THE EXORCIST saga 1972-2003


“Is there someone inside you?”   “Sometimes.”


William Friedkin . 1972


September 1966.  Blake Edwards invites young William Friedkin to direct Gunn, a movie version of the writer-producer-director’s hit TV series, Peter Gunn – a smooth detective dude based 101% on Cary Grant. Billy reads the script over a weekend in his Sunset Marquis kitchenette. “It had ‘bomb’ written all over it.” Next day, he tells Edwards it was like two old Gunn TV scripts lumped together. “Nothing new here. This is Peter Gunn light. Your worst enemy wouldn’t write a script this bad.” They row. Billy leaves. He is chased into he parking lot by… “I’m Bill Blatty. I wrote the script. You’re the only one who told him the truth and I admire that, because I know it cost you the job.” Bill is William Peter Blatty, unknown until…

Five Years Later.   While on the promo trail with his first huge hut, The French Connection, Friedkin finally opens a neatly sealed package he threw into his luggage on leaving home. And finds Blatty’s novel.   Reluctantly, he   reads the first page, “Prologue: Northern Iraq.” Aha! And, OK then, why not, another page. Three hours later he has consumed all 340 pages…

Friedkin calls Blatty.   “My God, Bill, this is wonderful. What the hell is this?” Blatty explains he has sold the movie rights to Warner Bros. He is producing and writing the screenplay. “And I’d like you to know if you’d be interested in directing it.” All because of that scene in the parking lot. “You had the balls to tell us what a piece of shit it was… and I believe you’d never bullshit me.”

So began the odyssey into the supernatural and demonic possession for Billy and Bill…

Blatty  mentioned Warner Bros had alist of possible directors: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols, even Mark Rydell.  But made no mention of,  according to legend, his mailing of  the book to Peter Bogdanovich, John Boorman anc Penn.  With a note inside: “If you don’t make this movie, nobody will.”

They all passed. Kubrick developed his own movies. Penn had done violence with Bonnie and Clyde.  Nichols  couldn’t  see how to make a movie fhat he would be interested in making. “And it would be  impossible to get a believable performance out of a 12-year-old girl as the incarnation of Satan.”  When he later saw never-ending lines around the block, he  called his ex-comedy partner, Elaine May, to say what a schmuck he’d been to refuse the gig. ”Don’t worry, Mike, jf you had made it, it wouldn’t have been a hit.”  (He also gave up on The Frisco Kid western. But no one could have made that clinker  work).

Blatty had doubts about about Rydell.  For, as Bill told Billy:  “I have director approval.” Warner Bros did not want Friedkin. “The guy who did The Boys in the Band and those little arthouse films? No way.”

April 10, 1972. The 44th Oscarnight and five statuettes go to The French Connection. Including Best Film – and Best Director for Billy. Warner changed its tune.

Friedkin, it is said (but not by him), immediately wanted Marlon Brando. “No, no,” said Blatty. “If we cast Brando, it would be Brando’s picture.” (Exactly!)


Jane Fonda, it could be said, refused

“Why,” said she, “would any studio want to make

this capitalistic rip-off bullshit?


“What you gonna do with the  money?” asked Groucho Marx after the unknown writer William Peter Blatty won $10,000 on Groucho’s You Bet Your Life TV game show. “Take some time off,” said Blatty, “to work on a novel.”

With the added aid of unemployment benefits, this was the book.

He had based young Regan’s actress mother on his New York friend and neighbour, Shirley MacLaine. Warners offered her $75,000 plus 5% of the net profits. OK, but she wanted to make it as the start of a UK deal she was cooking up with producer Sir Lew Grade. “Shirley was upset when I rejected this offer,” said Blatty, “and she took the lead in a rival work, The Possession of Joel Delaney.” Bad choice like all her low Grade films. And, no doubt, the reason she backed away from being the mother in Poltergeist, 1982.


Warners wanted no one but Audrey Hepburn.

She said: OK, as long as it’s made in Rome.

Ciao baby!


Well, hello, Anne Bancroft… “Ah, er, would you wait a year?” She was about to be a mother for real with her only child: Max Brooks, son of Mel. Later, Karen Black was suggested. But Ellen Burstyn won… only after the producers agreed to cut the one line she refused to say: “I believe in the devil!”



After Jane Fonda and Audrey Hepburn passed, Anne Bancroft was approached to mother the head-swivelling Regan – but Anne and Mel Brooks were infanticipating. Once again, Ellen Burstyn picked up a Bancroft role – as on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

[Photo: © Warner Bros, 1973]

(Clic to enlarge)


Father Lankester Merrin .  The studio still wanted Marlon Brando, but  Blatty preferred  Paul Scofield (who became first reserve)  while William Friedkin voted for Max von Sydow – the director told students at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television on March 26, 2014.  “I just felt for a whole variety of reasons that Max was the greatest film actor in the world at that time.  And that Scofield was just a great actor, primarily a great stage actor.  But Max had done all these incredible Ingmar Bergman films.”

The surprise was that the Swedish star proved to be an atheist. “During one scene, when his character, Father Merrin, is conducting the exorcism, he says at the top of his voice: I cast you out, unclean spirit, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. When we came to that moment, Max froze up. We had this false ceiling that had to crack. We had six ceilings made and we went through six takes that day and he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t get those words out. I stood there, kinda paralysed. I ordered six more ceilings and we came back a day later. Same result. On the third day, I called Bill Blatty… ‘Please look at these [takes].’ He sat down, looked at them and said: ‘You’re right. They’re awful. He doesn’t believe what he’s doing.’  We were going to re-write the script and have von Sydow die in that moment. We went in to see von Sydow, who was a very simple man. I said : I’ll bring Ingmar Bergman in here to direct this scene with you. He said: ‘No it’s not a matter of Bergman. I just don’t believe in God.’   Max, you played Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told!’ He said: Yes, but l played him as a man. I did not play him as the son of God or a man of God; I played him as a man. And I blurted out: Well why don’t you play this guy as a man? Just play him as a sickly priest trying to do his job. A half-hour or so went by, he came out of his dressing room, dressed and ready.”

Father Damien Karras .   Gene Hackman and Al Pacino were seen, Jack Nicholson was keen. Friedkin suggested Roy Scheider doing well since his Oscar nomination for The French Connection but Blatty felt he was not sympathetic. Stacy Keach was signed. And then Billy fell for actor-playwright Jason Miller, when his first play, That Championship Season, was having an electric success. When they met, Miller was distant, reserved, short and, Billy thought, stoned. “He had an interesting look and his biography was even more compelling.” He had studied for the priesthood, dropping out after three years at Washington’s Catholic University… after a the same crisis of faith as Father Karras.”

Miller did not know this. He had not read the book. Soon as he did, he called Friedkin. “That guy is me. I’m telling you, I am the guy!” “We’ve cast the role,” said Friekdin. “Will you at least shoot a screen test with me,.” “We’ve cast the role!” “I don’t care,” yelled Miller. “You don’t care?!” said an incredulous Friedkin. “There was something in his voice – his insistence, his passion – which was irresistible.”

He tested him with Burstyn. She was not pleased. He he was too short. “When I fall into Karras’ arms, I need a big, strong man.” It so happened she was dating a big, strong actor and even asked for him to be auditioned! Billy was not impressed with the result. Nor that much by Miller either until watching his test. “The camera loved his dark good looks, haunted eyes, quiet intensity and low, compassionate voice. He had a quality reminiscent of the late lohn Garfield.”

Miller was in. Keach was out. Paid off. And back to independent work like Luther. “Expanding my experience in proper ways,” he called it, “and that means never, never taking the easy way out.” Hmm, like Italy’s Prisoner of the Cannibal God with Ursula Andress and Blatty’s next vehicle, The Ninth Configuration, 1980, which was made but barely passed Go and certainly never collected any money.

Regan Teresa MacNeil .  The problem was always Regan…  She was the crux of the drama – the little girl apparently possesed by the Devil.  In reality, it had been a boy.  Regan was young and had to say, or at least mime, obscenities, as well as projectile vomiting (Andersen’s green pea soup –   actually puked by her double,  Eileen Dietz) and a whole lot of other  suff.

“I could find nobody who could even withstand the psychological pressure of playing a role like that,” said Friedkin.

One early notion was Debbie Reynolds and daughter Carrie Fisher as mother and tormented child – except Carrie was far too old at 18.   Just as  Brooke Shields was too young at age seven.  OK, then – Jamie Lee Curtis? She  was considered at 14 – but certainly not by her Momma Janet Leigh!

Anissa Jones was better known as Buffy Davis, Brian Keith’s niece in Family Affair, 1966-1971 –  amnd she was reportedly ecstatic when she didn’t get the part!  Her mother had brought her to meet Friedkin when he was looking at 16-year-olds who could play younger.  Trouble  with Anissa was that he knew the public feel it was Buffy – not Regan – being possessed.. and would expect Brian Keith (or his valet, Sebastian Cabot) coming to her rescue!

Anissa made wo films, The Trouble With Girls, 1968, and To Rome Wih Love, 1969,  and died at 18 in 1976  from one of the most severe OD the San Diego County coroner had ever see –  befiore she was to audition  for Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby

In 250 commercials at six, Dana Plato was  nine when Friedkin chose her as Satan’s messenger.


“My Mom  wouldn’t let me do it.

She felt that it wasn’t smart

to start your career in a role like that. 

I guess she was right.”


Dana went on to be Kimberly, the pony-tailed, all-American teen-queen in Diff’rent Strokes for seven seasons. “My job was mainly to open a door and tell the boys the bathroom was free. Viewers must’ve thought I slept in there.”

Blatty, incidentally, does not recall this story, at all. Friedkin has never mentioned it. Then again, he saw, he saw thousands of girls.

Ironically, the agency with Linda Blair on its books, forgot her  while dispatching some 30 other possible Regans to Friedkin’s office  in the Warner Bros New York HQ at… 666 Fifth Avenue.  “That was the address.! They have since taken down that number, I guess someone figured out it had another meaning.”

Yes, we are back with  Friedkin in full flow at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television…

“We reached a point where there were at least 2,000 girls, either put on tape, across this country, or auditioned by various casting directors and not put on tape, photographed or whatever.  We couldn’t find anybody.  It was a part written for a 12-year-old.  I started to think maybe we could find a 15-year old girl who looks younger, or a 15-year-old.  And we started to try and look for a young girl like that.  Nobody ! One of the main reasons was, in my meetings with several hundred of them, which lasted moments sometimes, I felt their lives would be impacted.  Then one day , I was sitting my desk in a kind of deep despair.  My secretary buzzed me and said there’s a woman out here named Eleanor Blair and she doesn’t have an appointment but she’s brought her daughter with her who’s 12 years old.  Would you see her?  Took me a split second to say: Of course.   Before we said hello, she came in the room and it was, I knew she was the one…. Linda was very cute, smart, adorable.  Not beautiful, but really very giving and open and just a lovely young girl.  I said, : Linda, do you know what The Exorcist is about?  She said: Yeah,  I read the book.  It’s about a little girl who gets possessed by the devil and does a whole bunch of bad things.  And I said: Like what sort of thing?  She said: Well, she hits her mother across the face and she pushes a man out of her bedroom window and she masturbates with a crucifix.  And I looked at her mother who was smiling.  So I proceeded on.  I said: Do you know what that means…  to masturbate?  She said: It’s like jerking off, isn’t it?  I said: Have you ever done that?  I looked at her mother who is still smiling.  She said: Sure haven’t you?  And so I hired her.  Because I knew that she could handle this material with a sense of humor. 

“And every day on the set I made it like a game for her.  She will tell you today that she never knew precisely the implications of what she was doing in the possession scenes.  She would just follow what I told her to do.  I would literally do something I never had done before… line readings.  I told her how to read the lines and I assured her and her mother there would not be her voice in those scenes and it wasn’t… We stayed in touch. She’s now 55 – she’s done more films than I have!”

Actually, Linda was not that keen  on the role. “I wanted to be a princess. I wanted to be in Disney movies, Lassie, Flipper… I didn’t want to be a monster.”  Her mother, Elinore Blair, soon had more to smile about… Fredkin gave her  the bit part of a nurse in Dr Taney’s office. 

Sharon Spencer .   Jill Clayburgh auditioned but Kitty Winn won  Chris’ MacNeil’s  friend,  personal assistant and Regan’s tutor.

Karras’ Mother .  Geraldine Page passed on playing the mother of Father Karras – the sole  screen role of 90-year old Vasiliki Maliaros, discovered in  a Greek restaurant in New York by Friedkin – although Gerry’s  good friend  and ex-lover, Marlon Brando, told her to take it. “But I’d read the book and wanted to throw up.”  No,  that was Regan’s role.

And Jane Fonda later admitted to Blatty that she rejected the film  “because I don’t believe in magic. ” 




“Satan has become an embarrassment to our progressive views.”


Directed by John Boorman .1976


It was  the script that needed exorcising…

Jack Nicholson as a priest!  That was funnier than the unintentionally hilarious  sequel.

Father Lamont . Jack passed…  And he had been the solid name Warners depended upon to win good reviews as well as hot box-office. Christopher Walken (!). also fled. Despite their closeness during Deliverance, Jon Voight jumped Boorman’s ship. And Richard Burton waddled in. Sober at the start, reported Linda Blair. Drunk towards the end. That’s how rotten scripts affect the immune system.

Dr Tuskin .   Warner was keen on its latest hot TV star David Carradine  as either Father Lamont or the  shrink –  until he started a fight over his Kung Fu series salary. (Well, it seemed the judicious moment!).

That the vital shrink’s role was then offered to Henry Winkler,  aka The Fonz in Happy Days, underlined Boorman’s desperation to complete casting. George Segal proved too expensive  and Winkler refused just like almost everyone in town:  Alan Arkin, Richard Dreyfuss, Chris Sarandon, Martin Sheen, Gene Wilder…

Then the bulb lit up and  Boorman  said: Why not a woman?   Being on a different page entirely, the suits immediately  suggested Ann-Margret (!) or Jane Fonda.  Well, she had finally admitted to author William Peter Blatty that she rejected the first film because she didn’t believe in magic.

Boorman offered the Doc  to an Oscar-winning lady. But not even Louise Fletcher could save the messy sequel from instant disaster.

Linda  Blair was now A Star… and delighted in telling Boorman one morning: I was only ten minutes late this morning!” At least  she came back. Ellen Burstyn refused all entreaties  and big bucks to reprise her role of the mother of the (still) troubled kid.  She as replaced by Kitty Winn, Regan’s tutor from the original movie. So much better than  this absurdity.  It’s one of  The All Time  Top Ten Best Bad Films list of the Raspberry Award founder John Wilson

And the  Triumph of Stupidity website added… 


“This gives the word bad a bad name.

As far as bad films goes, it’s not bad,

it’s an all-out grotesque abomination.

Dull, absurd, terribly acted,

stupid, insulting, hilarious,

a mess, a disaster, a total catastrophe.

Every frame is total crap.”


 Dana Plato, the girl who nearly was Regan inthe first film, won a tinyrole in the sequel. A dozen years later, she chose a Playboy spread to finally kill her TV image. Didn’ thelp.  She was arrested for armed robbery in 1991 and committed suicide in 1999 – aged 34.

Nobody won. Burton was right, then, when talking on-set to BBC reporter John Simpson about… “this shitty film.”

And the director of the original knew why… “I made that film as a believer, ” he said at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television (and Hollywood Reporter) in in 2014.  “The reason that all the sequels to The Exorcist are rotten chunks of excrement [is] because they are made by non-believers. And what they all attempt to do is to defrock the story and to send the thing up…  The Exorcist II is, to me, a kind of sin… It’s just horrible and a mistake and the guy who directed it was trying to debunk the original story.”


Jesus loves you, everyone else thinks you’re an asshole. 


Directed by William Peter Blatty  .  1989


If not much good can be said was ExII, there is little to praise in ExIII – a pity as it was written and directed by the author of the original book (and the novel, Legion, which this film  is based on),  William Peter Blatty.  More Batty when you look at his film, supposedly the “official” sequel to the shattering original.

William Friedkin was, in fact, asked  to helm this script –   of course he was. And,  of course, he refused. “I would never do go back and do another Exorcist. Or anything with demonic possession or exorcism in it. I did it. I couldn’t do it any better than that.”   Blatty then offered the gig to John Carpenter, who also backed off after being quizzed for a week and a half by WPB – who always aimed to direct it, himself.  Hence, he made the movie. Just not the movie he wanted to make.   He was making Legion. But his backers wanted the full ride – Exorcist III.  Or, Exorcist III: Legion.  If necessary, Blatty  was fine with Exorcist 1900 he simply had no wish to appear  joined at the hip to (for him)  the despicable Exorcist II.

Alas, he lost the battle – and all the deleted footage that he hoped to weave together, in order his release his Directors Cut.  However, as Mrs Blatty explained in 2007: “My husband tells me that it is Morgan Creek’s claim that they have lost all the footage, including an alternate opening scene in which Kinderman views the body of Karras in the morgue, right after his fall down the steps. What a shame.”   (The Blattys met on The Exorcist set, when she – ex-tennis champ Linda Tuero – was among the extras). 

Yes Kinderman and Karras are back.  George C Scott plays the cop, following the 1976 death of Lee J Cobb and Jason Miller eventually found time to reprise Karras – or Patient X as he is billed.  As is, in fact, Brad Dourif. aka The Gemini Killer. Who?   Why ? Yes, , well, you have  to see it… Or then again, not.

Blatty‘s British actor pal Nicol Williamson (he’s named in the Legion book), became Father Morning (!) for the suddenly added  ($4m) sequence when the suits complained that Exorcist III was missing an… exorcist!

Father Dyer .   Ed Flanders  gave up the role of Dr Temple, the ayslum warden (picked up  by Scott Wilson), and took over Father Dyer when the 1972 Dyer  – a  real priest, Father William O’Malley –  was otherwise engaged.  Or once bitten, twice shy.    He called the first chapter a  “pornographic horror film”   – messing with the facts of the  real 1949 Cottage City case in Maryland. And  Friedkin proved to be an exceedingly tough director….

“He had to give the last rites to his friend who died from the big fall from the house,”   Friedkin told students at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television on March 26, 2014.   “And in the scene, Father Bill O’Malley – who was not an actor… (I’d met him through Bill Blatty and I thought he was the guy that Blatty had created in The Exorcist. . It was his first and only film.  He might have done some plays at school).  He had to break down and cry at 3 or 4 am  on a freezing cold night when the crew had worked for 16 hours that day and he had to give the last rites and, according to the script, burst into tears.  He couldn’t do it.  He couldn’t get there.  There was nothing I could say to him that could get him there.  He had no technique. 

“So, I resorted to something that I read that many directors have done over the years.  I told the crew to just hang on for a moment and be ready to film.  I lifted him to his feet and I hugged him by the shoulders.  I said : Bill, do you love me?  He said: Yes, you know I love you, Bill.  And I said:  Do you trust me?  He said : Of course, I trust you.  And I said: OK, we’re going to do the scene now.  And I looked away, and as I looked away I cracked him full in the face.  I gave the sign to the cameraman and I pushed him to the ground.  And I said: Action!  And he did it and burst into tears. And afterwards, he hugged me and thanked me.  And he will to this day.  You may contact him.  My office has his phone number.”

Washinghton Posty critic  Rita Kempley has the last word:   Where The Exorcist  was high camp and creepily earnest, its latest descendant is all comic relief and botched bogy-bogy-bogy [sic]. It is unsparing when it comes to gruesome descriptions and ominous characters, but it’s got more giggles than goose bumps. The Exorcist III isn’t about to scare anybody.




“You asked the question, now you listen to the answer!”


Directed by Renny Harlin . 2003


“We all must make our little deals with the devil, Merrin” 


Directed by Paul Schrader . 2003


The Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist. Two films with a singlemission. To make zillions for Morgan Creek Productions.

Never happened.

The plan was simple. Devise an Exorcist prequel. Like, er, before Father Merrin saved Regan MacNeil’s soul, he first had encountered the demon Pazuzu in East Africa…

Morgan Creek signed up John Frankenheimer, the 60s’ wunderkind turned into just another gun-for-hire journeyman. He quit a month before shooting to be hospitalised for spinal surgery… suffereda stroke and died.

The producers then considered bringing back the 1973 director, William Friedkin. And probably should have.  Instead, in a bizarre, if not mindless move, the project went to Paul Schrader, the Mr Angst scribe behind Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, more arthouse than grindhouse. “If I don’t completely screw that up,”said Schrader, “ it might be possible for me to end my career standing on my own feet rather than groveling for coins.”

Never happened II.

At first, Morgan Creek was delighted with Schrader. “The movie needed someone,” explained the boss, James Robinson, “who didn’t do the standard horror-type movie.”


Schrader delivered: a psychological character study,

no gore, much less pea soup vomit!

Robinson threw him out. And his film!


It was “commercially unmarketable… without any of the bloody violence the backers had wanted.” Hang on a minute, hadn’t the producers approved the director, the scenario and expressed the hope for something beyondthe standard horror-type movie…?

Renny Harlin came to the rescue. As it were. What happened was… 


Harlin re-shot

the entire movie!


Well, he deep-sixed 90% of Schrader’s work and some characters, from what Hollywood immediately dubbed … the sequel of the prequel.

It opened (and closed) without creating interest (or profits) and, a year later, Schrader’s (far better) version was given an airing to a more absent than ardent public, barely interested in the film geeks’ delight of seeing the same story shot in different ways by different directors…with,  fundamentally, the same cast, and most certainly, the same cinematographer, the great Vittorio Storaro.

Father  Lankester Merrin .  Liam Neeson was first chosen to play the 30-years younger priest- until, more aptly, Stellan Skarsgard becamethe priest made famous by fellow Swede Max von Sydow in 1973

Father William Francis . Ryan Phillippe and Kerr Smith were seen for the younger priest – played by Gabriel Mann, who turned up for his Schrader audition dressed as a cleric and carrying an Exorcist DVD.  Mann proved unavailable to replay the priest for Harlin and James D’Arcy succeeded.

The Finnish Harlin also replaced French stage star Clara Bellar with another Swede, ex-Bond babe Izabella Scorupco.

“They’re two totally different films,” summed up Stellan Skarsgard.  “Of course, Paul’s film is closer to me. And of course, they didn’t want that.  It was such a weird idea to – on a $50m film – have him as the director and me as the star.  I thought: Those producers – they’re either really really smart or they have no clue!   With him… it would never become a horror movie. It would just become a film about a man in crisis, because that’s what he’s good at – that’s what I’m good at!   So they got that, of course, and they didn’t like it because it wouldn’t sell enough tickets.   And then,  Renny Harlin was brought in. They wanted to cut up Schrader’s film and put in… slices of horror, which would have made it insane.  Renny wanted to make his own film, and I was with him on that tract.  I like Renny – sometimes better than his films! [laugh]   He’s a nice Finnish guy and we have fun together. I changed my make-up so they couldn’t use anything from the first film for the second film.  Personally I wished that they could have spent a little more money on the second one, because that needed better effects and stuff.  Like those hyenas – they’re terrible [laugh].”

More succinct, for once, Schrader reported: “I heard the most true comment from someone over at Morgan Creek who said: ‘Schrader’s is a better film, but Renny’s is a better trailer.’


“It’s a unique situation,completely unprecedented.

My footnote in movie trivia is assured.”