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