“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.”
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.
“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.