It's a curious name, Tippi. Not necessarily unforgettable, but memorable in its way. They're not calling girls Tippi nowadays; they weren't calling them Tippi thenadays. Or everadays. Tippi Hedren, huh? Geez, that name's familiar. Haven't I seen

" -- me in 'The Birds'?"

Of course.

And didn't they say you were going to be the next

" -- Grace Kelley?"

Right. A superstar. Weren't you supposed

" -- Supposed to be? I don't know. I don't know that I ever wanted to be a superstar. I think it was Hitchcock's plan. I mean I know he wanted me to be a very big actress. I wanted it too."

So why didn't it.

" -- happen? I really don't know. I'm asked that a lot. And I really don't know. Believe me I wish I could tell you. It was a great disappointment, a great disappointment. I've asked myself the same question because I feel it should've been, and it wasn't. But listen -- what is, is."

She was born 44 years ago in Minnesota, the daughter of Swedish parents. Nathalie Kay Hedren. Her father called her "Tupsa," a Swedish term of endearment. It became Tippi almost from the cradle.

She grew up blond and beautiful, and by the time she was 17 she was already a high fashion model with Eileen Ford in New York. There were eight years there, a marriage and a daughter, Melanie Griffith. Commercials mostly. And one in particular, for a diet food called Sego, that had a one-week run on the "Today" show in 1960. A certain Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock were regular viewers of the "Today" show, and during that week Mr. Hitchcock watched Tippi Hedren and maybe even arched one of his fabulous eyebrows. Who knows?

"All I know is that I got a call that a producer was interested in me. I took my portfolio with me and showed my pictures. They wouldn't tell me who was interested. Finally they said Alfred Hitchcock wanted to sign me to a standard seven-year contract. I hadn't even met him. The money was as good as I got modeling, and the next thing I knew I was testing for 'The Birds.' I wasn't really the star of the movie -- the birds were. That's why Hitchcock could put me into it, even though the studio heads wanted a big name. No big name would do it. It was dangerous, all those birds."

Because Tippi Hedren was Tippi Who? in the business, Hitchcock built a publicity campaign around her, saying she was the new Grace Kelly. She certainly had the look. That cool, sophisticated blond look like all the Hitchcock women. Hitchcock loved to take an elegant, fragile blond with a rather lovely life and tear her apart inch by inch, scene by scene. That was the film method of his madness, terrorizing patrician blond women on trains, in motels, with birds.

It is not without its price.

Tippi Hedren broke down.

"I was so physically exhausted during the filming that I couldn't work for a week. Everything stopped. I was pecked and I was scratched. Every day I went to first aid for something. Cary Grant once came on the set and said I was the bravest young woman in the world. For about three weeks after the filming I had nightmares -- birds coming at me. I'd wake up screaming."

The seven-year contract lasted only two. Tippi Hedren broke it after only two films, "The Birds" and "Marnie."

She never became Grace Kelly.

If you ask her enough times, she will say, "No, it was not fair." But really, she doesn't like to talk about it. Listen -- what is, is.

"I think it's a big stigma to put on someone, to tell people that this girl is the next Grace Kelly. I mean, I'm me and Grace is she. I used to joke on the set, 'If I'm the next Grace Kelly, where's my prince?' But when you deal with a master, a perfectionist like Hitchcock you just sort of go along with his ideas. I never thought I was the new Grace Kelly; I would have liked to have been the new Tippi Hedren.

"I broke the contract because there was just no way to go. It was an impossible situation.How can I put it? It just became where it wasn't good working, uh, good working, uh, we reached an impasse."

Over what?

"Over sort of everything."

People might have told her that quitting Hitchcock was a stupid thing to do, if she was talking it over with other people. She wasn't. She was independent. Her first marriage had ended, and she was in charge of her own life. She went off to do "A Countess From Hong Kong" and a few other films -- 14 in all -- the names of which escape memory easily. She remarried and watched her career sink quickly in the West.

"I asked my agent why this was happening, and he didn't know. I changed agents a few times. But I never got another big film, never another 'Birds.' I asked myself -- Was I any good? I thought I was. I asked myself all the right questions. But that was a long time ago."

She smiled.

Just the other morning she said, she thought about how long ago it was since "The Birds." Sixteen years. She is no longer young. She is still very attractive, but perhaps no longer beautiful. She is trim and energetic, but there are lines around the eyes and the chin.Where she was once elegant and fragile she now seems perky and active.

"It didn't work -- but it did for a while."

Tippi Hedren was in Washington yesterday to meet with Dick Clark, the former senator from Iowa, and discuss the plight of the boat people. She has just returned from the South China Sea where she worked as a volunteer with the boat people. Humanitarian causes make up a large part of her life, before Hitchcock and certainly after. March of Dimes. Multiple Sclerosis. Bangladesh. Greenpeace.

"It makes me feel very good to help. I used to feel guilty about having so much."

She looks up. Her eyes, hazel and glistening in the mid-morning sun. Her eyelashes, long, aggressively independent -- rising almost like carnation stems.

"I don't know. I just feel like I have to do it."

She is walking through the National Zoo. It's the perfect setting for her. Animals play such a role in her life. Not just "The Birds," though certainly that would be enough. But for the last eight years she and her husband Noel Marshall, the executive producer of "The Exorcist," have been working on a film called "Roar," the story of a pride of 30 lions who take over a house -- an actual house -- and live in it. The film has taken so long and been plagued by so much ruin that it may well be the "Apocalypse Now" of the "Born Free" generation. But she is convinced it will be a hit, a big hit, a monster.

"One hundred and twenty five million gross. At least."

About lions? Are you kidding.

"Maybe 150."

She starts the story of "Roar" at the hippo pond, interrupting the narrative occasionally to talk to the animals. She loves animals, she says, she admires their honesty. On her ranch in Acton, Calif., she and her husband have two African elephants, two jaguars, two cheeetahs, six leopards, seven panthers, 23 Siberian tigers, 100 lions and one tigon, the offspring of a tiger father and a lion mother. She has enough lions and tigers to be ambassador to Detroit. Yes, she talks to the animals.

("Oh, a little hippo. Doesn't he look like a rock lying there? Get up you silly thing.")

She and her husband were in Mozambique, making a film, when they noticed that a pride of lions had taken over this house in the bush. She could see them on the porch and in the windows. Her husband wrote a script about it, and when they returned to their home near L.A. they started interviewing lions about the film.

Interviewing lions?

"Sure. There are a lot of them out there. People have them outside the city limits. We'd find their owners and go and meet them. Our problem was that none of the owners would let their big cats work with other big cats because they always got into fights. We knew we needed at least 40 lions so we decided we'd start acquiring them ourselves."

Did you know anything about lions?

"Nope."

Her "yeps" and "nopes" are almost bird-like.

"We learned from the animals."

("Oh, an African elephant. Hi, big fella.")

None of their animals is declawed or defanged.

"They're fully equipped."

Miraculously, she has only been seriously hurt once; an elephant crushed her ankle. But she says the elephant was just trying to protect her. She says they're good friends.

They started shooting the movie in 1976. There were no big name stars involved. You didn't seriously think that Burt Reynolds would touch this, did you? She plays a lead role. So does her husband. So does her actress daughter. She says that her husband has put millions of his own dollars into the project. The yearly care and feeding of each of their animals costs between $2,000 and $3,000 alone.Something like $375,000 per year just for the nonspeaking parts.

"Sure, our friends tell us we're crazy. Some of them are afraid to even come to our house. So we say, 'Yep, we're crazy. And when it's a big hit we'll still be crazy all the way to the bank."

("That's a young lion over there. You can tell because his mane isn't fully grown. Isn't he cute. You know lions and tigers like to watch TV. They love football. It's the movement. Baseball bores them. Me too,")

"Roar" was 20 minutes short of completion on Feb. 8, 1978, when a flood hit their ranch. It had rained for five straight days and they expected flooding, but not a dam breaking. They had 15 minutes warning. They saw the water hit their house and go from ground level all the way to the roof. The insurance company said they were "totaled."

"We were literally refugees. It's no wonder I have such sympathy for the boat people."

Animals were washied away in the flood. Had they only the foresight to build an ark they might have started a Lion Country Safari in San Diego. Three lions were lost when they wound up in a trailer park and were shot by local police.

"They didn't know any better. But the lions wouldn't have hurt anyone."

What was especially damaging to the film was the loss of the leading lion, Robbie. Robbie was exquisite.

"We haven't finished his part yet. And I don't know how we're going to get a lion with the same markings."

The movie has seven minutes left to shoot.

It has taken eight years from idea to execution. Since 1976 Tippi Hedren has had to look exactly the same. "I can't gain weight. I can't lose weight. I have to keep the same hair-do. I can't even get any older."

She laughs.

Because she can't hold back time either.

Of course she has to go into the bird cage.

"I have no fear of birds now. In fact, I like birds. I have two ravens on the ranch."

She walks through the outdoor bird house and the indoor bird house. She walks steadily, stopping to pose for pictures. Ever the model, agreeably taking direction from the photographer.

("Look at that bluebird. My, Isn't he gorgeous.")

The birds don't seem to recognize her.

She walks out unharmed.

There are times when she thinks of what might have been had she remained with Hitchcock. It might have been her, not Jane Fonda, in "The China Syndrome." She would have liked that part. But she says she has no regrets; she'd do it again the very same way. And if it turns out that "Roar" is the hit she thinks it will be, and she makes the talk-show rounds, she'll hear all the questions again and politely say, "I'm sick of talking about that. Really I am."

Whe is out of the bird house and walking toward the tigers. This is her favorite place, and in the sun she appears beautiful.

"I think I'm very lucky to have this face. I like this face. And, you know, I was very lucky to get such good eyelashes."

Behind her, a tiger is rolling over and he seems to be smiling.