The Exorcist was 340 pages. A 100-page screenplay, more or less, would result in a two-hour film. We worked for several months as David Salven assembled the crew and we started talks with Nessa Hyams, head of casting for Warner Bros. Ted Ashley told me he wanted Audrey Hepburn, Anne Bancroft, or Jane Fonda to play Chris MacNeil. Excellent choices. And with Blatty's and my blessing, the studio offered the role first to Audrey Hepburn, who responded favorably, but said she would only do the film in Rome, as she was living there, married to an Italian doctor. I thought it was a request on her part, not a condition. No way did I want to film in Rome; it was impractical from every standpoint. All other actors would have to be imported from the United States, and I didn't want a language barrier with the crew. In fact, I wanted my crew from The French Connection, starting with Owen Roizman and Ricky Bravo. We asked Ms. Hepburn to reconsider, but she declined.
Anne Bancroft was next. She said she'd love to play Chris, but she was pregnant; would we wait a year for her? We wished her mazel tov. Jane Fonda sent us a telegram after receiving the script: "Why would anyone want to make this piece of capitalist rip-off bullshit?" I never learned how she really felt.
At one point during these maneuverings, I had a phone call from Ellen Burstyn: "Do you know who I am?" she asked.
"Yes, of course," I lied. She was considered a very good actress. She was in The Last Picture Show. But I frankly didn't remember which role she'd played, and I tended to confuse her with Cloris Leachman.
"I'd like to talk to you about Chris MacNeil," she said.
A pause, while I considered a response. "Ms. Burstyn, I have to tell you the studio is out to Audrey Hepburn, Anne Bancroft, and Jane Fonda."
"I'm just asking if you'll meet with me," she said. "Do you believe in destiny?"
"Do I believe in destiny? I don't know ...Yeah, I guess so."
"I'm destined to play that part," she said. "I know in my heart that role is mine." We arranged to meet at her house on Beechwood Drive. It was on my way home.
Ellen's house was in the hills above the Hollywood Freeway, where you could hear music from the Hollywood Bowl when there was a concert. Her house was old, large, and had few items of furniture. Her son, Jeff, met me at the door. He was a pleasant kid, about fifteen years old. He told me he liked rock and roll and wanted to be a musician. Ellen was a single mother, long separated from her husband Neil. After a few minutes she appeared, barefoot in a long brown shift. Ellen was passionate, intense, focused, and highly intelligent. She told me about her Catholic girlhood and how she had left the church and was now studying to become a Sufi. We discussed the novel for a couple of hours, and I thought she had an acute understanding of it. Yet I didn't think the studio would approve her.
Blatty also suggested his friend, Shirley MacLaine, who had recently made a film called The Possession of Joel Delaney. As much as I admire and respect Shirley, I thought that two films with her, about demonic possession, were one too many. She recognized herself as the model for Chris MacNeil, and her company offered Blatty $75,000 for the rights, plus 5 percent of the net profits but no creative participation in the making of the film. Bill turned it down but still thought Shirley would be right for the role. The studio would have been happy with her, but they began deferring to me on a number of creative decisions.
One of the actors who wanted to be considered was Roy Scheider, who was very much in demand after his Oscar nomination for The French Connection. I thought he'd be good as Father Karras, but Blatty felt he was not sympathetic. Nessa Hyams suggested Stacy Keach, who had appeared in some of the seminal films of the late 1960s: The New Centurions, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Fat City, and DOC. Just thirty years old, he was one of the most distinguished stage actors in the country, with leading roles in the plays of Shakespeare and Eugene O'Neill. Blatty and I met with him and liked him, and Warner agreed. They signed him.
I was in New York scouting locations when I read a review of a new play about basketball called That Championship Season that had recently opened at the Public Theater. It was set during the twentieth reunion of a coach and his starting five, who won a state high school championship in a small town in Pennsylvania. In the course of a drunken evening, it becomes clear that at the urging of the coach, the team had cheated to win the game. Their victory was a fraud. Their lives were a fraud. There was a photo in the New York Times of the young playwright, Jason Miller. This was his first produced play. He had an interesting look, and his biography was even more compelling. He had worked as an actor in off-Broadway plays and road companies, but was barely able to make a living. He had a regular job as a milk deliveryman in Flushing, New York, where he lived with his wife Linda and two young sons.
I had to see his play, possibly because it was about basketball, but more likely because of Fate. It was riveting—funny, disturbing, beautifully written and acted. The play was about America's obsession with winning at any cost. It held me as it did the audience, the critics, the Tony Award voters, and later the Pulitzer Prize committee. I asked our New York casting director, Juliet Taylor, to set up a meeting for me with Miller. I don't know why. His picture and bio in the New York Times intrigued me, as did his play, which portrayed the spiritual conflicts of a group of Irish Catholic men. I felt some need to meet with him.
From The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir by William Friedkin. Copyright 2013 by William Friedkin. Excerpted by permission of Harper.