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THE EXORCIST Restored: Linda Blair

Looking back with the actress who turned heads twenty-eight years ago.

By Steve Fritz     September 21, 2000

There's one in every crowd...

As Linda Blair sets herself in front of this crowd of semi-friendly reporters, one member of the press kicks the entire interview session off with an obviously smart-mouthed query regarding pea soup. He barely gets the two words out when Blair cuts him short. 'I love it!' she exclaims. 'As long as it's vegetarian I love it! It's good.' Disarmed, the reporter skulks behind his laptop for a few minutes, his query never answered. The rest of his colleagues, yours truly among them, enjoy a good chuckle at his expense.

To give the devil her due, Blair's turning the tables made her immediately liked by everyone else in the room. Then again, it probably would be hard to dislike her. She's taken remarkable good care of herself in the quarter century-plus since she first shocked the world as Regan, the possessed waif in THE EXORCIST (1973). She also displays a remarkably bubbly personality, given all that she went through after the movie's release.

What's even more remarkable is that she was just about to quit the business when the audition call came through. 'I worked in New York since I was five years old doing modeling and commercials,' Blair recalls. 'That's a completely different world than California, where I think there's different dreams and aspirations of being a so-called 'star' and being in movies. Here you do your work, whether it's in commercials or theatre. It's 'push the happy stuff and sell, sell, sell.' Modeling was pretty difficult back then.

'I found the business was something I didn't have an interest in. I wanted to be a veterinarian. That's no secret. When I was 13, I basically went to my mother and asked if it was possible for this to end. I truly had enough of it.'

A week later, the phone rang, and Blair's life literally changed forever. 'I got a call to do a movie interview. Now I figured this out recently. Pretty much if you ask anybody if they wanted to be in a movie, that person gets a smile on their face,' Blair admits, mugging a goofball grin and then adding 'They do!' for emphasis. 'There's something that's magical about being asked, and we were one of them. It wasn't that we knew what it was about. We just got excited. So after I went through the first initial meeting with the casting director, I met with Billy Friedkin. He asked my mother and I to read the book, which we did.'

As it turned out, the young Blair had a reaction probably most kids of today would have about playing Regan. 'Now children don't understand the same things as adults,' she stated. 'I can't answer for my mother. She was a very private person and did not discuss a lot of things. I know she did have some private conversations with Friedkin. As for me, I had the same questions everyone else had. They were questions like how does Regan jump up and down off the bed; how does her head turn around; how does she throw up? The religious questionsI didn't have a clue.'

She adds, 'I grew up Protestant in the Southern Congregational Church. We didn't talk about the Devil. That was Catholicism. It probably was a good thing we didn't. I mean, I think how it might have effected a Catholic child who had heard things about the Devil and other things that hide in the closet, and no one wanted to discuss them. So for me that was a really big safety net. So I had no idea what I was doing.'

As it would turn out, this ignorance would be Blair's best friend and worst enemy. It should also be remembered that in the early 1970s, the general public's language was tons more modest than it is today. According to Blair, a number of the most shocking scenes in the movie didn't effect her as she virtually had no idea of their implications.

'I really was very innocent,' Blair confesses. 'I didn't understand the Devil or any of that. You can only push a child so far. Number one, you have laws. Number two, I had been doing this for so long that I knew I could say no to anything I didn't like doing. Also, after a certain while, they knew when they had pushed too far and it was time to back off.'

Another thing people may not understand today is that, although the voice of the demon we hear in THE EXORCIST was the late Mercedes McCambridge, during the shoot Blair had to say every single word. McCambridge's voice wasn't added until later in a dubbing session.

'Friedkin needed to rehearse me,' Blair remembers. 'He needed to work out what, how, why and what buttons to push to get the right reaction out of every one of us. It wasn't that he only worked privately with me. I know that privately he also worked with Ellen [Burstyn], Jason [Miller] and Max [Von Sydow]. He knew each one of us had their own connections with him as the director. Warner Bros. [also] knew that by law they had to hire an adult to stand in for certain things. They thought there was no way a child could do this.'

But Friedkin had other ideas. As viewing bares out, one of the reasons THE EXORCIST is so powerful is that it feels so realbecause Friedkin used Blair in as many shots as he could get away with.

'Billy Friedkin came to me before filming and said if I didn't do all of the film, the film would be a joke,' says Blair. 'Everybody knows I had a stunt double. Eileen Dietz was my main stand-in and my stunt girl. Another woman did the spider walk because that was too difficult. Still, I did most of the shots of the film because I thought people would laugh because it wouldn't look real enough. So while we were filming, Eileen did many things, but all the performances were me. There was only about 17 seconds that Eileen was actually in the film, and those were two of the vomit scenes. I had really had enough of the vomit. It was warm, stinky, smelly, sick. It was the one thing that was really pushing me over the edge.'

To be honest, the question had to be asked and I did, and that was whether Blair would allow her daughter to do what she calls the 'crucifixion scene,' which is where Regan puts a crucifix to a most unholy purpose. If it was my 13 year-old daughter, I admitted I'd have hollered for the stand-in.

'And you know what? I wouldn't allow a child of mine to do those scenes either,' Blair acknowledges. 'You can't physically do that to little people. I can only tell you that I didn't understand what I was doing. I never really knew what that whole scene was about. I remember I thought it was very odd that you had a cross and a box of Karo syrup I had to stab with it.'

Scenes like that gave Blair a ton of grief. The public ended up not knowing what to make of Blair after the film was released. 'A lot of people are still frightened of me!,' Blair exclaims 'More don't know what to make of me. I think a lot of people believed that if they saw me they would also end up possessed. That is the look in their eyes when they meet me. The fact that it was a job for a film doesn't dawn on them. People didn't see it was entertainment.'

For Blair, this also meant she became a prime face for such gutter tabloids as The National Enquirer, Weekly World News and The Star. Her face probably sold billions of copies of those rags, and it didn't matter if what they printed was true or not.

'A lot of things that were written about me were very hurtful,' she noted. 'For instance, I was never in a mental institute, and when you say such things about a 15 year-old, you're going to cause her grief. Look what they did to poor McCauley Culkin. Poor child! I know because I've been there.'

She adds, 'One of the reasons why I don't have kids is I think the world would have been very unfair to them,' she admits. 'Think of it. Here it is 28 years later and you're still asking me questions about my life and how I dealt with it. What would the world have done to my children?

'People forget, children were much more naive back in those days. I remember reporters asking me questions about this and asking myself from my point of view, 'Why are they asking me these questions? I don't know.' I now understand as an adult that the language is very harsh.'

From there, Blair's acting career would never again achieve the height or the notoriety. That doesn't mean she now lives a reclusive life. At present she has a recurring role in the Fox Family television series S CLUB 7. She just finished a series of specials for Fox called THE SCARIEST PLACES ON EARTH. She's also set up her own Website, called The Alternet (www.alternet.com), which focuses on alternative health, animal rights issues and entertainment. She calls it probably the most accurate reflection of her true self.

She's also a steadily working pro, something most actors never become. If anything, her memories of Friedkin, Blatty and what she endured with THE EXORCIST are kind. She has no regrets about doing the movie.

'You know I live life for the moment,' she philosophizes. 'If there's anything that's confusing in the moment you have to figure it out. I just kept going for the higher road. I also was very lucky. I had very good people who helped me through my life.

'If I had not made the movie, I probably would have been a veterinarian, married and living in a farm in Connecticut with my children. Because of the film, I don't have a normal life by somebody else's standards, although my standards are different. But if I did have any children, I'd be very selfish. I don't think I'd have them do the things I did. I'd probably make sure they had a good life. By not having any kids, it does make me much freer to travel the world and do the things that I do. I will always be out there doing the work that I do.'

'THE EXORCIST is a masterpiece,' she concludes. 'For me to be able to sit down here 28 years later and talk about it is an honor. How many movies in your lifetime can you say you've done that?'

Not very many, indeed.

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