‘Ex­or­cist’ au­thor drew on re­newal of faith for his mile­stone book

Houston Chronicle - - NATION | WORLD - 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 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, star­ring Linda Blair and di­rected by Wil­liam Fried­kin, was a run­away hit, break­ing box-of­fice records 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.

In prais­ing his 1963 novel, “John Gold­farb, Please Come Home!,” a Cold War spoof that Blatty later adapted for the screen, Martin Levin of the New York Times in­voked hu­morist S.J. Perel­man, one of Blatty’s lit­er­ary idols; Blatty, he said, “writes like Perel­man run amuck.”

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.

Blatty gave var­i­ous ac­counts of what led him to try his hand at hor­ror. He some­times said the mar­ket for his com­edy had waned in the late 1960s, and he was ready to move on. At other times, he said that his mother’s sud­den death in 1967 had led to a re­newed com­mit­ment to his Ro­man Catholic faith and to a soul search­ing about life’s ul­ti­mate ques­tions, in­clud­ing the pres­ence of evil in the world.

In ev­ery ac­count, he 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 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 on 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.”

He was 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 full­time writer. He never had a reg­u­lar job again.

Blatty lived in Bethesda. In ad­di­tion to his wife, whom he mar­ried in 1983, he is sur­vived by their son, Paul Wil­liam Blatty; three daugh­ters, Chris­tine Charles, Mary Joanne Blatty and Jen­nifer Blatty; and two sons, Michael and Wil­liam Peter Jr., from ear­lier mar­riages; seven grand­chil­dren; and six great-grand­chil­dren. An­other son, Peter Vin­cent Blatty, died in 2006; his death was the sub­ject of Blatty’s 2015 book, “Find­ing Peter.”


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