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Tippi Hedren, Melanie Griffith and that pet lion they had in the ’70s (photos)

Melanie Griffith had an unconventional childhood, we all know that. She was the daughter of “The Birds” star Tippi Hedren, she started dating Don Johnson when she was 14, she did her first nude scene at 17 (and to think she gave daughter Dakota Johnson trouble about “Fifty Shades of Grey”!). But her family also had a pet lion.

Yep, a pet lion.

Time Life photographer Michael Rougier captured the family’s home — Griffith, Hedren, Hedren’s then-husband Noel Marshall and big ol’ Neil the Lion — in Sherman Oaks, Calif., in May 1971 for a magazine spread.

Longtime animal rights activist Hedren has since said that she was “stupid beyond belief” to let the lion play with her then-13 daughter and admits she ‘should never have taken those risks.’” (Read more about Hedron’s experience with living with the lion — and other exotic cats — here.)

Hedron founded the animal sanctuary the Shambala Preserve in Acton, Calif., in 1983.

We agree that it’s a really bad idea for so many reasons to have a pet lion, but there’s no denying these photos are fascinating.

‘We were stupid beyond belief to have that lion in our house’: Tippi Hedren reveals her regrets at letting beast share family home – and even letting it sleep in daughter Melanie Griffith’s bed!

  • Picture set from 1971 shows Griffith relaxing outside with her pet – called Neil – at her home in Los Angeles
  • The intimate set even show her sharing a bed with Neil, and seeming carefree even as he grabs at her legs
  • Griffith’s mother – starlet Tippi Hedren – and her then-husband Noel Marshall, a Hollywood Agent, are also shown
  • Hedren says she is now embarrassed and regrets letting a fully grown lion live with her family in the 1970s 
  • Neil inspired them to make a film – Roar – about the majestic beasts, which ended up being a box office flop 

Hollywood actress Tippi Hedren has revealed her embarrassment and regret that she let a fully grown lion live with her family in the 1970s, saying they were ‘stupid beyond belief’ to let the beast play with her daughter Melanie Griffth, then aged just 13.

In pictures taken for LIFE magazine, the Lion – named Neil – can be seen relaxing by the family’s pool, lounging in Melanie’s bed and becoming a distraction in the office.

But Hedren has revealed that looking back she finds the pictures humiliating and admits she ‘should never have taken those risks’.

Mane event: Neil grabs Melanie’s leg as she jumps into the pool, aged just 14, in her Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, home 
Life in the roar: Melanie Griffith’s mother Tippi Hedren, muse to the famed director Alfred Hitchcock, fearlessly toys with Neil the lion

‘I cringe when I see those pictures now,’ she told me this week. ‘I have to tell you we were stupid beyond belief. We should never have taken those risks. These animals are so fast, and if they decide to go after you, nothing but a bullet to the brain will stop them.’

Slumberland: A remarkable image of Melanie sharing her bed with a snoozing Neil the lion, who would often sleep in her bedroom

‘We’re dealing with animals who are psychopaths,’ says Hedren now. ‘They have no conscience or remorse genes, and they will kill you for their dinner.’

Though Melanie Griffith became a classic Hollywood wildchild – who was going out with Miami Vice actor Don Johnson by the time she was 14 – she says Neil was her ‘best friend’. And she clearly loved being photographed with him.

‘She was the talk of her school, it was fun for her,’ explains Tippi Hedren. But wasn’t she scared that she or her daughter would be injured or killed?

‘No, it’s not good to be scared around lions. Ron told us exactly what we could do and what we couldn’t do. And we listened very carefully to him.’ 

She adds: ‘He taught us, and Melanie especially, to respect the animal and not do anything that might annoy him, like scratch his nose or suddenly run up and put your arms around him.’

Most important, they were warned to take care the lion didn’t become possessive about anything, even a chair, which is when they are at their most dangerous.

Casual: Neil bothers Hedren’s then-husband Noel Marshall at work
Bored? Neil poses during another session by the pool with Griffith

She also revealed that their extraordinary experience with Neil lulled them into a false sense of security which was to have disastrous, almost fatal, consequences.

Indeed, after she, Melanie and the rest of their family suffered a string of serious injuries inflicted by the big cats they went on to adopt after Neil, Hedren has turned full circle in her attitude to such exotic pets. 

Now 84, she runs a sanctuary, California’s Shambala Preserve, for some 32 big cats, and is an outspoken critic of the practice – still legal in much of the U.S. – of keeping them as domestic pets. As an activist she was successful in lobbying Congress to pass a 2003 bill ending the traffic between states of big cats. 

She is now trying to push through another bill that will stop the breeding of these animals for personal exploitation or their sale as pets. 

Grappling: Hedren takes on Neil in a dangerous-looking wrestling match on the floor of their California home. She now says she regrets letting the huge animal stay in her home admitting ‘we were stupid beyond belief’

It might have sounded like an invitation to an early and painful death, but Oxley insisted he had just the sweet-natured lion for them, which had been trained to interact with humans. Born in Africa, Neil used to play ‘baddie’ lions on screen in the 1960s TV series Daktari.

He has been brought to the U.S. as a young adult, and was good natured because Oxley had put a huge effort into training and bonding with him.

According to Hedren, during training Oxley would sit outside Neil’s cage almost every day for three or four hours at a time, before finally going inside the cage. 

Then he would sit quietly four feet away from Neil every day for more than a month, until Neil eventually came over to him, indicating he wanted to be friends.

Even so, one might have thought that, of all people, Tippi Hedren, an actress who endured having gulls, ravens and crows thrown at her while filming The Birds, might have hesitated. 

But a mixture of naivety, impulsiveness and sheer determination to make their film made the couple agree. Four or five days a week, Oxley would bring Neil over to their spacious home in the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of Sherman Oaks.

Thankfully, Neil was always kept well-fed. The lion would dine once a day, eating as much as 12lb of raw meat, with added vitamins and minerals.

Plush sofa: Hedren uses Neil as an oversized pillow while catching up on the news. Now aged 84, she still keeps lions
Non-plussed: Noel Marshall, a major Hollywood agent, tries to get some work done despite Neil roaring in his face

In these photos, taken for LIFE magazine, it suggests they were all one big happy family. In one shot, the nine-foot-long, 400lb animal is play-fighting with Melanie by the pool, grabbing her foot with his paw and pretending to bite it as she jumps into the water. 

In another, she stands in the water at the pool edge, absent-mindedly reaching up to stroke the chin of the beast looming above her as a giant paw rests gently on her small head.

Catnap: Neil dozes while star of The Birds Tippi Hedren poses with huge animal

Hedren – who knew all about unpredictable wildlife as the celebrated star of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds – is snapped using Neil as an oversized pillow as she leans against him while reading the newspaper.

In another shot, they lie on the floor wrestling, the film star’s shoulder disappearing into his gaping maw.

He was even allowed in the kitchen, lying in everybody’s way like an oversized Labrador in the middle of the floor as a maid is snapped carefully stepping over him. 

Hedren, whose home was so neat and tidy that her clothes were colour-coded in her wardrobes, says she watched helplessly as they ‘destroyed’ her house.

Many of the beasts (though not Neil) ‘starred’ in Roar, the 1981 film Tippi and her husband had always dreamed of making. Featuring the whole family – including Griffith and Marshall’s two sons from a previous marriage – it involved a flimsy story that involved them getting chased around their house by the big cats.

Roar cost a walloping $17 million and took five years to make, largely because the animals were so unpredictable as actors. It was a box office flop, and the stress of making it finished off the Hedren-Marshall marriage. It also convinced Tippi that treating big cats like household pets had been an awful mistake.

‘There were seven big incidents, and two people were almost killed while making the film,’ she says. The director of photography, Jan de Bont, had to have his scalp sewn back on after being attacked. Everyone in Hedren’s family was injured by the cats: she was bitten on the head, while Melanie had to have plastic surgery after a lion raked her in the face with its claws.

If only Neil hadn’t been such a pussycat, Tippi admits now, they might never have been tempted to make the film. But the pictures with him don’t tell anything like the whole story, she admits. ‘The breeders will tell you lions are wonderful pets – and it’s an absolute lie.’ 

The lion sleeps tonight: A maid working at the LA home steps over Neil VERY carefully in the family’s kitchen while the big cat rests

Marwan Ghayad

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