Direc­tor Richard Don­ner and screen­writer David Seltzer on the spooky go­ings-on be­hind the scenes of one of the great­est hor­ror movies ever made.

RO­MAN POLAN­SKI’S ROSE­MARY’S Baby and Wil­liam Fried­kin’s The Ex­or­cist were big-bud­get stu­dio movies that had scared up both mas­sive box of­fice and the odd Os­car. Re­leased in 1976, The Omen would be an­other block­buster, help­ing pop­u­larise 666, aka “the num­ber of the beast”, with Satanists and heavy-me­tal types, as well as mak­ing The Book Of Reve­la­tion re­quired read­ing. And yet its direc­tor, Richard Don­ner, says he never saw The Omen as a hor­ror film, de­spite a sto­ry­line re­volv­ing around the birth and early years of the An­tichrist.

To Don­ner, The Omen was, and re­mains, “a mys­tery-sus­pense thriller”; all the tragedy that be­falls Gre­gory Peck’s Robert Thorn, his fam­ily, and those in his or­bit can be chalked up to “co­in­ci­dence” rather than di­a­bol­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion. “Even the three sixes could have been a birth­mark,” in­sists the now 90-year-old direc­tor, who had writer David Seltzer ex­or­cise any­thing overtly su­per­nat­u­ral or de­monic from his screen­play be­fore they be­gan film­ing, opt­ing for a more prag­matic ap­proach. “Dick was very in­stru­men­tal in shap­ing the script, keep­ing the tone down to re­al­ity,” says Seltzer. “Cloven­hooved crea­tures could not be real. The credit goes to him for the movie be­ing as bril­liant as it was.” The key was keep­ing it real.

CIN­E­MATIC LEG­END HAS it that the idea for The Omen was hatched over lunch by its pro­ducer, Har­vey Bern­hard, and Robert L. Munger, an ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive who would later be cred­ited as the film’s re­li­gious ad­vi­sor. Munger asked Bern­hard if he’d ever read The Book Of Reve­la­tion, then pitched him the idea of the An­tichrist walk­ing among us. Know­ing a cool con­cept when he heard one, Bern­hard rushed back to his of­fice and bashed out a ten-page treat­ment which Seltzer turned into a script. At least, that’s the tale Bern­hard, who died in 2014, liked to tell. Not so, ac­cord­ing to

Seltzer. “You mind if I de­bunk that and tell you the true story?” says the 80-year-old writer on the phone from Los An­ge­les. “That’s Har­vey Bern­hard’s story, try­ing to suck up as much credit as he can. There was no treat­ment. And his friend sent me a page of re­search.”

At the time, Seltzer was “be­com­ing known as that guy who wrote weepy Hol­ly­wood ro­mances and chil­dren’s pic­tures”, he says, hav­ing worked, un­cred­ited, on Willy Wonka & The Choco­late Fac­tory. “Do­ing hor­ror pic­tures was the fur­thest thing from my mind. So when Har­vey called me after he saw The Ex­or­cist and said, ‘I want you to do one like that,’ I said, ‘I don’t do that kind of thing.’ He re­minded me he had done me a favour at one point in my ca­reer, so I thought, ‘Let me give it a try.’” As a for­mer doc­u­men­tar­ian, Seltzer dived head­long into re­search, ap­proach­ing his Satanic sub­ject with foren­sic rigour. “I was from a fam­ily of very fun­da­men­tal Ortho­dox Jews,” he re­veals. “There is no Devil in that re­li­gion, there is no place that the Devil dwells, so it was all very for­eign to me.”

In fact, Seltzer had never even opened the Chris­tian Bi­ble. “It was like read­ing Shake­speare. I loved the lan­guage, I loved the char­ac­ters, I loved how pre­pos­ter­ous it was, be­cause it’s told in such a strait-laced man­ner. I got a lot of dif­fer­ent ver­sions and saw peo­ple had added to those orig­i­nal tales, rewrit­ing the Bi­ble over the years, so it gave me a very free hand with it.” So much so that the film’s most quoted pas­sage

— “When the Jews re­turn to Zion/and a comet rips the sky/and the Holy Ro­man Em­pire rises/ Then You and I must die/from the eter­nal sea he rises/cre­at­ing armies on ei­ther shore/ Turn­ing man against his brother/’til man ex­ists no more” — he made up.

“I had seen Jaws and I thought, ‘Every­body knows fish don’t eat boats, but it sure did play in a movie the­atre,’” he says. “I de­cided to write a story about the Devil as though it was real, and could hap­pen to peo­ple we re­late to.” But per­haps Seltzer’s great­est cul­tural im­pact was in in­tro­duc­ing some­thing that is in the Bi­ble — the num­ber 666 — to the masses. “Which you now see writ­ten on walls, tat­toos, and T-shirts,” he says, proudly. “I take quiet credit for bring­ing it to the at­ten­tion of peo­ple.”

SELTZER KNOCKED OUT a first draft in five weeks. En­ti­tled ‘The An­tichrist’, it cen­tred on the US Am­bas­sador to Lon­don, Robert Thorn, who de­ceives his wife by sub­sti­tut­ing an­other baby for their own still­born son, un­aware he’s the spawn of Satan. The script was turned down by ev­ery­one, be­fore Warner Bros., who’d en­joyed mas­sive suc­cess with The Ex­or­cist, picked it up. “Chuck Bale, a stunt­man, was sup­posed to di­rect. Charles Bron­son was go­ing to play the lead, so it was be­ing en­vi­sioned as some­thing pre­pos­ter­ous,” says Seltzer, who ac­com­pa­nied


Bale on a lo­ca­tion scout to Europe. “We came back to find we were dumped. And Warn­ers were well un­der­way with their se­quel to The Ex­or­cist.”

With ‘The An­tichrist’ due to be put into turn­around on the up­com­ing Mon­day, the script found its way to Don­ner, then best-known for di­rect­ing TV shows such as The Twi­light Zone and The Fugi­tive. “It was a Fri­day night and I was go­ing to din­ner at Ian Mc­shane’s house,” Don­ner re­calls. “Ed­die Rosen, a man­ager, called me and said, ‘Dick, I’ve just fin­ished read­ing a script. It’s been passed by every sin­gle stu­dio in town, but it’s some­thing you should read.’ And he sent it over.” As Don­ner got ready, he “smoked a doo­bie” and started read­ing. “The script was on the sink in my bath­room. As I was shav­ing, I opened the first page, looked at it, shaved a bit more, read the next page. All of a sud­den I stopped shav­ing, and read the whole thing.” By now, Don­ner was late, but an­other din­ner guest that fate­ful evening was Alan Ladd Jr, his for­mer agent and then head of pro­duc­tion at 20th Cen­tury Fox. Don­ner took Ladd aside and asked him to read the script. Late Sun­day, Ladd tele­phoned Don­ner to say

Fox was in. “I couldn’t be­lieve it,” re­mem­bers Don­ner. “I was jump­ing with joy. The next morn­ing, I called Har­vey Bern­hard to tell him that I’d sold the pic­ture.”

James Coburn, Roy Schei­der, Charl­ton He­ston, Dick Van Dyke and Wil­liam Holden (who would star in the se­quel) all passed on the role of Robert Thorn, be­fore Bern­hard sug­gested Hol­ly­wood leg­end Gre­gory Peck, who’d won a Best Ac­tor Os­car for play­ing all-round nice guy At­ti­cus Finch in To Kill A Mock­ing­bird. Peck had re­cently re­tired from act­ing, fol­low­ing the sui­cide of his 31-year-old son, Jonathan, although his agent was keen for him to go back to work. Cast­ing such a beloved icon in the lead added a de­gree of re­spectabil­ity to the pro­ject, with Don­ner fig­ur­ing if At­ti­cus Finch was con­vinced his son was the An­tichrist, so, too, would au­di­ences. “It was the grav­ity of his face that made this be­liev­able,” says Seltzer. “Hon­estly, if it hadn’t had some­body with that kind of sten­to­rian au­thor­ity, it would not have worked.”

Don­ner searched high and low for his Damien, au­di­tion­ing hun­dreds of kids be­fore cast­ing cheru­bic four-year-old Har­vey Stephens, whose blond locks had to be dyed black. “The An­tichrist is proph­e­sied to be beau­ti­ful, so I de­scribed him as ‘clear-eyed, fair-faced with an an­gelic smile, but it is un­der­stood that there is a lot go­ing on be­hind his eyes’,” says Seltzer. “And they ab­so­lutely cap­tured it with Har­vey.” Dur­ing au­di­tions, Don­ner asked each child to beat him up, so Stephens laid into him, punch­ing him in the go­nads and scor­ing the part.

As Thorn’s wife Kathy, Don­ner cast Lee Remick, an Amer­i­can liv­ing in Eng­land; David Warner played ill-fated pho­tog­ra­pher Keith Jen­nings, whose blem­ished prints fore­tell sev­eral deaths; for­mer Doc­tor Who Pa­trick Troughton co-starred as Fa­ther Bren­nan, the Catholic priest in league with Satan; Leo Mck­ern played the ar­chae­ol­o­gist who pro­vides Thorn with the Seven Dag­gers of Megiddo, with which he tries to kill Damien. For the di­a­bol­i­cal Mrs Bay­lock, who steps in as Damien’s nanny after his for­mer carer kills her­self dur­ing his fifth birth­day party, Don­ner cast Bri­tish the­atre veteran Bil­lie Whitelaw — much to Seltzer’s ini­tial dis­may. “I en­vi­sioned her as a ro­bust Ir­ish wo­man, and I was an­gry about it at the time be­cause she was so clearly evil. I thought she vi­o­lated Dick’s en­tire premise that you don’t want some­body on the set who looks like liv­ing death. Of course, Dick was right. Bil­lie was bril­liant.” With the cast as­sem­bled, cam­eras — and heads — were ready to roll.

The pro­ject took over a ma­ter­nity unit and put up signs that read: “Please be quiet, ‘Birth­mark’ be­ing filmed.” “All of the women were des­per­ate to get out when they saw the word birth­mark, be­cause it was a bad omen. Hello,” laughs Seltzer. “It was an as­sis­tant direc­tor who said, ‘Just call it The Omen,’ and it stuck.”

Through­out film­ing, cast and crew were plagued by so many strange and mys­te­ri­ous events that the press claimed the pro­duc­tion was cursed. Light­ning struck planes car­ry­ing Seltzer, Peck, Bern­hard and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Mace Neufeld. A Lon­don res­tau­rant fre­quented by Peck was bombed by the IRA — on the one night he didn’t dine there — as was Neufeld’s ho­tel. The pro­duc­tion can­celled a book­ing on a pri­vate plane which then crashed the day they had been due to film, killing ev­ery­one on board. A war­den at Wind­sor Sa­fari Park, where they shot the scene of ba­boons at­tack­ing a car with Kathy and Damien in­side, was mauled by, ac­cord­ing to vary­ing re­ports, a lion or a tiger, and later died from his in­juries.

Bern­hard took the idea of the curse se­ri­ously. Un­like Don­ner. “I had ar­gu­ments with him about it,” re­calls the direc­tor. “When these things started hap­pen­ing, a friend of his, [who] was very ac­tive in the Catholic Church, had it in his mind that a de­monic be­ing was try­ing to stop this film be­ing made. To me, it was co­in­ci­dence. Noth­ing more, noth­ing less. Peo­ple would say to me, ‘We’re cursed,’ and, ‘This thing is dan­ger­ous.’ I would do ev­ery­thing I could to laugh them through it, be­cause, quite hon­estly, I needed these peo­ple to make my movie, and a lot of them were afraid to come to work.” As far as Seltzer was con­cerned, the curse was “all BS. If the Devil can’t stop a movie from be­ing made, we have noth­ing to fear.”

While The Ex­or­cist pushed bound­aries of taste and phys­i­ol­ogy with its de­mon-pos­sessed child, pea-soup vomit and spin­ning head, The Omen went for a se­ries of spec­tac­u­lar and dis­turb­ing deaths that were the hand­i­work of Os­car-win­ning spe­cial-ef­fects su­per­vi­sor John Richard­son. In ad­di­tion to the nanny’s sui­cide, Troughton’s priest is speared by a light­ning rod that breaks loose from a church roof dur­ing an elec­tri­cal storm; Remick plum­mets, head-first, from a bal­cony at home and, later, out of a hospi­tal win­dow onto an am­bu­lance; while Warner’s pho­tog­ra­pher is de­cap­i­tated by a sheet of glass that orig­i­nally fell from a crane like a guil­lo­tine. All, hew­ing to the film­mak­ers’ orig­i­nal phi­los­o­phy, in­ci­dents that could be ex­plained away as just un­re­lated ac­ci­dents.

Alas Richard­son, whose cred­its in­clude six Bonds and eight Harry Pot­ters, couldn’t get the glass for the lat­ter stunt to fall prop­erly — “Every time the wind would in­ter­fere and it would start to leaf,” says Don­ner — so he sug­gested hav­ing the glass slide off the back of a truck in­stead. Don­ner cov­ered the se­quence with mul­ti­ple cam­eras, cut­ting to­gether every sec­ond of footage to pro­long the hor­rific ef­fect, fig­ur­ing if au­di­ences shut their eyes for a mo­ment or two, when they looked back, Warner’s head would still be rolling. The ac­tor couldn’t bear to look at his sev­ered nog­gin, which Don­ner kept in his car. “I passed David on the mo­tor­way go­ing home one day,” re­mem­bers the direc­tor. “I waved at him and he waved back. Then I picked his head up. And I think he passed out in the back seat.”

THE OMEN OPENED, fit­tingly, on 6 June 1976, and grossed al­most $80 mil­lion from a bud­get of $2.2 mil­lion, help­ing put a cash-strapped Fox back in the black. (Ladd Jr ploughed the prof­its into an­other movie he had shoot­ing in Lon­don, then known as ‘The Star Wars’.) Don­ner, aged 46, sud­denly found him­self on Hol­ly­wood’s A list. “The Omen changed my life. And opened up my ca­reer,” he says. Com­poser Jerry Gold­smith won his only Os­car for The Omen’s hugely in­flu­en­tial Black Mass-de­rived score. “I was on stage when they recorded it. When this choral


group started to go, ‘An­tichristo… An­tichristo…’, well, I had to go change my pants,” says Don­ner. “It was bril­liant, un­be­liev­able. And that was Jerry Gold­smith. He was a spe­cial man. I miss him dearly.”

Some­what sur­pris­ingly, The Omen was lauded by the Catholic Church. “They em­braced it,” says Seltzer. “I got awards from Catholic or­gan­i­sa­tions for pop­u­lar­is­ing scrip­ture.” There were some, how­ever, who deemed it blas­phe­mous, di­rect­ing their ire at Don­ner, who’s an athe­ist. “I had a lot of threats. How dare I al­low the An­tichrist to live? It was a lit­tle un­nerv­ing,” he notes. “I wasn’t anx­ious to have some­body tell me my blood would be run­ning in the street.”

A se­quel was quickly put into de­vel­op­ment. Seltzer wasn’t asked back, he says, be­cause the pro­duc­ers got no roy­al­ties from the Omen nov­el­i­sa­tion he wrote and “were an­gry”. Ini­tially, Don­ner planned to re­turn. “I started to help write it, then got an of­fer for Su­per­man and I told Har­vey I would ap­pre­ci­ate it if he let me out.”

Damien: Omen II, di­rected by Don Tay­lor, fea­tured a teenage Damien now in mil­i­tary school, and es­chewed Don­ner’s sense of am­bi­gu­ity. “I saw 20 min­utes and re­alised they had missed the point,” re­calls Seltzer. “The point was an in­no­cent vil­lain. The sec­ond one started out with this kid be­ing told he was the Devil’s son. After that it was just a slasher movie. How many ways can you piss him off and he kills you?” Omen III: The Fi­nal Con­flict, with Damien (Sam Neill) now US Am­bas­sador to Lon­don and braced for Christ’s sec­ond com­ing, was re­leased in 1981, fol­lowed by the made-for-tv Omen IV: The Awak­en­ing.

While both Omen II and III have their mo­ments, nei­ther se­quel nor spin-off come close to cap­tur­ing the power of the orig­i­nal which, 44 years later, is widely ac­knowl­edged as a clas­sic of the hor­ror genre, thanks, in no small part, to Don­ner’s re­al­is­tic ap­proach, which is one of the few things not repli­cated by 2006’s slick re­boot. “I couldn’t be­lieve it,” sighs Don­ner of John Moore’s vir­tual car­bon copy. “It was a frame-for-frame re­make. Shouldn’t there be a new ap­proach?”

The an­swer, ev­i­dently, was no. “Same words, same sit­u­a­tions, but un­bear­ably false,” adds Seltzer who, nev­er­the­less, had to fight for screen­play credit “even though it was my script. It re­ally goes to show what a direc­tor can do.”

In­deed, Don­ner worked that same magic again with 1978’s Su­per­man, which made us be­lieve a man could fly. With The Omen, he made us be­lieve the Devil was real.

Left to right: Robert Thorn (Gre­gory Peck), his wife Kathy (Lee Remick) and Damien (Har­vey Stephens) after the nanny’s death; Remick gets plas­tered; The An­tichrist takes his tri­cy­cle for a deadly spin.

Here: Direc­tor Richard Don­ner with Stephens. Right: Pho­tog­ra­pher Keith Jen­nings (David Warner), whose prints fore­tell sev­eral deaths.

Clock­wise from far left: Fa­ther Bren­nan (Pa­trick Troughton) gets skew­ered; Don­ner and Peck on set; Kathy Thorn clings on in vain; The ba­boon at­tack be­gins; Keith Jen­nings loses his head; Robert Thorn at­tempts the im­pos­si­ble.

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