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William Friedkin on casting The Exorcist

blair burstyn friedkin

Harper has made available a generous excerpt from William Friedkin’s newly published autobiography, The Friedkin Connection. Anyone familiar with Sidney Lumet’s memoir Making Movies will find their rat-a-tat-tat no-time-for-bullshit prose style quite similar.

The Exorcist was 340 pages. A 100-page screenplay, more or less, would result in a two-hour film. We worked for several months as David Salven assembled the crew and we started talks with Nessa Hyams, head of casting for Warner Bros. Ted Ashley told me he wanted Audrey Hepburn, Anne Bancroft, or Jane Fonda to play Chris MacNeil. Excellent choices. And with Blatty’s and my blessing, the studio offered the role first to Audrey Hepburn, who responded favorably, but said she would only do the film in Rome, as she was living there, married to an Italian doctor. I thought it was a request on her part, not a condition. No way did I want to film in Rome; it was impractical from every standpoint. All other actors would have to be imported from the United States, and I didn’t want a language barrier with the crew. In fact, I wanted my crew from The French Connection, starting with Owen Roizman and Ricky Bravo. We asked Ms.Hepburn to reconsider, but she declined.

Anne Bancroft was next. She said she’d love to play Chris, but she was pregnant; would we wait a year for her? We wished her mazel tov. Jane Fonda sent us a telegram after receiving the script: “Why would anyone want to make this piece of capitalist rip-off bullshit?” I never learned how she really felt.

At one point during these maneuverings, I had a phone call from Ellen Burstyn: “Do you know who I am?” she asked.

“Yes, of course,” I lied. She was considered a very good actress. She was in The Last Picture Show. But I frankly didn’t remember which role she’d played, and I tended to confuse her with Cloris Leachman.

“I’d like to talk to you about Chris MacNeil,” she said.

A pause, while I considered a response.

“Ms. Burstyn, I have to tell you the studio is out to Audrey Hepburn, Anne Bancroft, and Jane Fonda.”

“I’m just asking if you’ll meet with me,” she said. “Do you believe in destiny?”

“Do I believe in destiny? I don’t know. . . . Yeah, I guess so.”

“I’m destined to play that part,” she said. “I know in my heart that role is mine.”

We arranged to meet at her house on Beechwood Drive. It was on my way home.Ellen’s house was in the hills above the Hollywood Freeway, where you could hear music from the Hollywood Bowl when there was a concert. Her house was old, large, and had few items of furniture. Her son, Jeff, met me at the door. He was a pleasant kid, about fifteen years old. He told me he liked rock and roll and wanted to be a musician.

Ellen was a single mother, long separated from her husband Neil. After a few minutes she appeared, barefoot in along brown shift. Ellen was passionate, intense, focused, and highly intelligent. She told me about her Catholic girlhood and how she had left the church and was now studying to become a Sufi. We discussed the novel for a couple of hours, and I thought she had an acute understanding of it. Yet I didn’t think the studio would approve her.

Blatty also suggested his friend, Shirley MacLaine, who had recently made a film called The Possession of Joel Delaney. As much as I admire and respect Shirley, I thought that two films with her, about demonic possession, were one too many. She recognized herself as the model for Chris MacNeil, and her company offered Blatty $75,000 for the rights, plus 5 percent of the net profits but no creative participation in the making of the film. Bill turned it down but still thought Shirley would be right for the role. The studio would have been happy with her, but they began deferring to me on a number of creative decisions.

One of the actors who wanted to be considered was Roy Scheider, who was very much in demand after his Oscar nomination for The French Connection. I thought he’d be good as Father Karras, but Blatty felt he was not sympathetic. Nessa Hyams suggested Stacy Keach, who had appeared in some of the seminal films of the late 1960s: The New Centurions, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Fat City, and DOC. Just thirty years old, he was one of the most distinguished stage actors in the country, with leading roles in the plays of Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill. Blatty and I met with him and liked him, and Warner agreed. They signed him.

I was in New York scouting locations when I read a review of a new play about basketball called That Championship Season that had recently opened at the Public Theater. It was set during the twentieth reunion of a coach and his starting five, who won a state high school championship in a small town in Pennsylvania. In the course of a drunken evening, it becomes clear that at the urging of the coach, the team had cheated to win the game. Their victory was a fraud. Their lives were a fraud. There was a photo in the New York Times of the young playwright, Jason Miller. This was his first produced play. He had an interesting look, and his biography was even more compelling. He had worked as an actor in off-Broadway plays and road companies, but was barely able to make a living. He had a regular job as a milk deliveryman in Flushing, New York, where he lived with his wife Linda and two young sons.

I had to see his play, possibly because it was about basketball, but more likely because of Fate. It was riveting — funny, disturbing, beautifully written and acted. The play was about America’s obsession with winning at any cost. It held me as it did the audience, the critics, the Tony Award voters, and later the Pulitzer Prize committee. I asked our New York casting director, Juliet Taylor, to set up a meeting for me with Miller. I don’t know why. His picture and bio in the New York Times
intrigued me, as did his play, which portrayed the spiritual conflicts of a group of Irish Catholic men. I felt some need to meet with him.

Whatever I was looking for, I didn’t find it in our first meeting. I was staying at the Sherry-Netherland and fighting a cold. I had prescription pills everywhere. Jason later told me he thought I was a pill freak. He had no idea why I wanted to meet him; perhaps he thought it was to buy his play for the movies. When he came to my suite at the Sherry, he was distant and reserved. He was also short, about five-seven, and I thought he was stoned. He told me he had studied for the priesthood at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., but dropped out in histhird year, having the same crisis of faith as Father Karras, while continuing a love/hate relationship with the church. I told him how much I loved his play, and he thanked me. When I told him I was planning a film of The Exorcist, he seemed only mildly interested. He was overwhelmed with all the attention being afforded That Championship Season, and had not read the novel.

I continued meeting with Ellen Burstyn. Having started with the certainty that she would never get this role, I soon became convinced that she was our best choice.

“No way!” Ted Ashley shouted from behind his desk. “I’m not giving the lead in this picture to a woman who’s never played a lead in anything!” He was furious. “Ellen Burstyn will play this part over my dead body.” At which point he walked to the side of his desk and lay down, face up, on the floor. “Go ahead,” he said to me, “try to walk over me.”

“Ted . . . ,” I started to protest.

“Go ahead,” he shouted, “I dare you.”

I shrugged, then walked to where he was lying, to step over him. He quickly grabbed my leg and held it tightly so I had to lean on his desk for balance. “You see!” he shouted triumphantly. “That’s what’ll happen if you try to cast Burstyn.I’ll come back from the dead to stop you!” But alas, the studio had no other choices, and eventually Burstyn was approved.

I got a call from Jason Miller in New York: “Hey, how ya doin’?” he asked cheerfully, as though we were old buddies.

“Congratulations on your play,” I said. It was going to Broadway in the fall.“Listen,” he said, “I read that book you told me about. That Exorcist. That guy is me.”

“What guy?”

“Father Karras.”

I would have ended the conversation if I didn’t respect him as a playwright.

“I appreciate your interest, but we’ve signed an actor.” He went on as though he hadn’t heard me: “I’m telling you, I am that guy. Will you at least shoot a screen test with me?”

“We’ve cast the role!” I shouted.

“I don’t care—”

“You don’t care?”

There was something in his voice — his insistence, his passion — which was irresistible. “As long as you understand we have a pay-or-play deal with another actor for this part, you can come here on your own nickel, and I’ll shoot a test with you.”

“Great,” he said.“How soon can you get here?” I asked.

“About a week,” was his answer.

“A week! Why don’t you fly out tomorrow?”

“I don’t fly, man. I’ll take a train. Be there in four days.”

Blatty and every executive at the studio were now convinced I’d lost it, but I set up a test for Jason on an empty stage at Warner Bros. and recruited Ellen to work with him. I asked my friend the cinematographer Bill Fraker, who’d shot Bullitt and Rosemary’s Baby, to light the scene where Chris tells Father Karras she believes her daughter is possessed. After a few takes, I had Ellen interview him about his life and kept the camera over her shoulder on his face.

Then I shot a close-up of Jason as he said Mass, and I asked him to say it as though for the first time, to discover the meaning of the words, not rattle them off as I heard so many priests do. He seemed relaxed in front of the camera, but I wasn’t knocked out. Ellen took me aside:“You’re not going to cast him, are you?”

I was surprised by her question: “Why not?”

“Oh Billy, come on,” she said. “He’s too short, and he’s not really an actor. When I breakdown in that scene, I need to fall into Karras’s arms. I need a big, strong man . . .”

It happened that Ellen was dating “a big, strong man” at the time, a fellow actor she asked me to audition. I did and was unimpressed. The next morning, I screened Jason’s test. The camera loved his dark good looks, haunted eyes, quiet intensity, and low, compassionate voice.He had a quality reminiscent of the late John Garfield. The fact that he had a Jesuit education and had studied for the priesthood sealed the deal for me. I ran the test for Blatty and the Warner executives. “This is the guy,” I told them.

“What’s wrong with Stacy Keach?” Blatty asked.

“Nothing, but this guy’s the real deal.”

Frank Wells spoke up: “We have a contract with Keach.”

“Pay him off,” I insisted.

Wells was livid: “You just cast him.”

“I was wrong,” I said. “Jason Miller is going to explode in this part.”

The other major roles were quickly cast. Blatty showed me a photograph of Gerald Lankester Harding, his inspiration for Father Merrin. Harding was lean and gaunt, with close-cropped white hair. The image of Max von Sydow came immediately to mind. Max had been Ingmar Bergman’s leading actor in classic films like The Virgin Spring and The Seventh Seal. We sent him a script in Sweden, where he lived, and got an immediate response. He would be pleased to play Father Merrin.

The casting of Lieutenant Kinderman was another unexpected gift. Blatty and I went to see a play in the San Fernando Valley. An actor in the play was suggested to us for a key role.We didn’t respond to the actor, but there was someone in the audience that night, a few rows ahead of us: Lee J. Cobb, immortalized for his performances as Willy Loman in Death of aSalesman, Juror Number Three in Twelve Angry Men, and Johnny Friendly in On the Waterfront

With Cobb and von Sydow cast, we had a solid foundation, but the biggest problemwould be to cast Regan. For four months in 1972, half a dozen casting directors around thecountry put hundreds of young girls, ages eleven through thirteen, on videotape. Over a thousandgirls eventually auditioned. I watched the tapes, if only for a minute or two, and personallyinterviewed at least fifty girls. It seemed hopeless. The question was not only whether a childcould portray the character’s
innocence as well as her possession without self-consciousness, buthow she would react to the experience itself. How would it affect her life? None of the girls I met seemed likely to overcome those obstacles. I thought about Mike Nichols’s reason for declining the job —“You’ll never find a twelve-year-old girl to carry the picture.” We started to audition fourteen-, fifteen-, and sixteen-year-olds who looked younger, with similar results. One afternoon at my office in New York, my secretary buzzed me: “There’s a woman out here named Elinore Blair. She doesn’t have an appointment, but she brought her daughter and wonders if you’d see her . . .”

She was smart but not precocious. Cute but not beautiful. A normal, happy twelve-year-old girl. Her name was Linda Blair. Her mother was quiet, pleasant, not a “stage mother.” Lindawas represented by an agency that suggested ten other girls to us. Not her. She had done some modeling, no acting. Her main interest was training and showing horses, for which she won a lot of blue ribbons. She was a straight-A student in Westport, Connecticut. I found her adorable.Irresistible. I asked her if she knew what The Exorcist was about. “Well . . . ,” she said thoughtfully, “it’s about a little girl who gets possessed by the devil and does a whole bunch of bad things. . . .

”I nodded. “What sort of bad things?”

“Well . . . she pushes a man out of her bedroom window and she hits her mother acrossthe face and she masturbates with a crucifix.”

I looked at her mother. She seemed to realize her daughter was special. Linda wasunperturbed.

“Do you know what that means?” I asked her.

“What?”

“To masturbate.”

“It’s like jerking off, isn’t it?” she answered without hesitation, giggling a little.

I looked again at her mother. Unflappable.

“Have you ever done that?” I asked Linda.

“Sure, haven’t you?” she shot back. I’d found Regan.

I asked her to come back to Los Angeles and shoot a test. Clearly, she was not troubled by the language or the substance of the film, but I had to be sure she could sustain the character,and I needed the approval of Blatty and Warner Bros. I asked Linda to prepare a few of the early scenes, and Ellen and I worked with her, but you could see her “acting.” I kept the camera rolling and had Ellen interview her, as she had Jason. Talking about herself and relating to Ellen, Linda was spontaneous, and I realized I had to create an atmosphere on the set where she could be spontaneous, not worry about doing scenes word-for-word.

Blatty introduced me to Father Bill O’Malley, who taught English and theology at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, New York. He was in his early thirties when he first met Blatty and criticized the portrayal of Father Dyer in the novel. He thought Dyer, as written,was a cliche. Blatty was amused by his criticism, but we were both impressed with his sense of humor and good nature. I was spending a lot of time with Jesuits and I thought O’Malley embodied their keen intellect and scholarship. I asked him to play Father Dyer.

===

Friedkin’s book looks terrific. Happy to see these enthusiastic blurbs.

“Entertaining. . . . This memoir is at its most engrossing when describing the solid, unpretentious entertainments its author once made so well.” (Wall Street Journal )

“Hardcore film geeks will salivate over this time capsule from a grateful and still-brilliant legend.” (Booklist)

“For aspiring directors, a glimpse into the school of hard knocks, but there’s plenty of good stuff, lean and well-written, for civilian film fans, too.” (Kirkus Reviews )

“Friedkin’s book does the unthinkable: It relates the behind-the-scenes stories of his triumphs but also sees Friedkin take responsibility (brutally so) for his wrong calls. . . . He captures the gut-wrenching shifts of a filmmaker’s life.” (Variety )

“Movie fans will celebrate the natural storyteller at work in the pages of The Friedkin Connection, a welcome reminder that it takes so much more than talent to make a movie – and to keep making them.” (Associated Press )

“Friedkin’s memory for the process of filmmaking elevates this book above the usual score-settling Hollywood memoir; film buffs will be pleased with what he offers here.” (Publishers Weekly )

“Friedkin’s against-all-odds success story is compelling reading from the start.” (LA Weekly )

“Filled with insights into the art of film and its practitioners and honest assessments of his work–and the work of others in the film industry–this is terrific stuff. After reading it, you’ll be anxious to see all the Friedkin movies you’ve missed.” (Shelf Awareness)

From the Back Cover

With such seminal movies as The Exorcist and The French Connection, Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin secured his place as a great filmmaker. A maverick from the start, Friedkin joined other young directors who ushered in Hollywood’s second Golden Age during the 1970s. Now, in his long-awaited memoir, Friedkin provides a candid portrait of an extraordinary life and career.

His own success story has the makings of classic American film. He was born in Chicago, the son of Russian immigrants. Immediately after high school, he found work in the mailroom of a local television station, and patiently worked his way into the directing booth during the heyday of live TV. An award-winning documentary brought him attention as a talented new filmmaker, as well as an advocate for justice, and it caught the eye of producer David L. Wolper, who brought Friedkin to Los Angeles. There he moved from television (one of the last episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) to film (The Birthday Party, The Boys in the Band), displaying a versatile stylistic range. Released in 1971, The French Connection won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and two years later, The Exorcist received ten Oscar nominations and catapulted Friedkin’s career to stardom.

Penned by the director himself, The Friedkin Connection takes readers on a journey through the numerous chance encounters and unplanned occurrences that led a young man from a poor urban neighborhood to success in one of the most competitive industries and art forms in the world.

From the streets of Chicago to the executive suites of Hollywood, from star-studded movie sets to the precision of the editing room, from a pas-sionate new artistic life as a renowned director of operas to his most recent tour de force, Killer Joe, William Friedkin has much to say about the world of moviemaking and his place within it.

Written with the narrative drive of one of his finest films, The Friedkin Connection is a wonderfully engaging look at an artist and an industry that has transformed who we are—and how we see ourselves.

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11 Comments on this Post

  1. Bryce Forestieri

    When do we get a SORCERER Blu-ray for Christ’s sake?!

  2. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    I think the restored widescreen release of Sorcerer is expected sometime around the holidays this year.

    “We’re working off the original negative, which is in pretty good shape, but without changing the original concept we have to bring it back in terms of color saturation, sharpness and all the stuff,.”

  3. Bryce Forestieri

    So glad it sounds like he’s supervising the restoration

  4. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    They’ll be screening a 35 MM print of Sorcerer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on May 2. Then at the Venice Film Festival in August.

  5. Bob in Vegas

    I love THE EXORCIST novel and movie . . . and was terrified every time I read or watched it. This looks fascinating!

    BTW, Ellen Burstyn wrote a great autobio, “Lessons in Becoming Myself.”

  6. Ellsworth

    ‘Lessons in Becoming Myself’ is so interesting and moving – very well written and candid

  7. I don’t care what anyone says, THIS is the scariest horror film of all time. Especially for the time it was made. A film where the dialogue and images get under your skin, unlike the cheap crap we get in today’s films. I can’t watch this alone – Never will. lol

  8. Evelyn Garver

    I echo KB’s sentiments. As a lapsed Catholic, I find it terrifying. Burstyn gives a great performance. Viewers must believe Chris MacNeil in order to believe the film.

  9. Mr. Pricklepants

    It puts all these recent exorcism/demonic possession movies to shame. Still the best of its kind.

  10. This film was expertly cast with the right people – but, from reading this excerpt, having read Ellen’s book and noting comments from The Exorcist’s DVD extra features (about Ellen’s on-set affair with William F), it does give the unsettling feeling that – must an actress have to screw to get a job?

  11. I am amazed to discover that Audrey Hepburn was their first choice!

    I had never read that anywhere before.

    I love Ellen Burstyn in the role (she should have won the Best Actress Oscar in 1973).

    But Audrey Hepburn couldreally have done something special with the role of Chris. No one could do fear like Hepburn (remember “Wait Until Dark”). I wish Friedkin had made the concession and filmed it in Rome, as Hepburn has requested.

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