Writer switched from com­edy to hor­ror with block­buster ‘Ex­or­cist’

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - IN MEMORY - By Paul Vitello

Wil­liam Peter Blatty, the au­thor whose best-sell­ing book “The Ex­or­cist” was both a mile­stone in hor­ror fic­tion and a turn­ing point in his own ca­reer, died Thurs­day in Bethesda, Md. He was 89.

The cause was mul­ti­ple myeloma, his wife, Julie Blatty, said.

“The Ex­or­cist,” the story of a 12-year-old girl pos­sessed by the devil, was pub­lished in 1971 and sold more than 13 mil­lion copies. The 1973 movie ver­sion, star­ring Linda Blair and di­rected by Wil­liam Fried­kin, was a run­away hit, break­ing box of­fice records at many the­aters and be­com­ing the high­est-gross­ing film to date for Warner Bros. It earned Blatty, who wrote the screen­play, an Academy Award. (It was also the first hor­ror movie nom­i­nated for the best-pic­ture Os­car.)

“The Ex­or­cist” marked a rad­i­cal shift in Blatty’s ca­reer, which was al­ready well es­tab­lished in an­other genre: He was one of Hol­ly­wood’s lead­ing com­edy writ­ers.

Blatty col­lab­o­rated with di­rec­tor Blake Ed­wards on the screen­plays for four films, be­gin­ning in 1964 with “A Shot in the Dark,” the se­cond movie (af­ter “The Pink Pan­ther”) star­ring Peter Sell­ers as the bum­bling In­spec­tor Clouseau and, in some crit­ics’ view, the best. His other Ed­wards films were the com­edy “What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?” (1966), the mu­si­cal com­edy-drama “Dar­ling Lili” (1970) and “Gunn” (1967), based on the tele­vi­sion de­tec­tive se­ries “Peter Gunn.” He also wrote the scripts for come­dies star­ring Danny Kaye, War­ren Beatty and Zero Mos­tel.

The phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess of “The Ex­or­cist” essentially sig­naled the end of Blatty’s com­edy ca­reer, mak­ing him for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses the fore­most writer in a new hy­brid genre: the­o­log­i­cal hor­ror. It was a man­tle he was never en­tirely com­fort­able wear­ing.

“The sad truth is that no­body wants me to write com­edy” any­more, he said in an in­ter­view in the mid1970s. “‘The Ex­or­cist’ not only ended that ca­reer; it ex­punged all mem­ory of its ex­is­tence.”

Blatty said the idea for “The Ex­or­cist” was planted in 1949, when he was a stu­dent at the Je­suit-af­fil­i­ated Ge­orge­town Univer­sity in Washington and read an ac­count in The Washington Post of an ex­or­cism un­der the head­line “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Re­ported Held in Devil’s Grip.”

The in­ci­dent, widely dis­cussed at the time among Ge­orge­town stu­dents and fac­ulty mem­bers, came back to Blatty 20 years later as the ba­sis for a book about some­thing not get­ting much press in the frac­tured, murky land­scape of late-1960s Amer­ica: the bat­tle be­tween good and evil.

He be­gan writ­ing what he thought would be a mod­est-sell­ing thriller about a girl, a de­mon and a pair of Catholic priests.

About half­way through, he later said, he sensed he had some­thing more. “I knew it was go­ing to be a suc­cess,” he told Peo­ple mag­a­zine. “I couldn’t wait to fin­ish it and be­come fa­mous.”

WIL­LIAM PETER Blatty was born Jan. 7, 1928, in Man­hat­tan to Peter and Mary Blatty, im­mi­grants from Le­banon. His fa­ther left home when he was 6, and his mother sup­ported the two of them by sell­ing quince jelly on the streets, yield­ing a wob­bly in­come that pre­cip­i­tated 28 changes of ad­dress dur­ing a child­hood he once de­scribed as “com­fort­ably des­ti­tute.”

The church fig­ured promi­nently in his life. His mother was a church­go­ing Catholic, and he was ed­u­cated at prom­i­nent Je­suit-run schools that ad­mit­ted him on full schol­ar­ships: the Brook­lyn Prepara­tory School, now closed, where he was the 1946 class vale­dic­to­rian, and Ge­orge­town, from which he grad­u­ated in 1950.

Af­ter serv­ing in the Air Force, Blatty worked for the U.S. In­for­ma­tion Agency in Beirut. He re­turned to the United States for a pub­lic re­la­tions job in Los Angeles, where he hoped to be­gin his ca­reer as a writer.

He had pub­lished his first book — a mem­oir, “Which Way to Mecca, Jack?” — but was still work­ing in pub­lic re­la­tions in 1961 when he ap­peared as a con­tes­tant on “You Bet Your Life,” the tele­vi­sion quiz show hosted by Grou­cho Marx. He and a fel­low con­tes­tant won $10,000.

His win­nings freed him to quit his day job and be­come a full-time writer. He never had a reg­u­lar job again.

Blatty lived in Bethesda. In ad­di­tion to his wife, the for­mer Julie Wit­brodt, whom he mar­ried in 1983, he is sur­vived by their son, and three daugh­ters. Two sons from ear­lier mar­riages also sur­vive him. An­other son died in 2006.

Blatty be­came rec­on­ciled over the years to the over­whelm­ing dom­i­nance “The Ex­or­cist” — most re­cently adapted into a 2016 TV minis­eries — would have on his rep­u­ta­tion as a writer. But he was both­ered by the movie’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the cli­max — in which the younger of the two priests (played by Ja­son Miller) goads the de­mon into leav­ing the girl to take up res­i­dence in­side him in­stead, then jumps to his death — as a win for the de­mon.

That was not how Blatty meant it. For years he pleaded his case to Fried­kin, who re­lented in 2000, is­su­ing a re-edited di­rec­tor’s cut of the film that made the tri­umph of good over evil more ex­plicit.

It was es­sen­tial to him, he told The Times-Picayune of New Or­leans in 2000, that peo­ple un­der­stand the point of “The Ex­or­cist”: “that God ex­ists and the uni­verse it­self will have a happy end­ing.”

The au­thor in­sisted that the end of his story should be con­sid­ered a vic­tory for good over evil ———

AP / 2010

Wil­liam Peter Blatty:

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