FOR TIPPI HEDREN'S DAUGHTER, THOROUGHLY MODERN MELANIE, LIFE WITH DON JOHNSON BEGAN AT 14
September 1, 1975
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark/Lee Gross
Betty Ford said it wouldn't so much as rattle her teacup if her daughter announced she'd taken a lover, but, of course, that White House horror is all hypothetical. Actress Tippi Hedren has been up against the real thing: her daughter, Melanie Griffith, and actor Don Johnson were openly weekending together when Melanie was 14 and he was 22. Melanie's now 18 (the same age as Susan Ford), and she and Don currently nest all week long in their own playpad. But at least Mom doesn't have to foot the rent: Melanie and Don are featured in four of the major movies of the summer.
According to Melanie's approving mom, actress Tippi Hedren, "no two people were ever more in love in the world."
Melanie makes her first film splash all at once in three of them. Full‑blown except for her baby face, she has two nude scenes and plays nympho or psycho types opposite a trio of Hollywood's heaviest honchos: Paul Newman in The Drowning Pool, Gene Hackman in Night Moves and Bruce Dern in Smile. Actually, since she was under 18 during the nude shooting a double was required, but at the drop of a shutter Melanie displays for still photographers the ripe pear tattooed on her derriere. She explains that "Don doesn't own my body," and he admits he's "hardly in a position to object to her nudity," since he dropped his jeans in a few B movies himself. His current number, Return to Macon County, is fogging up car windows fast enough to become one of the top grossers of the drive‑in season.
Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, bedfellows since she was 14, are starring in four currently hot movies between them.
"It wouldn't have entered my mind at that age to do a nude scene," observes Melanie's mom, Tippi, now 40 but a Hollywood ingénue when Alfred Hitchcock cast her in The Birds. "But Melanie was always ahead of the other kids her own age." Melanie disagrees. "By the time I was 14," she says of her Hollywood pubescence, "half of my girl friends had already had abortions." Don adds manfully, "Melanie assures me she was one of the last of her group to experience, shall we say, all the joys of life."
Thoroughly modern Melanie and Don moved this summer into a rented nook-and‑cranny in Laurel Canyon, the enclave of Hollywood's flower children, where they keep house and a mutt and four Russian borzoi dogs. "From the first there's been nothing hidden about our relationship," says Don. "We didn't go sneaking around, and our first time wasn't in the back seat of a car like our parents' generation." Melanie insists she's been totally faithful to Don, though he does not make the same claim. "I think that being in love with Don since I was 14," she says, "has saved me the pain and heartbreak of going out with a lot of boys. Boys," she says, demeaning the species, "are so dumb."
The man in Melanie's life is an Ozark farm kid from Flat Creek, Mo. who says, "I got my start in show business singing gospel in my grandfather's church." Don performed at wedding suppers and wound up with a scholarship in theater arts at the University of Kansas. In his sophomore year, he got over‑inspired by his female acting professor (she was 29 to his 18) and followed her to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, from where he went on to feature parts in plays and movies.
Melanie migrated to California from New York, where her mother apprenticed as a model and her father, Peter Griffith, produced films. In L.A., Tippi found a movie career and second husband, producer Noel Marshall, but all Melanie got was kicked out of a Catholic high school "for questioning the religion." She finished up as a movie brat at the Hollywood Professional School where, she says, "Mackenzie Phillips and I would skip mornings by writing each other's notes saying we were needed on the set." (Phillips made it first ‑in American Graffiti‑.)
At midday breakfast, Melanie wonders how their life‑style has depleted their savings "to $20 in our joint account."
Melanie was hanging around one of her mom's less memorable films, The Harrad Experiment, when she first spotted Don, who was the co‑star. As he recalls it, "I was a little cocky at the time and didn't talk to her mother for a couple of weeks. Melanie and I became friends first, but then she picked me for something more. I was skeptical only because of her age, but she was a lot more woman than most of the girls I had been going out with." But by the time they were bunking together, Don allows, "I did feel a little strange picking her up after school."
At first Melanie had no interest in movies and, like her mother, never took an acting lesson. But after trying modeling and commercials she found she "liked that money coming in" and wound up in Night Moves. Don was initially threatened by her movie offer and says, "I told her I hated actresses. But then I realized after some soul‑searching that I was bothered that she'd be in the same business I was in. But it's not really competitive." Melanie's father, Peter, whom she visits one month a year at his home in the Virgin Islands, had worked unhappily as a child star on radio and warned her against starting her career too early. But Tippi voted yes, and Melanie reports, "Mom and Don gave me the best advice ‑listen to the director and do what he says." According to Tippi, her daughter's only physical limitation is "her postage‑stamp face on that gorgeous woman's body." Melanie just pipes up, "I can't wait until I'm older and finally get my cheekbones like Mom's."
Tippi is not the irresponsible sort she may sound like. She helps run a privately funded refugee center for 1,500 Vietnamese, and she has been unswervingly supportive of her daughter. The kids frequently visit her 40‑acre private game preserve stocked with two-score lions, tigers, cougars, one jaguar and one elephant ‑all abandoned by pet owners or zoos. (As a child Melanie raised several lion cubs.) While Melanie was shooting Smile, Tippi registered her at Pierce College ‑just in case.
In the meantime Don and Melanie are reading on their own and solidifying their personal lives. On Melanie's 18th birthday last month they got "engaged," though they regard the diamond ring as more of a friendship band and have no wedding date in mind. Tippi, for one, hopes they will both experience "a great expansion mentally before they commit to marriage and children." Don and Melanie are vaguely contemplating making a film together but say they would be just as happy farming. Don notes, "We hang out with architects, inventors, bums, social misfits and alcoholics." "Actors," explains Melanie, "are so boring."
Don toasts what he calls their "old‑fashioned love." So after four years she got a ring but no firm date as yet.