Janet Leigh’s brutal death just 20 minutes into Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is one of the most iconic moments in movie history — but her time in the shower, as in the rest of film, was shorter than initially believed.
While Leigh later told The New York Times that her brief performance, which earned her a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, cost her a lifetime fear of showers, she wasn’t actually in the shower for most of the stabbing.
In fact, her appearance in the scene was almost entirely limited to camera angles above the neck, as Hitchcock, always the master of misdirection, quietly employed a Playboy cover girl for nearly all of the body close-ups.
“If you don’t see Janet’s face, that’s me,” Marli Renfro, now 79, tells PEOPLE. “She could’ve had on a strapless sequin dress to do her part in that scene.”
After nearly 60 years, Renfro’s role in the film is finally being celebrated in a new documentary, 78/52, which peels back the plastic curtain on the famous scene. The film delves into how Hitchcock filmed it and unpacks its overall significance in movie history.
For Renfro, who was working as a pinup model at the time, it all started with a casting call for a model out of Universal Studios. For a perfectionist like Hitchcock, it was imperative to find a double that matched Leigh’s body exactly, and Renfro fit the bill.
“I had an interview with Mr. Hitchcock in which I had to disrobe and stand next to Janet so they could approve that our bodies were very similar,” she explains. “She wasn’t nude and I had probably had my underwear on.”
A couple days later, Renfro got the call to report to the studio at 5 in the morning. “So I showed up and I was in makeup for about 2 hours, wearing just a light cotton robe and slippers. Then Hitchcock walked me over to the soundstage and above the door was a red light flashing, ‘No Admittance: Closed Set.'”
But the set was not as closed as she was expecting: “When we walked inside in there were these bleachers set-up that weren’t there when I visited the set before! There were mostly men sitting there, I don’t remember if there were any women at all, but I remember thinking, ‘Oh god, they’re going to be expecting a stripper or something like that.'”
Despite her unexpected audience, Renfro says, “I was a nudist at the time, and being without clothes was very comfortable to me, so I went on the set and I sat around for awhile, and when it came time for me to disrobe, I just took off my robe and stretched a little bit and went over and just worked.”
Overall, Renfro says there was a respectful tone on set. “My demeanor was just very manner of fact, and I’m sure Hitchcock had said something to everybody beforehand, asking them to keep it professional and orderly.”
While she was comfortable with nudity, the film censors were not. “At the time, the censors would not allow a belly button to be shown. In all of those beach party movies from the ’50s, if they wore bikinis they had to cover their bellybuttons,” she says. Hitchcock managed to get a shot of Renfro’s navel passed by he censors “because it was so fast with quick cuts,” she explains.
Renfro says she was only hired to work 2 or 3 days, but in order to accomplish the scene, which required an astounding 78 setups and 52 cuts, she ended up on set with the director for a week. “He knew exactly what he wanted with each take,” she explains.
She also got to watch as other parts of Psycho were filmed. “I was there the whole time that Janet was on the set doing her bit in the shower scene.” As a fan of the director’s earlier work, Renfro says, “I would’ve worked for free just to experience being with him. To me, he’s a genius.”
After she had finished her part, she signed a a confidentially agreement promising not to disclose any details about the movie. When Renfro appeared on the cover of Playboy in September of 1960, she couldn’t reveal anything about her participation in the film. For Hitchcock, the success of the movie hinged on the surprise of Leigh’s early exit, and when the film hit theaters, he went so far as to ask that ticket takers not admit any late guests.
Renfro first saw the movie when it was released in Chicago. “My roommate said let’s go see this movie Psycho, and I thought, ‘Oh how boring, I already saw most of it being filmed.'”
But when her friend dragged her to the theater, she says, “It scared me half to death! Watching it get made wasn’t scary at all.”
As time went on, Renfro’s role in the film was all but forgotten. That is until 2001, when the Associated Press ran a story that a 34 year-old handyman had been convicted of “killing two women, including an actress who was a body double for Janet Leigh in the film Psycho.” The actress’s name was cited as Myra Davis, which some press outlets mistakenly reported was Renfro’s real name.
It wasn’t until years later that author Robert Graysmith discovered that Renfro and Davis were two different people, and that Renfro was still alive. According to Graysmith, Davis worked on the film as a lighting stand-in. The author wrote a book about the murder, The Girl in Hitchcock’s Shower, and asserted that the murderer was a crazed Pyscho fan who had actually plotted to kill Leigh’s double and mixed the two women up.
Now, alive and well, Renfro says appearing in 78/52 and reliving her time on set has been a blast. “I have been thoroughly enjoying it. I had so much fun at the Sundance festival when it came out.” But at the time, she says, “It was just a job. It wasn’t like everybody knew it was going to have the impact it ended up having.
“For me, what I say is that I’m not famous, but I did something famous.”
- 78/52 is now playing in select theaters.