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Hollywood legend, Tippi Hedren, the original 'lion queen' who had an obsession with big cats

The perilous attraction of owning exotic pets existed long before the meme-worthy, Joe Exotic made his sensational debut on Netflix's hit show: Tiger King. Curiously, it would be Tippi Hedren, an actress most famously remembered for her 1963 role in Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds'- to first put big cats on the map.

Tippi Hedren's lifelong love affair with lions began in 1969 while she was filming a movie in Africa. She was inspired to make the disastrous adventure-film 'Roar' after visiting a wildlife preserve. In order to make the movie, she needed to raise her own cubs and has since owned more than 150 big cats as pets

For the 90-year-old silver screen legend, ferocious felines have been a lifelong passion (bordering on obsession) and driving force behind many decisions that Hedren later acknowledged were 'stupid beyond belief.' 

One of these 'stupid beyond belief' decisions was welcoming a 400 pound pet lion named Neil into her Beverly Hills home. Looking at the photos from the celebrated 1971 LIFE Magazine spread now make her 'cringe.'

Another regretful decision was the infamous 1983 adventure film 'Roar' - now commonly touted as 'the most dangerous film ever made.' It starred Hedren and her 13-year-old ingénue daughter, Melanie Griffith with 150 lethal lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, panthers, cheetahs, cougars, and tigons from their own personal menagerie of pets. The film's tagline announces: 'No animals were harmed during the making of Roar. But 70 members of the cast and crew were.' 

'Who exactly did we think we were to risk all these lives—our crew's, our animals, ours, and most of all, our children's—for what really amounted to nothing more than a very, very expensive home movie?' wrote Hedren in her memoir. 

Alfred Hitchcock muse, Tippi Hedren plays with her 400 pound pet lion named Neil at her Beverly Hills home for Life Magazine in 1971. An animal trainer suggested to Hedren that she live with lions in order to properly understand big cats for her 1983 film, Roar. She wrote in her memoir: 'Neil was a fascinating, sometimes hilarious, sometimes alarming Lion Behavior instructor'

Hedren and then-husband, Noel Marshall 'became obsessed' with making the film, 'Roar' despite many warnings from animal experts who tried to advise otherwise. Refusing to give up, Hedren and Marshall eventually realized that it wasn't practical to assemble the lion cast of Roar with other people's cats. She wrote: 'We were going to have to create a pride of our own, fifty home-grown lions…'  Thus became the impetus for Neil to join the Marshall family in 1971

Neil playfully grabs 13-year-old Melanie Griffith's foot as she jumps into the pool.  Hedren said that Neil gave the family lessons in 'Lions 101.' They learned to translate Neil's gestures, sounds and facial expressions. They learned that he liked to unceremoniously trip people with his big paws when they turned their back on him and that if you moved too quickly, he would think you were initiating play and he didn't know his own strength 

Big cat fever consumed every aspect of Hedren's life and she regrets how it might have affected the relationship with her daughter: 'Many times over the subsequent years, I've wondered if Melanie felt I'd devoted so much attention to the big cats we were amassing that there wasn't enough left for her'

The delusional idea for the film was the mad brainstorm of Hedren and then-husband, Noel Marshall who directed and also acted in the movie. It all started in 1969 when Hedren was filming on location in Zimbabwe. By then it had been six years since she made her renown Hollywood debut as the lead in Hitchcock's 'The Birds'; and the blonde beauty had already become accustomed to star treatment when the director suddenly demanded everyone on set to stand and make way for the lion coming through.

'Moments later a man appeared, moving toward us across the veld. Beside him, impossibly graceful for his massive size, was a magnificent golden lion, his amber-brown mane like an aura around his proud head,' said Hedren in her book, Tippi: A Memoir. 'The king of beasts indeed, I thought, pure royalty.'

In the following weeks, she was introduced to an 18-month old cub that she described as 'two hundred pounds of energy and silliness, as playful as a puppy and every bit as irresistible.' 

From that day forward, Tippi Hedren had big cat fever, she wrote: 'My lifelong assumption that big cats were, in the end, nothing more than beautiful, vicious predators was starting to erode. They were infinitely complex creatures, far more extraordinary than I'd ever realized, and the more I learned about them, the more I wanted to learn.' 

The concept for 'Roar' occurred to Hedren and her husband, Noel Marshall after they visited an African wildlife preserve and felt astounded by the sight of a pride of lions who had taken over an abandoned plantation house. 'There were lions everywhere. Some were reclining on the roof, looking back at us, unimpressed. Some were taking naps in the window frames. Two of them were relaxing in a dilapidated porch swing.'

Hedren said that she 'rolled her eyes' when Marshall initially suggested they turn 'the sacred sight' into a movie; but over time the idea turned into an 11-year-long obsession and impetus for their swelling coterie of wild cats – all of which were raised in the lap of luxury at their Beverly Hills home.

Tippi realized many years later how naive and stupid it was to raise undomesticated cats in her home but explained:  'I was so caught up in the thrill, the awe, the challenge, the passion, and the prospect of making our movie and sharing my life with these magnificent wild animals that my logic went right out the window'

Shortly after adopting Neil, Hedren added three more lion cubs to her growing brood and eventually her Beverly Hills home became a de-facto halfway house for wayward felines. By the time she commenced filming for Roar in 1976, Tippi's ark of animals included two elephants, three aoudad sheep, a handful of various birds: flamingos, ostriches, a marabou stork, black swans, peacocks and 132 different types of big cats from lions and tigers to cheetahs, panthers and jaguars

Hedren recalled hearing Neil roar for the first time which echoed tremendously throughout her quiet Beverly Hills cul-de-sac and  promptly caused her neighbor to call and ask if 'she hears a lion roaring?'  Without  hesitating Hedren came up with a lie to assuage the neighbor's suspicion: 'Yes, I heard that, too. I thought it sounded more like a motorcycle revving up.' She wrote: 'Thank you again for the acting lessons, Hitch'

Roar's plot follows a zoologist in Africa whose estranged family arrives to find that their house overrun by a pride of lions. Though straightforward enough, it wasn't so easy when it came to the logistics of filming 50 untamed beasts in one setting and expect them all to get along - much less perform on command. For instance, the scene that featured two Siberian tigers riding in the backseat of a Chevrolet took seven weeks to film because the tigers felt threatened by the engine and kept jumping out of the car. ('Animals, being animals, couldn't be less concerned about schedules and tight budgets,' explained Hedren). 

Corralling together a cast of wild cats was the film's first big obstacle. Forcing a group of adult lions to cooperate and live with each other could have deadly consequences. The introduction process has to be slow, otherwise, basic instincts override training and love in an instant and can be triggered by possessiveness over everything from food and attention to a pile of leaves or a toy ball. 

Hedren and Marshall realized that it wasn't practical to assemble the wild cast of Roar with other people's cats. 'We were going to have to create a pride of our own, fifty home-grown lions…' she explained. 

'Single-mindedness? Stubbornness? Headstrong determination? Sheer insanity? We didn't know, and we didn't stop to analyze it,' wrote Hedren. 

Ron Oxley, a veteran animal trainer in Los Angeles encouraged Hedren to live with lions at home in order to gain more intimate understanding of the colossal cats. It was on that advice that the Marshall family welcomed Neil, a 400-pound pet lion into their home.   

It was Neil who became the centerpiece for the famous 1971 photo spread in Life Magazine which shockingly portrayed the majestic giant casually at home with the Marshalls. 'Neil was a fascinating, sometimes hilarious, sometimes alarming Lion Behavior instructor,' wrote Hedren.

Tippi and Noel, along with their children Melanie, Joel, John and Jerry became quick studies of Neil's habits who gave them an education in 'Lions 101.'

They learned that when Neil was thirsty, he'd alert them by going into the kitchen and standing up with his paws on the sink. He would drink from the faucet, just like a domestic cat who slowly lapped the running water from the underside of his tongue. They learned to translate his various grunts, groans and moans. They studied the difference between Neil's facial expressions - whether he was ferociously (but innocently) grimacing from a foul odor or brandishing his teeth during a tense standoff. And they inconveniently learned that lions roar whether you want them to or not.

Hedren and family learned to read Neil's habits. She recalled that Neil would alert the family when he was thirsty by going into the kitchen and standing up with his paws on the sink. Then (much like a domesticated cat) he slowly lapped up the running faucet water from the underside of his tongue

Hedren said that this photo of Melanie in bed with Neil makes her 'cringe the most' and admits that it was 'stupid beyond belief.' She adds: 'I will always regret that we made it look as if wild cats can be trained into being predictable and harmless.' Melanie was later attacked by a lion on the set of Roar which resulted in her almost loosing an eye and needing extensive facial reconstructive surgery

Hedren recalled the first time they heard Neil roar which happened just after sunset and how it reverberated throughout the canyon. Within minutes she received a phone call from her neighbor. 'Without batting an eye I replied, 'Yes, I heard that, too. I thought it sounded more like a motorcycle revving up.' Not totally convinced, the neighbor hung up because it made a lot more sense than a lion in Beverly Hills. The Hollywood icon added: 'Thank you again for the acting lessons, Hitch.'

The only bad experience Hedren ever had with Neil was while she entertained dinner guests from England who were understandably anxious to meet the lion but they quickly relaxed into 'pure, fascinated awe' when it became clear that they weren't on his dinner menu.

However, later that evening and with no apparent reason or warning, Neil suddenly became possessive over his trainer, Ron Oxley's attention. 'It started with a growl, from the depths of his soul, and quickly escalated. His tail began twitching, his bloodred mouth opened to bare his stark white canines, and his huge paw wildly batted the air.' Tippi and her guests listened from the other room as Oxley had an intense showdown in the kitchen.

'My impulse was 'That's not Neil. That's not the docile, easygoing Neil who's melted my heart.' But of course the truth was, it was Neil, as inherently wild as he was lovable, and it was insanity to pretend otherwise,' wrote Hedren.

Hedren's love for Neil set her on a different path that would change her life forever. She wrote that Neil, was 'primal and complicated in that magnificent body like all the big cats and, in the end, the inspiration for a passionate commitment that will be with me the rest of my life.' 

'By August of 1971, word was out that the crazy Marshall family in Sherman Oaks would provide a home for almost any healthy lion cub,' wrote Hedren. They collected big cats from zoos, circuses and private owners. Soon, Hedren's home was overrun by a tiny pride of lion cubs. She wrote that the 'crouching, jumping demolition team' couldn't have been more destructive.

'Everything was a target for being torn to shreds, from pillows to our $3,000 sofa to the head of Emily's mop while she was trying to clean. Bedspreads were favorites for tugs-of-war. We'd been smart enough to stow away our art objects to keep them from smashing to the floor during wrestling matches, but for the most part, nothing that wasn't made of concrete survived that houseful of lion cubs.'

'None of it mattered in the end, though. I loved them, as did Noel and Melanie and the boys,' said Hedren. 'They could melt my heart in the blink of an eye.'

Neil paws 13-year-old Melanie Griffith at the edge of the Marshall family pool. 'We learned that when we were in the pool, Neil thought it was very funny to go to the edge of the water, wait for one of us to swim over to say hello, put his paw on top of that person's head, and firmly push down,' wrote Hedren in her memoir

Noel Marshall was Tippi Hedren's then-husband who wrote, directed and acted in Roar alongside Tippi Hedren her daughter Melanie Griffith and his three sons from a previous marriage: Jerry, John and Joel. Years later when speaking of the dangerous production that resulted in 70 bloody attacks on the crew, John Marshall said, 'Dad was a f–king a–hole to do that to his family'

Emily Henderson, the intrepid housekeeper steps over Neil in the kitchen as if he's just another routine occupational hazard

'I didn't learn until many years later how naive and stupid we were. I was so caught up in the thrill, the awe, the challenge, the passion, and the prospect of making our movie and sharing my life with these magnificent wild animals that my logic went right out the window.'

By 1972, the Marshall menagerie grew to include big cats of all varieties and they were forced to move their 100-plus collection of dangerous pets to a ranch in Soledad Canyon, 40 miles north of Los Angeles. They built a compound to house the animals on the 40-acre property and designed it to look like East Africa for the set of Roar.

'Eventually, a couple of decades later, I did everything in my power to make up for my stupidity,' said Hedren. 'At the time, as the saying goes, I didn't know what I didn't know.'

Hedren turned the Soledad Canyon ranch into an animal preserve that she named Shambala and established the non-profit Roar Foundation in 1983 to support the care of the animals and education the public about the dangers of private ownership of exotic pets. She wrote: 'The only thing that I am sure of is that Shambala is where I belong'

The script which originally called for 50 lions quickly grew to 132 tigers, leopards, black panthers, jaguars, cougars, cheetahs, elephants, flamingos, ostriches, black swans, Canadian geese, cranes, peacocks, and a marabou stork. 'In fact, the only animal I ever heard Noel turn down was a hippo, and even that was probably a close call,' she said. 

The film struggled to find financing and Hedren and Marshall struggled to maintain the expensive cost of keeping the animals. 'Rarely did a day, or even an hour, go by when we weren't thinking about and talking about Roar. Beyond the oppressive fact that we had no money, there were plenty of other problems to deal with,' wrote Hedren. 'But we had too much momentum going to be reasonable.'

Remorseful that her big cat obsession might have alienated her teenage daughter, Hedren wrote: 'Many times over the subsequent years, I've wondered if Melanie felt I'd devoted so much attention to the big cats we were amassing that there wasn't enough left for her.' 

During the unguarded moment, Hedren recalled the difficult time when Melanie left the house at 15 to move in with Don Johnson, her boyfriend who was eight years her senior. 'I've thought a thousand times how much easier the lions were to handle than my daughter was back then,' she said. 'That I could have loved her better will occasionally keep me awake at night for the rest of my life.'

Roar finally began filming in 1976 but the movie was immediately plagued by more problems. Hedren wrote: 'the only thing we could predict about making this movie was the absolute unpredictability of our real, four-legged stars.' 

Neil never attacked the family but Hedren sustained multiple injuries from other animals while filming Roar - one of which resulted in a black gangrene infection on her mangled leg. The other incident resulted in massive head wounds after Cherries, (a tiger that she raised from cubhood) inexplicably pinned Hedren down with her massive paws and bit into the back of her head. She said, 'I don't have words to describe the sound echoing inside my head as her teeth scraped against my skull, but it haunted me for a long time'

Jerry Marshall, the youngest of the Marshall family laughs while Neil playfully wraps his chops around his shoulder, which was Neil's way of getting acquainted with people

Hedren said that Neil, was 'the inspiration for a passionate commitment that will be with me the rest of my life.' Today she runs the Shambala Animal Preserve which cares for all the animals used in Roar film and advocates for legislation that bars private ownership of big cats, she wrote: 'I did everything in my power to make up for my stupidity'

Production was meant to last nine months but instead took six years. Production crawled thanks in part to financial issues, cast injuries and a devastating flash flood that filled the lake with six feet of sediment and created $3 million worth of damage which completely destroyed the set, wrecked expensive camera equipment and ruined hours of film. Adding to the heartbreak was the loss of three lions that were shot by the county sheriff after 28 wild cats escaped during the chaos. 

Tippi Hedren was among the many who sustained horrific injuries during the filming of Roar. Her scalp was gashed open by a tiger who bit into her head while filming a scene for the movie.  'I don't have words to describe the sound echoing inside my head as her teeth scraped against my skull, but it haunted me for a long time,' she wrote. 

Later she endured skin graft surgery on her leg that was mangled by a rogue elephant and infected with black gangrene. Melanie, who was just a teenager at the time, almost lost an eye to a lion that mauled her face which required 50 stitches and extensive facial reconstructive surgery. 

Despite everything, Hedren remains positive in her gallows humor: 'come to think of it, given a choice, I'd probably prefer working with live lions to working with live ravens,' she says. 

But no injury was as ghastly as the one suffered by Jan de Bont, the cinematographer who needed 220 stitches after he was scalped from the nape of his neck to the top of his hairline, all in one piece. 'Literally peeling his head,' recalled Hedren.  

The crew - traumatized by multiple maulings and near death experiences resigned en masse over the dangerous conditions. In the end, the overbudget film that cost $17 million was a theatrical flop and the Marshalls were left in financial ruin. Tippi and Noel divorced shortly after. 

Hedren turned the Soledad Canyon ranch into an animal preserve that she named Shambala and established the non-profit Roar Foundation in 1983 to support the care of the animals and education the public about the dangers of private ownership of exotic pets. Now Hedren advocates for legislation that protects felines from the very thing she did. She explains: 'They shouldn’t be pets. They’re apex predators, top of the food chain, one of four of the most dangerous animals in the world.'

Hedren later had a change of heart: 'They shouldn’t be pets. They’re apex predators, top of the food chain, one of four of the most dangerous animals in the world'

'Someone once said, 'Dogs have masters. Cats have staff.' I’m staff, and proud of it,' said Hedren

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