Obituary: Noel Marshall, film director and producer

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Noel Marshall, film director and producer. Born: 18 April, 1931, in Chicago, Illinois. Died: 30 June, 2010, in Santa Monica, California, aged 79.

Noel Marshall was a former showbiz agent who married Hitchcock star Tippi Hedren and was one of the producers of the classic horror movie The Exorcist.

But his most remarkable film was undoubtedly 1981's Roar, a wildlife drama in which he starred alongside his wife, stepdaughter Melanie Griffith, other family members and more than 100 lions, tigers, elephants and other wild animals. Both Marshall and Griffith were attacked by lions during filming.

A passion project or a personal folly on an epic scale, Roar was made over several years on the family ranch in California and advertised with the tagline: "There's never been a film like Roar - and there never will be again".

It reputedly cost $17 million to make and grossed only $2m; it features in lists of the biggest box-office disasters of all time. But it was an independent production and never got a commercial American cinema release, though it was a hit in Germany and Japan and is now available on DVD.

Born in Chicago, Noel Marshall developed an interest in animals during a summer job at St Louis Zoo. He moved to Hollywood in his early 20s to work in television and set up a talent agency with his first wife, Jaye Joseph. Although the marriage faltered, they continued to work together.

Tippi Hedren was one of their clients. She had had a successful modelling career in New York before starring in the Alfred Hitchcock films The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). Marshall was her agent, manager and, ultimately, her husband.

Hedren was the star and Marshall was co-producer on the film Mister Kingstreet's War (1973), a little-seen Second World War film which was set in East Africa. While out in the bush they saw a pride of lions which appeared to have taken over an abandoned house, and the image sowed the seeds for Roar.

They also worked together as actress and producer on The Harrad Experiment (1973), a portrait of the new permissive age, set on a fictional American school campus, where students are forced to confront their sexuality. It was one of Melanie Griffith's first films and she met her first husband Don Johnson on set.

Another of Marshall's clients was William Peter Blatty, who wrote the novel The Exorcist, a chilling tale of demonic possession, based on an actual case in the late 1940s.

The character of the mother was written with his neighbour Shirley MacLaine in mind and at one point she was in the frame to do the film, though the part eventually went to Ellen Burstyn.

Blatty was intent on keeping as much control over a film version as possible. Even before the book came out or the script was written, he and Marshall did a deal with Paul Monash, producer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The new team lined the film up with Warner Bros, but then Blatty and Monash fell out over plot changes. Monash departed, leaving the inexperienced Blatty as producer and Marshall as executive producer.

It was one of the biggest hits of the year and was nominated for ten Oscars, winning two.

Many people, however, found the whole subject and its treatment deeply disturbing and it was caught up in the "video nasties" hysteria in Britain and, as a result, was unavailable on video for a long time. It was eventually shown on television and the film critic Mark Kermode described it as "the greatest film ever made".

Pursuing their interest in animals, Marshall and Hedron wanted to make their own film about big cats, but encountered a string of practical problems. They ended up acquiring various lions, raising cubs in their house in Sherman Oaks and providing a home for adult cats on a ranch they bought outside Los Angeles.

Marshall worked up a story about an eccentric zoologist called Hank who lives beside an African lake. His family fly in from the US to join him and get to know the animals up close and personal.

Marshall played the zoologist and his family basically played themselves. The film also starred Hedren, Griffith and two of his sons from his first marriage, John and Jerry Marshall.

Principal photography was expected to last for six months, but due to the unpredictability of the animals, it lasted around five years, on and off.

Several members of the cast and crew were bitten and/or clawed by the big cats. Melanie Griffith required plastic surgery after being attacked, and Jan de Bont, the Dutch cameraman who went on to become a top director, was almost scalped by a lion's bite.

De Bont subsequently recalled: "The technical problems were gigantic. When you shoot with five cameras simultaneously, each has to be ingeniously disguised so they don't appear in the shots... But I was hooked. The cats were fascinating. They never did the same thing twice."

A lot of the time, however, they did nothing at all, which contributed to the delays.

The production was also hit by disease, fire and flood. "It was a very difficult film to make," said Marshall.

"But our experience with the animals was amazing. You will never see people and animals interacting like that again. Way too dangerous."

Marshall pointed out that the $17m figure often quoted for the film's budget included the cost of the ranch and animals and maintained the film had grossed more than $10m worldwide. "Had it been released in America, it would have been profitable," he said.

The film put the marriage under stress and Marshall and Hedren divorced. Hedren continues to look after the animals, their descendants and other unwanted and mistreated big cats at the ranch, Shambala Preserve, which she runs as a charity.

Marshall's own film career stalled after Roar, though he did have one more credit as executive producer A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988), a romantic drama starring River Phoenix.

Marshall had cancer and is survived by three sons and two grandchildren.

BRIAN PENDREIGH