Bird Talk With Tippi Hedren
By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 3, 2012 3:00PM
In 1962 when it was announced that Tippi Hedren would be playing the lead in The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock's followup to Psycho, the general reaction was, "Who's that?" A hitherto unknown blonde model, Hedren was launched into stardom almost overnight after Hitchcock happened to see one of her television commercials and cast her in the film. And just as the director intended, she burns like a cool fire at the center of the movie. Even as the bird attacks grow more vicious, she maintains her coiffed, finely calibrated elegance. Until the climax, that is, a harrowing sequence in an attic room that, in our view, tops even Hitchcock's notorious shower scene as a pure tour de force of film editing.
After The Birds, there was Marnie. David Thomson writes of "the insight and pathos she brings to the sexually inhibited thief," blackmailed into marriage by her boss (played by Sean Connery), who's dying to find out what makes her tick.
Hedren is never less than fascinating. She has starred in many other films, including a small role in the thriller Pacific Heights alongside her daughter, Melanie Griffith. She has also devoted a great deal of time to Shambala Preserve, a wildlife habitat which she founded in 1983.
We were lucky enough to speak with her before the Music Box's screening of The Birds, part of TCM's Road to Hollywood. TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, a most affable fellow, was also on hand. We got the scoop on working with Alfred Hitchcock, wearing Edith Head's timeless fashions, and kissing Sean Connery. And Mankiewicz shared a saucy anecdote about Eva Marie Saint in the bargain.
CHICAGOIST: As I understand it, you were signed to a long-term contract before you knew you were going to be doing the film.
TIPPI HEDREN: I signed the contract before I met Hitchcock.
C: It sounds a bit mysterious.
TIPPI HEDREN: It was. I had just moved back to L.A. because my daughter was at the age where, you know, kids should be able to say, “I’m going out to play,” which you can’t do on the streets of New York. So I moved to L.A. And I thought my career would be moving along as it had in New York, which was just terrific. And it wasn’t going along that well. I started thinking, “Oh my God, what am I going to do?” On Friday the 13th of October I received a phone call from an executive at Universal asking if I was the woman on the Sego commercial. Because I was doing commercials mostly, in New York, at that point.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: What was Sego?
TIPPI HEDREN: Sego was a diet drink. I think I weighed all of 100 pounds when I did it.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: What are you up to, about 104 now?
TIPPI HEDREN: 103. [laughs] So anyway, he said that a producer was interested in me. And I said, “Who?” He said, “Well, why don’t you come over and meet with me and we’ll talk about it.” Well, he didn’t tell me during that meeting on Friday the 13th. And no matter how twisted I made the questions, it didn’t work. All weekend I wondered, “Who is it?” Monday morning I went back to the studio to pick up the reel of the 14 or 15 commercials that were on it, and my photo book. And I met one executive after another and none of them would tell me. It became a kind of a game. On Tuesday morning I was asked to go to MCA. Herman Citron was one of the big agents there. He told me that Alfred Hitchcock wanted to sign me to a contract. And if I agreed, and I signed the contract, we would go over and meet him. You know what I thought? Bingo, I can take care of my daughter. It wasn’t anything like, oh my God, what am I going to be doing?
BEN MANKIEWICZ: We talked about this story before, but I didn’t realize that. You were asked to sign the contract before the meeting. Like as a condition to the meeting, you had to sign.
C: And at that point were you just thinking that it was going to be for the television show?
TIPPI HEDREN: I did. You know, I didn’t even have time to think about it. After the meeting, as the days went on, I knew they were writing The Birds. And of course Hitchcock was very much involved with all of his scripts. There is a lot of him in those scripts, for the male leads. Then they decided to do a screen test. And the screen test took three days. We did scenes from Rebecca, Notorious, and To Catch a Thief. Three entirely different women.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: Who did you do it with?
TIPPI HEDREN: Martin Balsam was flown in to be my leading man. It was a big deal. Edith Head did my clothes. And Bob Burks was the DP. And I just thought that was what happens to anyone who goes under contract. It doesn’t! Then about three weeks after that they invited me to dinner at Chasen’s. Where Hitch placed a very beautifully wrapped package from Gump’s in San Francisco [in my hand]. I opened it and there was a pearl and gold pin with three birds in flight.
C: I think I’ve seen you wear that.
TIPPI HEDREN: Yes. And he said, “We want you to play Melanie Daniels in The Birds.” I was so stunned, and honored and thrilled. I had tears in my eyes. I looked over at Alma, Mrs. Hitchcock, and she had tears in her eyes. Lew Wasserman had joined us--he had one tear.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: Just the one tear!
TIPPI HEDREN: Although he was a lovely man, as tough as he was. And Mr. Hitchcock sat there looking very pleased with himself.
C: I understand he was a great practical joker. Did he ever play any practical jokes on you?
TIPPI HEDREN: Yes. Yes he did. That old one. You know, where you’re coming in the door, and you’re standing outside and everyone else is on the other side of the door. And I waited, and I waited, and I waited for “Action.” And it didn’t happen. So I thought, “Ah, he’s playing a joke on me.” So I walked around the stage. And there, the whole crew was huddled behind the curtain. And I went, “Boo!” And exploded the joke.
C: Did he get the better of you on another occasion?
TIPPI HEDREN: He thought I was losing weight. So I’d arrive home and there would be this whole carton of bread sitting at my front door.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: Bread?
TIPPI HEDREN: Bread. To fatten me up.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: A peculiar choice.
C: Getting back to Edith Head for a moment, by my count you only wear two outfits in the movie.
TIPPI HEDREN: Yes, mostly it was the green dress. I had six of them. The only one remaining I believe is in Ireland. I had given it to this man, he went around to all the different actresses and collected their gowns because it was going to be a museum. And I thought, “Well, what a good idea, rather than sitting in my closet.” And he ran off with them and I guess he sold everything.
C: What was it like to work with Edith?
TIPPI HEDREN: I just adored her. We became such good friends. And the thing that I really loved about her, during meetings with her, and Hitch, how she manipulated the director or producer around what her ideas were. Making him think it was his. She was brilliant, absolutely brilliant.
C: What was the most frightening moment for you, making the film?
TIPPI HEDREN: It wasn’t really frightening as much as “Am I going to live through it?” Because I was told they were going to use mechanical birds, at the top, when I go in that door and the birds come after me. That was one of the first things I asked Mr. Hitchcock when I read the script. First of all, why would I go up those stairs, knowing what’s happened?
C: What did he say?
TIPPI HEDREN: He said, “Because I tell you to.” He was having fun. And, how would we be doing that scene where the birds come after me? He paused for a moment and then he said, “Oh, we’ll use mechanical birds like we do with the children.” Fine. Well, they all lied to me. The whole crew. That scene was one of the last. We started on a Monday morning and I was sitting in my dressing room. I had that darling black raven, who was so sweet that the trainer wouldn’t teach him all the bad things he had to teach the rest of them. Buddy. He hung out with me. He’d hop into the dressing room and jump on my makeup table and play with all the makeup and throw it on the floor, and then he’d sit on my shoulder, and then on my head. We were just really good friends. He and I were in the dressing room. And the assistant director came in, and he couldn’t look at me. He looked at the floor, the walls, the ceiling. I said, “What’s the matter with you, Jim?” He gulped, literally, and he said, “The mechanical birds don’t work and we have to use real ones.” And out the door he sailed. Well, I picked my jaw off the floor and went out there. He had no intention of using mechanical birds. They had a cage built around the door where I come in, with a top on it so we had control of the birds, otherwise they’d be up in the rafters. Inside that cage were four great big cartons of gulls and ravens, and a few pigeons thrown in. There were trainers with gauntlets up to their shoulders. They hurled these birds at me for five days.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: And some of them were tied to her--there’s no knocking them away.
TIPPI HEDREN: No, and they were on elastic so that they could move. And by Friday afternoon, one of them was on my shoulder. He’d been tied there. His claw got so close to my eye that I just said, “Get me out of here, this is enough.” I sat in the middle of the stage, crying. And I was under doctor’s care for complete exhaustion. And the doctor said, “Well, we can’t, we have nothing else to shoot.” Because if you look at that film, there’s hardly a frame that I’m not in. And the doctor said, “No, she has to rest.” “But she can’t, she can’t, we have to get on with the film!” And he said, “What are you trying to do, kill her?”
C: Is it true that Cary Grant visited the set during that week?
TIPPI HEDREN: [laughs] Yes. He came over to me and he said, “I think you’re the bravest woman I’ve ever met.” Well, I don’t know if that’s the adjective he used, but
C: I’m sure he was very relieved not to be in your place!
TIPPI HEDREN: I’m sure. Sometimes I think that Hitch chose an unknown to do this movie because no actress in her right mind would have accepted this.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: I always love that line: “The mechanical birds--they don’t work.” They don’t work ‘cause we didn’t bring ‘em. We threw them away.
TIPPI HEDREN: Yeah, and we’ve been working for over a week getting this cage and everything built.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: How long were you in the hospital for?
TIPPI HEDREN: I wasn’t in the hospital, I was just home. Sleeping. Just for a week. Sunday to Sunday.
C: Of course, there have been periodic stirrings about a remake
TIPPI HEDREN: Well, isn’t that stupid.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: There was one, right?
TIPPI HEDREN: It was like a sequel. It was called The Birds II: Land’s End. Yeah. And it was really awful. I think they had like 25 birds. They used real birds but they didn’t have enough.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: It’s bad.
C: Well, I firmly hope that the remake never happens. It would just be terrible.
TIPPI HEDREN: I do too. Whoever it was who was going to produce it called me and said, “What do you think about this idea?” And I told him what I thought about it. It’s an absurd thing to take a man who was a master and try to copy it, because it’ll never work. It’ll never work. Nothing does.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: Did you see the Psycho remake?
TIPPI HEDREN: Yeah, it was horrible. It didn’t work at all.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: It’s not that bad. It’s just kind of pointless. Structurally, like if you didn’t see the original, it’s alright. But who would see that without having seen--
TIPPI HEDREN: They had a bit of nudity in the shower scene, didn’t they?
BEN MANKIEWICZ: I think that’s right.
C: So, the burning question on everyone’s mind: Rod Taylor or Sean Connery, who was the better kisser?
TIPPI HEDREN: Oh--definitely Sean Connery. You know, when he was chosen to do this, Hitchcock looked for I don’t know how long to try to find the actor. He went through everybody in the early 60’s who was hot. Finally, he came into the office and said, “I’ve found your Mark Rutland.” I said, “Great, who is it?” He said, “Sean Connery.” I said, “Sean Connery? The actor who just got out of Dr. No? The man who was on Newsweek magazine as the handsomest man in the entire world? The man who could melt the iciest of blondes?” I said, “Mr. Hitchcock, Marnie, the character I’m playing, is so frigid that she screams if a man comes near her. How am I supposed to handle that?” And he said, “It’s called ‘acting,’ my dear.” He was wonderful.
C: You’ve done a lot of interesting movies lately, in the last ten years or so, but I Heart Huckabees really stands out for me. How did that come to be?
TIPPI HEDREN: Oh, that was the most fun. I don’t know--the director just decided that I was right for that role. He’s crazy. He’s totally crazy. All the time that we were filming I thought, “How is he going to edit this?” We’d be shooting and he’d say, “No, we’re not going to do it that way, we’re going to--” By this time, you know, I know a little bit about what you have to do to make it work. Well, he made it work. Somehow.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: You didn’t have to audition, right?
TIPPI HEDREN: No.
C: Your last scene in the movie was so shocking to me because, as you know, you use some pretty salty language in that scene--it’s not what I was expecting to see you do!
TIPPI HEDREN: [laughs] That was fun.
C: My last question--a friend of mine wants me to ask this. He wants to know why you never did an episode of Columbo?
TIPPI HEDREN: Probably because I wasn’t asked to.
C: That’s such a shame, because you would have been the perfect criminal.
TIPPI HEDREN: I would have.
C: I think some other Hitchcock ladies did some appearances on Columbo. By the way, do you keep in touch with the other Hitchcock actresses, like Eva Marie Saint?
TIPPI HEDREN: Yes--in fact I was with her around Christmastime. We were on a cruise.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: Yes, we were on a TCM cruise. I was in Philly and Houston with Eva Marie. For one screening of On the Waterfront, and another screening of North by Northwest. I did a saltier variation of the question you just asked Tippi. She’s been married 61 years. Her husband Jeffrey is a wonderful, wonderful man, and he comes with her when she’s traveling. So I’m like, “Okay, pretend Jeffrey’s not here. A social vacuum. The audience is not here. Let’s cut through the crap. Brando, or Grant? And I’m not talking about kissing.” And Eva Marie, she says, “I’m sorry--what?” I’m like, “Come on. Brando, or Grant?” She says, “Brando or Grant, what?” The crowd now gets it, and they’re starting to laugh. I go, “Eva Marie. Marlon Brando or Cary Grant?” She’s like, “Oh my goodness, no! My husband, always my husband!” But I took that to mean, “Brando.”