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Excerpt from "The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir" by William Friedkin. Copyright 2013 by William Friedkin. Reprinted here by permission of Harper. All rights reserved.

Excerpt from "The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir" by William Friedkin. Copyright 2013 by William Friedkin. Reprinted here by permission of Harper. All rights reserved.

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Excerpt from "The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir" by William Friedkin. Copyright 2013 by William Friedkin. Reprinted here by permission of Harper. All rights reserved.
Excerpt from "The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir" by William Friedkin. Copyright 2013 by William Friedkin. Reprinted here by permission of Harper. All rights reserved.

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06/14/2013

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 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 startedtalks with Nessa Hyams, head of casting for Warner Bros. Ted Ashley told me he wanted AudreyHepburn, Anne Bancroft, or Jane Fonda to play Chris MacNeil. Excellent choices. And withBlatty’s and my blessing, the studio offered the role first to Audrey Hepburn, who respondedfavorably, but said she would only do the film in Rome, as she was living there, married to anItalian doctor. I thought it was a
request
on her part, not a condition. No way did I want to film inRome; it was impractical from every standpoint. All other actors would have to be imported fromthe United States, and I didn’t want a language barrier with the crew. In fact, I wanted my crewfrom
 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 shed love to play Chris, but she was pregnant; wouldwe wait a year for her? We wished her
mazel tov
. Jane Fonda sent us a telegram after receivingthe script: “Why would
anyone
want to make this piece of capitalist rip-off bullshit?” I neverlearned how she really felt.At one point during these maneuverings, I had a phone call from Ellen Burstyn: “Do youknow who I am?” she asked.“Yes, of course,” I lied. She was considered a very good actress. She was in
 The LastPicture Show
. But I frankly didnt remember which role shed played, and I tended to confuseher with Cloris Leachman.“Id 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 outto Audrey Hepburn, Anne Bancroft, and Jane Fonda.”“Im 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.”“Im destined to play that part,” she said. “I know in my heart that role is mine.” Wearranged 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 hearmusic from the Hollywood Bowl when there was a concert. Her house was old, large, and hadfew items of furniture. Her son, Jeff, met me at the door. He was a pleasant kid, about fifteenyears old. He told me he liked rock and roll and wanted to be a musician. Ellen was a singlemother, 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 meabout her Catholic girlhood and how she had left the church and was now studying to become aSufi. We discussed the novel for a couple of hours, and I thought she had an acute understandingof it. Yet I didnt 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 themodel for Chris MacNeil, and her company offered Blatty $75,000 for the rights, plus 5 percentof the net profits but no creative participation in the making of the film. Bill turned it down butstill thought Shirley would be right for the role. The studio would have been happy with her, butthey 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 indemand after his Oscar nomination for
 The French Connection
. I thought hed be good as FatherKarras, 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 mostdistinguished stage actors in the country, with leading roles in the plays of Shakespeare andEugene 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 aboutbasketball called
 That Championship Season
that had recently opened at the Public Theater. Itwas set during the twentieth reunion of a coach and his starting five, who won a state high schoolchampionship in a small town in Pennsylvania. In the course of a drunken evening, it becomesclear that at the urging of the coach, the team had cheated to win the game. Their victory was afraud. Their lives were a fraud. There was a photo in the
New York Times
of the youngplaywright, Jason Miller. This was his first produced play. He had an interesting look, and hisbiography was even more compelling. He had worked as an actor in off-Broadway plays androad companies, but was barely able to make a living. He had a regular job as a milkdeliveryman 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 aboutAmerica’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 castingdirector, Juliet Taylor, to set up a meeting for me with Miller. I dont know why. His picture andbio 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 theSherry-Netherland and fighting a cold. I had prescription pills everywhere. Jason later told me hethought I was a pill freak. He had no idea why I wanted to meet him; perhaps he thought it wasto buy his play for the movies. When he came to my suite at the Sherry, he was distant andreserved. He was also short, about five-seven, and I thought he was stoned. He told me he hadstudied 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/haterelationship with the church. I told him how much I loved his play, and he thanked me. When Itold him I was planning a film of 
 The Exorcist
, he seemed only mildly interested. He wasoverwhelmed with all the attention being afforded
 That Championship Season
, and had not readthe novel.I continued meeting with Ellen Burstyn. Having started with the certainty that she wouldnever get this role, I soon became convinced that she was our best choice.“No way!” Ted Ashley shouted from behind his desk. “Im not giving the lead in thispicture to a woman who’s never played a lead in anything!” He was furious. “Ellen Burstyn willplay this part
over my dead body
.” At which point he walked to the side of his desk and laydown, faceup, 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, tostep over him. He quickly grabbed my leg and held it tightly so I had to lean on his desk forbalance. “You see!” he shouted triumphantly. “That’s what’ll happen if you try to cast Burstyn.Ill come back from the dead to stop you!” But alas, the studio had no other choices, andeventually Burstyn was approved.I got a call from Jason Miller in New York: “Hey, how ya doin’?” he asked cheerfully, asthough 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 aplaywright. “I appreciate your interest, but weve signed an actor.” He went on as though hehadnt heard me: “Im telling you, I
am
that guy. Will you at least shoot a screen test with me?”“Weve cast the role!” I shouted.“I don’t care—”“You dont
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 cancome here on your own nickel, and Ill 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 dont fly, man. Ill take a train. Be there in four days.”Blatty and every executive at the studio were now convinced Id lost it, but I set up a testfor Jason on an empty stage at Warner Bros. and recruited Ellen to work with him. I asked myfriend the cinematographer Bill Fraker, who’d shot
Bullitt
and
Rosemary’s Baby
, to light thescene where Chris tells Father Karras she believes her daughter is possessed. After a few takes, Ihad 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 forthe first time, to discover the meaning of the words, not rattle them off as I heard so many priestsdo. 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. “Hes too short, and hes not really an actor. When I breakdown in that scene, I need to fall into Karrass arms. I need a big, strong man . . .”It happened that Ellen was dating “a big, strong man” at the time, a fellow actor sheasked me to audition. I did and was unimpressed. The next morning, I screened Jason’s test. Thecamera 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 andhad studied for the priesthood sealed the deal for me. I ran the test for Blatty and the Warnerexecutives. “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 GeraldLankester 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 beenIngmar Bergmans leading actor in classic films like
 The Virgin Spring
and
 The Seventh Seal
.

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