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Tippi Hedren On Rod Taylor,

The Original Birdman

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The Actress, Who Turns 85 Today and Is Also The Mother of Melanie Griffith, Recalls That Alfred Hitchcock Was A Bigger Nemesis That The Birds

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel To Real Special For Modern Times Magazine

Jan. 19, 2014 — Although Michael Keaton is an odds-on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar this year for his prodigious performance in Birdman, an actor that might be considered the original “birdman,” Rod Taylor, passed away last week at the age of 84. He, of course, starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s most offbeat suspense film about fowl gone foul – The Birds.

In 1996, we talked to Taylor’s co-star in the 1963 film, Tippi Hedren, at Shambala, a wildlife sanctuary northwest of Los Angeles on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Hedren, a Minnesota native and mother of actress Melanie Griffith, was still stunning at 62 as she confided to us her surefire diet tip: “If I can’t zip-up my blue jeans in the morning, I don’t eat that day.”

By happenstance, she also turns 85 today.

As sleekly feline as the cheetahs and leopards that stalk her menagerie, we followed Hedren around the 60-acre compound (Shambala is a Sanskrit word for “a meeting place of peace and harmony for all beings, animal and human”) as she fed her big cats and told us how she came to be cast in The Birds.

After seeing her in a television commercial for a diet drink that aired during The Today Show, Hitchcock called Hedren and asked whether she’d like to appear in an animal movie, of sorts – The Birds. Hedren, who felt her modeling career was on the wane, accepted. After the most expensive screen test in Hollywood history (it was shot over three days), she was offered the role of Melanie Daniels, the chic mantrap who pays a fateful call on Taylor in Bodega Bay just as the birds are massing to attack.

“Everything culminated with that last scene where I go up to the attic,” she said. “They had a cage built around the attic door that I opened, and three prop men were there wearing leather gauntlets with huge cartons filled with ravens and seagulls which they began to hurl at me. The scene took five days to shoot.

“On Wednesday, Cary Grant visited the set and told me I was the bravest woman he ever met; by Friday they had me on the floor of the attic, my dress torn to shreds from the talons of the birds,” she said.

According to Hedren, to achieve a more realistic effect, her dress was fitted with elastic bands that were then tied to the legs of some of the birds. “One broke loose and scratched me right under the eye,” she said. “I freaked and started to cry from sheer exhaustion.”

Hedren did suffer a sort of nervous shutdown after that scene and remembers sleeping for a solid week – against the strenuous protest of Hitchcock who wanted to continue filming.

“I have a dichotomous feeling about The Birds,” Hedren said. “On one hand, it’s a one-of-a-kind picture that everyone has seen, and the shocks still hold up after all these years. I’m proud of that. But Hitchcock really ruined my career. He was obstinate and possessive. After a while I couldn’t stand it anymore. But he wouldn’t release me from my personal contract with him and so for two years I didn’t make another movie; I just sat around drawing my $500-a-week salary. After that we never spoke to each other again.”

Turner Classic Movies will remember Rod Taylor on Jan. 29th with an evening screening of The Birds.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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