looked at my screen test, I was invited out to dinner with the Hitchcocks. Hitch placed a beautifully wrapped package from Gump’s in San Francisco in front of me. And I opened it and it was a gold and sea pearl pin of three birds in flight. And he said, “We want you to play Melanie Daniels in ‘The Birds.’”
What did you learn from working with him?
Everything that I’ve learned, I’ve used ever since in acting. I never went to another drama coach or a drama school. I just listened to him. I read the script, I don’t know how many times. How do you break down a script? How do you develop the character that you’re going to play? All of those things were taught to me by Hitchcock and Alma.
But then things changed, didn’t they?
He became obsessed over me. I kept thinking, “Why is he doing this? Why?” Because we had such a good working relationship and I was so empowered by his teachings. And then very slowly this obsession came into play and I had to say, “I can’t do this. I have to get out of this.” And he said, “I’ll ruin your career.” And he did. He had me under contract for close to two years. After “The Birds” and “Marnie,” I was hot as an actress, and different directors apparently wanted me, but to get to me they had to go through him. And that was the end of what could have been a really wonderful career for me.
How did you get through it?
I tried at first to ignore it. Then when the times came when, “Mr. Hitchcock would like to have you join him for a glass of champagne after we wrap.” It started like that. And so, very soon, I said, “I can’t do this. I have a daughter at home and I have to get home.” By the end of “Marnie” it was so bad. The whole crew, everybody knew what was going on and how uncomfortable I was. And here I had this huge responsibility of a major motion picture with huge people, and to lay this on somebody, I mean it was just unconscionable. It was a nightmare.
Did you talk to anyone for support?
I talked to his right-hand woman, Peggy Robertson. And I said, “Peggy, can you do something? Can you help me?” And she said, “I don’t know what to do.” And at one point, Alma came to me. She would come to the set every now and then. And she said, “Oh, Tippi, I’m so sorry you have to go through this.” And my eyes got big, and I said, “Alma, you could stop it.” And her eyes glazed over and she turned around and walked away.
Why did you finally decide to start talking about it?
If I hadn’t done “The Birds,” I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now with the animals. And that is the truth. Because I went on to do other movies, not as grand as I had started out with. I walked away from a very, very bad situation with my head held high. I did not acquiesce to his demands. I wasn’t the first one; I was the first one who talked about it.
What advice did you offer your daughter when she wanted to go into show business?
I was so surprised when she wanted to do it. Because it is not an easy job. You are always under criticism, you are always looked at, you are discussed constantly. It’s hard work getting up at 5 in the morning. It’s not all lights and red carpets. But look what she did, and now look at (her daughter) Dakota.
Do you read reviews of your work?
I can’t remember much about “The Birds” or what everybody said about me. And “Marnie” was a tough movie because nobody understood it all those years ago. They do now. And the reviews that they give now are entirely different. And now critics are saying “Marnie” is his best film. A critique is a critique and you have to look at it — whether it’s a rave review or a bad one — with a grain of salt.