Tippi Hedren & The Birds

Tippi Hedren & The Birds

On Friday October 13th, 1961 model Tippi Hedren received a call telling her a “well-known movie director” had seen a television advertisement she featured in and called executives at Universal Studios instructing them to “FIND THE GIRL!”  After a few days of wondering about the identity of the director, Tippi met with Lew Wasserman, head of MCA Talent Agency, who told her that it was none other than Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock had just finished his landmark cinematic masterpiece of macabre, Psycho, and was now presenting his television shows: The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, leading Tippi to think his interest in her was connected to those shows.  However, Wasserman informed her that Hitchcock wanted to put her under contract.  Realising the weekly salary was $500 was enough for Tippi to sign on the dotted line.  This would provide for her and her young daughter Melanie, now that she was a single mother having recently spilt from advertising executive and former child actor Peter Griffith. 

Following their first meeting, which left her “more curious than ever,” Tippi underwent a transformation at the hands of Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville.  She was assigned a vocal coach; had both on and off-screen clothes designed for her by Academy Award winner Edith Head; and the couple gave her personal, detailed acting lessons from their home in Bel Air. All this work was to prepare Tippi for her first screen test.  Performing alongside Martin Balsam in scenes from previous Hitchcock movies Rebecca, To Catch a Thief and Notorious, Tippi was delighted to discover that she could act, laying aside fears she was carrying about her capabilities. 

At the same time there was a lot of talk at the studio about who would play the lead in the upcoming Hitchcock movie – an adapted screenplay of the Daphne du Maurier short story, The Birds.  With every actress at the Studio vying for the lead role of Melanie Daniels, it was Tippi who, while at lunch with Hitchcock, his wife and Lew Wasserman, learned that they wanted her for the lead.  This was the role Hitchcock had been preparing her for all this time.

Filming of The Birds began in March 1962, with most of the shooting on location in Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco.  The plot sees Tippi’s character, Melanie Daniels attacked by a range of different species of bird.  It wasn’t long into the shoot, before Tippi noticed strange behaviour from her director -  Her leading man, Rod Taylor, was forewarned “Don’t touch the Girl!” and each time she spoke to a male crew or cast member, Hitchcock would be cold and distant with her, petulant even.  He had a penchant for reciting rude limericks and took to telling the most offensive ones in her company, or giving her a particularly terse, unnecessary critique when they were alone.  This led Tippi to go to great lengths to try to avoid Hitchcock off set. 

Tippi’s rejection of him made Hitchcock furious and his treatment of her reflected this; she was to film a scene in which birds crash into a phone booth she is in, terrifying her in the process.  The booth was said to have been fitted with shatterproof glass however, some of the birds smashed the glass and shards had to be picked out of her face by a make-up artist. 

Soon after, the production moved to Universal Studios in Los Angeles.  The final scene to be filmed was the climactic one in which Melanie is attacked, almost fatally, by birds.  The scene lasts about one minute in the movie, but it took five days of filming before Hitchcock was satisfied with the take.  Tippi had questioned her characters motivation for entering the room where the birds were located alone, to be told by Hitchcock, “Because I tell you to.” 

Hitchcock had promised to use mechanical birds, but before the scene was filmed, Tippi discovered that the birds to be used were real. She was incredulous but had no option but to do the scene.  Cary Grant who happened to be on the set watching told her “You’re the bravest woman I’ve ever seen.”  Filming continued in this vein until, on the fifth day, a bird attached to her shoulder pecked too close to her eye and Tippi snapped.  Hitchcock shouted “Cut!” and she was left on the soundstage alone, sobbing and unable to move.  Her doctor prescribed a week’s rest which Hitchcock balked at, only to relent when the doctor questioned if he was trying to kill her.

After a week’s respite, Tippi arrived back on set ready to finish the movie and received a rapturous reception from the crew.  She spent the weeks and months that followed promoting the movie, standing by Hitchcock’s side, grateful that he had given her the chance to be there but also knowing that she had earned all the acclaim. 

The Birds premiered on March 28th, 1963 in New York and has been described as a peerless horror movie. Fifty-five years after the movie was released, the chic green dress and jacket worn by Tippi throughout The Birds is on permanent display in Newbridge Silverware’s Museum of Style Icons.