Writer switched from comedy to horror with blockbuster ‘Exorcist’
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 ———
William Peter Blatty: