Better Known For 'Birds,' Tippi Hedren Prefers Cats

She may be best known for her role as Alfred Hitchcock's heroine in The Birds, but actress Tippi Hedren is also deeply involved in the protection of big cats in the wild and in captivity. Host Scott Simon talks to Hedren, who recently received the Humane Society's Genesis Lifetime Achievement Award for her animal-advocacy work.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Tippi Hedren is probably still best known for being pecked nearly to death by 100 inexplicably angry birds in Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 classic, "The Birds," but(ph) she kept her fur coat on and barely a hair out of place. Although best known as Hitchcock's imperturbable cool blonde, Tippi Hedren's appeared in many other films and TV series over the years and produced others.

This year she received a Lifetime Achievement Award, but not for acting. The honor comes from the Genesis Awards, the Humane Society's Oscar ceremony for animal rights, for her work in behalf of lions, tigers and other large felines at the Shambala Preserve that she founded in 1983. Tippi Hedren joins us now from Acton, California.

Ms. Hedren, thanks so much for being with us.

TIPPI HEDREN: Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: So who do you have out there at Shambala?

HEDREN: We have a lion, tiger, liger, which is the father is a lion and the mother is a tiger, black and spotted leopard, mountain lion, Asian leopard cats. We've got a tremendous number of the exotic feline.

SIMON: How did they wind there? I think a lot of people might remember when Michael Jackson's two Bengal tigers were brought there.

HEDREN: Yes, Thriller and Sabu. You know, none of these animals are good pets and they will eventually get to the point where, where - or the people who have them will get to the point where they can't deal with them any longer.

SIMON: So what fascinates you so much about large cats?

HEDREN: The thing that's so fascinating about this is that these are apex predators. These are the animals that are the reason why you don't see old animals in the wild. You don't see sick animals in the wild. You don't see lame animals in the wild, and it's all because of the predator: the lion, the tiger, the leopard, all the cats.

SIMON: Can we go from cats to birds for a moment?

HEDREN: Oh sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HEDREN: Oh actually, just, I have to tell you something funny.

SIMON: Sure.

HEDREN: Because, you know, we serve about 500 pounds of meat every day, we have this huge flock of raven who live on the preserve.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HEDREN: And because they're meat eaters - so, and they know the whole pattern of when the animals are fed. And I want to tell you, we have the healthiest flock of raven you have ever seen and they're big and shiny.

SIMON: Now, I read, I think in some Hitchcock biography, that at least a few of those birds in that horrifying scene, where you and Rod Taylor are being assaulted, that at least a few of those birds were real.

HEDREN: Do you remember the scene where I go up to that room and open the door and all the ravens and seagulls attack me?

SIMON: Oh, of course. I think about it every three or four days.

HEDREN: Of course you do, every time you see one.

SIMON: Yeah.

HEDREN: You know, when I first read the script I said, And Mr. Hitchcock, how would we be doing this scene where I walk up the stairs and go into that room? And he said, Oh, we're going to use the mechanical birds.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

HEDREN: The morning we were to start that scene, the assistant director came in, Jim Brown; he couldn't look at me. He looked at the floor. He looked at the walls. He looked at the ceiling. And I said, What's the matter with you? And he said, The mechanical birds don't work, we have to use real ones. And out the door he sailed.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HEDREN: And I - they had no intention of using mechanical birds. They had a chain link fence built around the door in which I enter and there were about three or four cartons of raven and seagull and a few pigeons thrown in, and which they hurled at me for five days.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BIRDS")

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS)

HEDREN: (as Melanie Daniels) They're coming. They're coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS)

HEDREN: You know, I've often thought that this is the reason Alfred Hitchcock chose an unknown to do his movie, because no actress in her right mind would've done it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Yeah. You must have complicated thoughts about Alfred Hitchcock.

HEDREN: I do.

SIMON: And didn't he kind of put a throttle under your career at one point too?

HEDREN: Yes, he did. He was a very controlling man.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

HEDREN: I finally just became absolutely to the point where I had to get out of the contract, and I told him I wanted to do that. And he said, well, you can't, you have your daughter to raise, your parents are getting older. And I said, well, you know something? Nobody who loves me would want me to be in a situation where I'm not happy. I do want to get out. And he said, well, I'll ruin your career. And he did. Kept me under contract, paying me my $600 a week. Years later I would find out about a picture that a director wanted me for, or a producer, or whatever. And the one that really hurt the most was the French producer, François Truffaut, wanted me for a film, and all Hitch said was she's not available. That was that.

SIMON: So when he's - when Alfred Hitchcock is acclaimed as a genius, is that...

HEDREN: This is where I have such dichotomous feelings, is because I admired him so much about the capabilities of his filmmaking and, you know, what he went through to write - he was very, very much involved with the writers of his screenplays. But he was so well prepared that by the time we started filming the first day, he felt it was over because it was in his mind. It was finished.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

HEDREN: And he very often knew so well how he was going to edit that we almost shot an edited film.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HEDREN: The only time that I saw him unnerved...

SIMON: Yeah.

HEDREN: ...was in a scene where the little finches come down the fireplace...

SIMON: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Ooh.

HEDREN: ...and fly around the room?

SIMON: Yes.

HEDREN: Well, they came down the fireplace and they sat on the hearth and they sat on the arm of a chair.

SIMON: Aw.

HEDREN: And they sat on the coffee table, and Hitch was speechless. So he had a drummer come in and the drummer was beating the drums and it got louder and louder and louder and we just walked around the room ducking from birds that weren't there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HEDREN: And once the film was edited, it went over to Disney and they drew the birds in.

GROSS: Oh my gosh. I've got to take another look at that scene.

HEDREN: Isn't that amazing?

SIMON: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Has Shambala and your care for animals become your principal activity?

HEDREN: Very much so, except I do have to work, because when I founded the Roar Foundation I never took a salary of any kind. But 14 years ago, I donated all of the land to Roar Foundation so the animals will always be safe. So I do have to work, you know, and I find as many movies and TV shows that I can, because otherwise I wouldn't have an income.

SIMON: Well, Ms. Hedren, very nice to talk to you. Thanks so much.

HEDREN: Well, thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: The 24th Annual Genesis Awards airs this weekend on the Animal Planet network. Tippi Hedren received the Genesis Lifetime Achievement Award from the Humane Society. She spoke - hey, I think one's under my shoulder now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING)

SIMON: Spoke to us from her home in Acton, California.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING)

SIMON: I'm Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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