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‘The Exorcist’ actress Linda Blair prepares for a comeback 50 years on

She was just 13 when she became tabloid fodder and a sociological phenomenon as the star of one of the 20th century’s most terrifying movies

Linda Blair
'The Exorcist’s' Linda Blair in 1975 who would become one of the most hounded girls in show business.Walt Disney Television Photo Archives (ABC)
Eva Güimil

In an excerpt from his book, the Friedkin Connection, director William Friedkin, now 87, recounts how he finally found The Exorcist’s chillingly possessed Regan McNeil in 12-year-old Linda Blair: “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 across the face and she masturbates with a crucifix.’

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

‘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.

More than a thousand teenagers had already auditioned for the part. The challenge of finding a girl capable of carrying the weight of the plot had prompted director Mike Nichols to abandon the project. Friedkin was about to follow suit. Jamie Lee Curtis had been the first choice, but her mother, actress Janet Leigh, was adamantly opposed.

Linda Blair listens to instructions from director William Friedkin during the tense filming of 'The Exorcist'
Linda Blair listens to instructions from director William Friedkin during the filming of 'The Exorcist.'Michael Ochs Archives (Getty Images)
Linda Blair appears on the Oscar red carpet on the night she was nominated for 'The Exorcist'
Linda Blair appears on the red carpet at the Oscars as a nominee for Best Supporting actress in 'The Exorcist.'Michael Ochs Archives (Getty Images)

The script was based on a true story, an alleged possession in the late 1940s that writer William Peter Blatty had turned into a bestseller that sold more than 10 million copies. Blair lacked experience; she had posed as a model, her true passion was horseback riding and not even her own agency had put her forward for the part. Yet Friedkin did not hesitate to take her on board. “She was a normal, happy twelve-year-old girl,” he recalled. The film would put an end to that.

The Exorcist is one of those so-called “cursed movies.” A fire ravaged the set, several family members of the crew – reportedly nine – died during filming, and there were a host of accidents that prompted the director, perhaps as a publicity stunt, to ask the consultant priest to bless the set. However, the blessing did not prevent Blair and the actress who played her mother, Ellen Burstyn, from suffering the fallout from incidents caused by safety hazards.

The filming was hell, Blair’s make-up sessions lasted four hours a day and the studio was kept at sub-zero temperatures so that the actors would breath out clouds of mist during the exorcism. It was a grueling seven months, but the truly gruesome part for Blair would come after the final “cut.”Although the film was approved by the Catholic Church, its impact aroused interest in Satan and the famous US evangelist Billy Graham, leader of the religious ultra-right, proclaimed: “The devil is in every frame.” Blair was accused of “glorifying Satan” and received death threats. The Warner Bros. production company hired bodyguards to protect her 24 hours a day for six months and her family was forced to move house several times.

Tell me about faith, child

Raised in a religion-free environment, Blair did not feel that the film had any spiritual connotations: for her it was the story of a single mother who would do anything for her daughter. Many viewers and journalists did not interpret it that way and approached her in search of answers that went beyond her remit as an actress. “To me The Exorcist was a work of fiction,” she told website Dread Central years later. “I didn’t realize then that it dealt with anything in reality, and so when the press kept asking me about all the devil stuff, it just kept adding to the pressure I was under, and it was just an awful thing to go through as a teenager.

Linda Blair entering Studio 54
Linda Blair entering Studio 54.Ron Galella (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)
Linda Blair, William Friedkin, Ellen Burstyn and writer William Peter Blatty at the revival of The Exorcist in 2000
Linda Blair, William Friedkin, Ellen Burstyn and writer William Peter Blatty at the re-release of 'The Exorcist' in 2000.Jeff Kravitz (FilmMagic)

The Exorcist grossed over $400 million to become not only a box-office hit, but also a social phenomenon. It garnered 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture – a first for a horror film – and Best Supporting Actress for Linda Blair.

After winning the Golden Globe, Blair was the favorite to win the Oscar, until an unexpected revelation ended her chances. Regan’s possessed voice, one of the film’s most terrifying elements, actually belonged to Mercedes McCambridge, a celebrated 1950s high school girl who played Joan Crawford’s nemesis in Johnny Guitar. She was the one who actually shouted disturbing phrases like “Do you know what she did, your c***ing daughter?” or “Your mother sucks cock in hell.”

Friedkin turned to McCambridge after finding that no sound effects on Blair’s voice instilled the necessary fear in the listener. The performer took the assignment very seriously and prepared her voice by smoking and drinking copious amounts of whisky despite being a recovering alcoholic. She even tied a noose around her neck to further strain her throat during the recordings. Her revelations were a serious blow to Blair’s nomination. “I have nothing against the child. I’ve never even met her. But if people had heard her saying some of those obscenities, they would have fallen over laughing,” a furious McCambridge revealed to The New York Times, upset that even “the man who supplied the jewels got a credit!” while her contribution did not.

Initially, the lack of acknowledgement was explained by the fact that the actress, a devout Christian, had preferred to remain anonymous, but after the success of the film, this was clearly no longer the case. She saw it as a new career opportunity.

Animal rights advocate Linda Blair poses next to a sign that reads "Animal experiments make my head spin," an allusion to the famous scene from 'The Exorcist'
Animal rights advocate Linda Blair poses next to a sign that reads “Animal experiments make my head spin,” a reference to the famous scene from 'The Exorcist.'Ron Galella (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)

Years later, it was also revealed that sequences such as the one involving masturbation with the crucifix had been performed by actress Eileen Dietz. “They were looking for someone who was small but also very strong,” she told The New Statesman. “You have to remember that Linda Blair was only 12, so it wasn’t possible for her to film things like the crucifix masturbation scene or the fist fight with Father Karras. That’s where I came in. If you see Regan vomiting, that’s me, but if you see her after the vomiting, then it’s Linda.”

In the end, the Oscar went to another girl whose career, and life, would prove as troubled as Blair’s, namely Tatum O’Neal.

Life after Satan

After The Exorcist came the television adaptation of another best-selling book, Born Innocent. On the cover of the book was the face of Linda Blair in the role of Christine Parker, a teenager abused by her parents who ended up in a scary reformatory where she suffered further abuse. It was the most watched TV movie in the United States.

Off-screen, Linda’s life was beginning to look dangerously like a mirror image of her movies. While filming The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), the long-awaited sequel trashed by critics, she began an affair with singer Rick Springfield. He was 25, she was just 15. The singer recounted their relationship in detail in his autobiography, Late, Late at Night. “I am her first lover and she is an enthusiastic learner,” he wrote. “We share a love of dogs and sex–separately, not in combination. Most of the time we don’t leave the apartment. She’s invited to premieres and Hollywood parties and we go as a couple, blindly and innocently to the media slaughter. We’re actually really shocked by the incensed articles in both teen and regular press about our affair. Either we have zero understanding of what makes the press tick, or it’s a really slow month for news.” The pair are still close today and share a devotion to animals evident by their joint participation in solidarity events.

Still a minor after the breakup, she began dating musician Rick James, known for his hit Super Freak, and for being a self-appointed “icon of drugs and eroticism.” The press insinuated that it was James who introduced Blair to drugs. Later, another of her boyfriends, Glenn Hughes, bassist in Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, claimed that they had broken up because he considered her too wild – as in “because she was doing so much blow.”

At 18, she was arrested during a police raid and charged with possession of amphetamines and cocaine. She spent three years on probation and had to make 12 public appearances raising awareness of the dangers of substance abuse. She side-stepped prison, but not trial by media. As an actress she was beginning to fade into obscurity when she decided to pose for Playboy. The decision appeared to put the final nail in the coffin of her career.

Goodbye, Lassie

Her off-screen life had little to do with the seraphic image she had projected in Airport 75 (1974), in which she played a girl waiting for a kidney transplant – made famous by the parody of the film Airplane! in which the nun accidentally pulls out the wires to the life support machine. The girl who dreamed of being “a princess… in Disney movies,” who wanted to be in Lassie and Flipper, and who, in her own words, “didn’t want to be a monster,” ended up starring in B-movie productions of girls in prisons such as Chained Heat (1983) and in several horror movie spin-offs.

Displaying a sense of humor, she starred in the 1990 parody of The Exorcist, called Repossessed, with Leslie Nielsen. In the late 1990s, she played Rizzo in the Broadway production of Grease and Wes Craven gave her a small role, barely a cameo, in Scream (1996), the definitive resurrection of the slasher movie.

Linda Blair poses with Beethoven the dog in Los Angeles in 1997. She has been a strong advocate for animal rights for decades
Linda Blair poses with the canine star, Beethoven, in Los Angeles in 1997. She has been a strong advocate for animal rights for decades. Barry King (Getty Images)
Linda Blair was one of the stars hiding under a disguise in the latest US edition of 'Mask singer'
Linda Blair was one of the stars participating in the latest US edition of Mask singer. FOX (FOX Image Collection via Getty I)

Aware of her career’s limited reach, Blair focused instead on her great passion: animals. She invested her life savings in the Linda Blair World Heart, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping and rehabilitating abused animals. After Hurricane Katrina, she rescued more than 50 animals in New Orleans. She is also a staunch defender of pit bulls, to whom, as she explained in an Oprah Winfrey television special, she feels a deep connection. “A big pit bull had followed me home,” she said on the show. “Well, the news media said they’re going to kill you… I ran home.” Then, “I realized, this dog is not attacking me. This dog is asking for help. I brought him some water, and his demeanor told me that he was the angel that I now know was sent to me.” As a victim of media speculation, she knows all about stigmatization.

Fully recovered from the mental health issues that led her to institutionalize herself, Blair is now ready for a comeback. A few weeks ago, it was announced that both she and Ellen Burstyn will participate in a new version of The Exorcist 50 years after the original that turned her, if not into a star, then certainly into a contemporary legend.

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