A generation ago, it wasn't entirely fashionable for a mainstream actress to lend her name and her talents to horror and fantasy film subjects, but through those years Janet Leigh brought her blend of charm and screen acting skill to a number of genre productions. She played the wife of the world's most celebrated Master of Escape (portrayed by her then-husband Tony Curtis) in George Pal's production of Houdini; added a touch of romantic sophistication to John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate; played opposite her real-life daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in John Carpenter's The Fog; and took on the mantel of monster fighter in the hare-brained ecological thriller Night of the Lepus. Her best-remembered role, however, was and always will remain Marion Crane, the most grossly inconvenienced guest in motel history, in Alfred Hitchcock's landmark Psycho.

Tom Weaver: Exactly how did you become involved on Psycho?

Janet Leigh: Mr. Hitchcock sent me the book and said he would like me to play Marion Crane. He said the script was not quite finished, and there would be some changes -- they would not change the fact that Marion got killed, but there would be changes in her character. The movie Marion would not be quite as mousy; in the book she was really quite plain, and Hitchcock didn't intend to do that. He wanted the love scenes between the characters of Marion and Sam to be very realistic. I read the book and I could see what was there, and just the idea of working with Hitchcock was enough for me.

Q: How did you enjoy working with Hitchcock?

Janet: I loved him -- just adored him. He was obviously the most prepared director. After I did get the script and I was signed, I went to meet him and he showed me how every shot in the picture was already worked out.

Q: Psycho was made quickly and inexpensively with TV technicians. How did you adjust to the more rapid pace?

Janet: I loved it. The sophistication of the equipment had progressed by that time, so things didn't take so long. It's very difficult to "sustain" a character when you're waiting, forever it seems, between shots. So I absolutely adored it.

Q: In your book you wrote that Hitchcock promised to let you alone and allow you to shape your own performance. Did he provide you with much in the way of direction or guidance?

Janet: If I needed it. But as long as what I did fit into his camera and fulfilled the piece of his picture I was supposed to fulfill, he let me pretty much alone. If I didn't come up to it -- in other words, if there was more he needed -- or if I went beyond it and should do less, he would tell me. But otherwise I was on my own.

Q: Much has been recently written about the "dark side" of Hitchcock's personality, but you never seemed to be on the receiving end of any of this.

Janet: Nope. I assume that that is true, I can't say yes or no, I can only talk about what was with me. He couldn't have been better with me. One funny thing I recall is that Hitch was trying to determine which dummy of Mother to use in the film, and so periodically when I would come back from lunch and I'd walk into my trailer on the set, there would be this apparition there -- a dummy of Mother. There were various forms of Mother; I don't know whether he was gauging the volume of my screams or what, but I'm sure I had something to do with the decision as to which Mother was used in the climax!

Q: Both Vera Miles and John Gavin got a dose of Hitchcock's displeasure.

Janet: I never worked with Vera Miles, I was done by the time that she started, and I only had that one opening scene with John Gavin. I remember John had a little trouble in the love scenes -- it just wasn't as passionate as Hitchcock wanted -- but I don't know first-hand whether or not John and Hitchcock had any subsequent run-ins.

Q: The bathroom and shower scenes were well ahead of their time. Were you pleased with the history-making opportunity, or did you go in with misgivings?

Janet: I had no misgivings whatsoever. None. I knew how hard Hitchcock had worked and how he had manipulated the censor office to get certain things in to the picture. He would put outrageous things into the script, knowing that the censors would tell him there was no way he'd be allowed to do them; and then Hitchcock would say, "OK, then I'll give that up, but I have to have this" -- the things he had actually wanted all along.

Q: Is it true that Psycho has turned you off on taking showers?

Janet: Uh huh -- it is absolutely true. I'm a scairdy-cat. I won't even take a bath in a hotel unless I can face out, even if I have to have my back to the faucets. It just scares me -- I never thought about it before Psycho, but you are absolutely defenseless in that situation.

Q: Did Hitchcock try to inveigle you into doing the shower scene in the nude?

Janet: That is B.S. There have been so many myths about that shower scene, and I've tried to put them to rest every time they've come up. What some people forget is that we had the Hays Office in those days. There was censorship. There was no way we could do it in the nude -- no possible way! There couldn't have been a nude model, because it would not have been allowed in the picture. The only time that they used a stand-in for me was when Tony Perkins pulled the body out of the bathroom. Hitchcock said there was no sense in my doing that; no one could see who was wrapped in that shower curtain, so there would be no purpose served by me getting dragged and bumped around in that scene. But getting back to what I was saying, those people don't realize what the censorship restrictions were like at that time, as compared to today. Today, of course, there'd be no fuss at all about a person doing a scene like that in the nude. But at that time we couldn't. The fact that I had a bra and a half-slip in that opening scene with John Gavin caused such consternation at the Hays Office, you wouldn't believe; Hitchcock had to fight like hell to get that into the picture. And you never see anything in the shower scene. That was the genius of Hitchcock. People swear they saw the knife go in, but they never showed that -- it was not allowed. You saw a belly button, and even that was something that was very difficult, and was almost not allowed. But that's all you saw -- you thought you saw more, but you didn't.

Q: You received a death threat after Psycho was released.

Janet: Oh, yeah -- several. Some of them were so bad that we had to turn them over to the F.B.I. There were several that they wouldn't even let me look at. One really explicit one came from Chicago, just as we were leaving to go on a publicity tour to Chicago! And I was terrified. The F.B.I. traced it down and found the guy -- he was sort of a listed "nut" -- and they made sure he was not loose while I was there!

Q: The influence of Psycho changed the face of horror films. What do you think of the new breed of gore-spattered horror films Psycho helped spawn?

Janet: The brilliance of Psycho was that your imagination was allowed to flourish. Today, you don't have to use your imagination, they show you everything. I think the new horror films are not as good. Your imagination is much stronger than anything they could graphically depict.

Q: In your opinion, what would Hitchcock have thought of the Psycho sequels?

Janet: Hitch -- I hope I'm saying it right -- here goes: I think he would have just been revolted. That type of film is just so contrary to what he believed in, which was suspense and mystery, imagination and titillation. And there's none of that in Psycho II.

Q: If by some stretch of the imagination you had been offered a role in a new Psycho film, would you have accepted it?

Janet: No -- and my daughter Jamie didn't either. She was offered a part in Psycho II [the Meg Tilly role].

Q: What prompted her decision to turn it down?

Janet: Wisdom!

Tom Weaver is the author of Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers and many others available from McFarland & Co.

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