In A Nutshell
After a trip to the African continent, Tippi Hedren and husband Noel Marshall were inspired to make a film about big cats. The result was Roar, a movie that flopped at the box office . . . and nearly killed everyone in the cast. It took 11 years to film Roar—11 years, 150 felines, and over 70 nasty injuries.
The Whole Bushel
The Hedren-Marshall family was quite an accomplished clan. Noel Marshall produced The Exorcist, Tippi Hedren starred in the Alfred Hitchcock classics The Birds and Marnie, and her daughter Melanie Griffith earned an Oscar nod for her performance in Working Girl.
In addition to acting, the Hedren-Marshall clan was infatuated with wild animals, particularly big cats. Their love affair with felines began in 1969 when Hedren and her husband Noel were filming a movie in Africa. During the shoot, they spotted an abandoned plantation house overrun with lions. The image stayed with them when they returned the US, and it inspired the duo to make a movie about African wildlife. Hopefully, their film could raise awareness about issues like lion overhunting and the abuse suffered by captive cats.
Sure, their motives were pure, but by the time they’d finished their film, they were broke, divorced, and lucky to be alive. The film was called Roar, and it was probably the most dangerous movie ever made.
The plot of the movie was simple. Noel would play a conservationist who lives on an African preserve alongside all sorts of big cats. But when his estranged family shows up, chaos ensues as his wife and kids run from an army of lions, tigers, jaguars, and leopards. Oh my. Naturally, Tippi would play his wife, Melanie his daughter, and his two sons, John and Jerry, would star as his sons. And naturally, Noel needed animals—lots of animals.
So Marshall and Hedren did what anybody would do. They began illegally breeding and raising big cats in their home. This went on for six years, and soon there were over 100 predators prowling around their property. In fact, one 180-kilogram (400 lb) lion named Neil would often share a bed with young Melanie, and according to the actress, she raised 10 of the animals herself.
Eventually, the family couldn’t keep all these cats contained in their Sherman Oaks home (plus the neighbors were getting antsy). That’s when they bought a ranch near Los Angeles and finally started shooting the craziest film of all time, a movie that featured 150 wild beasts wandering around the set, with only a handful of handlers to keep them in line.
During the filming of Roar, there were over 70 injuries. Noel’s 20-something son John found his head stuck inside a lion’s mouth, and after he was wrenched free 25 minutes later, the guy needed over 50 stitches. Noel was bitten so many times that he developed gangrene. Tippi Hedren was picked up by an elephant, and the beast shattered her leg. Cinematographer Jan de Bont (who would later direct Speed) had the back of his head nearly ripped off by a lioness and required over 200 stitches to reattach his scalp.
Perhaps most famously, Melanie Griffith’s face was torn open by one of the lions, and she needed reconstructive surgery. However, that wasn’t her only close encounter with a big cat. During one scene, a male lion dragged Melanie to the floor and simply wouldn’t let go. Hedren tried to pull the beast off her daughter, but Noel (who was both the actor and director) wouldn’t stop shooting. He wanted the whole attack on film. The lion only let Melanie go when John Marshall hurled himself to the floor to distract the animal.
With all the injuries piling up, the crew abandoned the picture in droves, forcing the family to fill in. In addition to acting, John served as animal wrangler, set mechanic, boom operator, and camera operator. The family members also did most of their own stunts, which involved crazy things like driving off a roof and into a pond. For one terrifying scene, Hedren actually smeared honey on her face and encouraged a jaguar to lick it all off. Fortunately, the cat wasn’t craving any meat at the moment.
And when they weren’t dodging lions and tigers, the actors had to look out for Noel. As you might’ve figured, the director was a monster who terrorized everyone on set. On top of everything else, a flood destroyed one of the sets, a sickness wiped out quite a few cats, and investors pulled out of the film, forcing Marshall and Hedren to finance the movie themselves. All in all, this nightmare movie took 11 long years to make. And when the film hit theaters in 1981, it was a major box office bomb, earning a meager $2 million internationally after requiring $17 million to make.
After all the carnage and chaos, Marshall and Hedren were forced to sell most of their belongings to cover the cost of the film. Eventually, the stress of 11 years of insanity caused the couple to break up. Noel got out of the film business and went to work for an HMO in Florida before passing away in 2010.
Hedren eventually turned the Roar ranch into a preserve for endangered cats. Today, she totally realizes how stupid it was to let her kids run around with lions and has worked hard to combat the exotic pet trade. Obviously, Melanie went on to star in films like Body Double and Something Wild. Her brother John became an inventor and recently got Drafthouse Films to re-release his father’s crazy film. As for his personal opinion on the movie, he realizes it wasn’t a good idea to improv with killer cats, but despite all the blood and gore, he admits “it was a great experience.”
Show Me The Proof
The Daily Beast: ‘Roar’: The Most Dangerous Movie Ever Made
The Guardian: Why Melanie Griffith’s boyfriends need to be cat-friendly
Drafthouse Films: Utterly Terrifying ROAR, Starring Tippi Hedren & Melanie Griffith, Joins Pride Of Drafthouse Films
Time: Something Wild: At Home With Tippi Hedren, Melanie Griffith and a 400-Pound Lion (extensive photo gallery)