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William Peter Blatty, the novelist and screenwriter who helped bring the iconic horror movie The Exorcist to theaters in 1973, died Thursday, the film’s director, William Friedkin, stated. He was 89.
Blatty died in Bethesda, Md., of multiple myeloma, his wife, Julie, told several news outlets.
Blatty, who claimed the screenwriting Oscar for The Exorcist at the 46th Academy Awards, wrote the novel of the same name in 1971. The film version, which he also produced, was nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture, but won just two trophies.
“Over the years, I understand that people consider it a horror film, and that’s where it lives in the public consciousness,” Friedkin wrote about The Exorcist in a 2013 essay for The Hollywood Reporter. “But it has never been that to Blatty or myself.”
Blatty also wrote and directed 1990’s The Exorcist III.
Somewhat implausibly, the native New Yorker started out in Hollywood as a comedy writer. He partnered with famed director Blake Edwards on the Pink Panther movie A Shot in the Dark (1964), What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966), Gunn (1967) and the musical Darling Lili (1970).
Blatty also penned the comedies The Man From the Diner’s Club (1963), starring Danny Kaye; the Warren Beatty-Leslie Caron film Promise Her Anything (1965); John Goldfarb, Please Come Home! (1965), starring Shirley MacLaine; and the Zero Mostel movie The Great Bank Robbery (1969).
After an extremely slow start, his Exorcist novel wound up selling 13 million copies, thanks in large part to an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.
Beatty was booked on the talk show at the last minute when someone else fell through, then given more time when the first guest, actor Robert Shaw, was sent off early (he may have been drunk, Blatty noted in a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times).
“I always believe that there is a divine hand everywhere,” said Blatty, who got to chat about his book with Cavett for nearly 45 minutes on national TV. The Exorcist then jumped to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list and attracted the attention of Warner Bros. head John Calley.
The Exorcist was Friedkin’s follow-up to his best-picture winner The French Connection (1971). The chilling movie starred Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow and Jason Miller in the tale of a possessed 12-year-old girl whose mother enlists two priests to save her child.
“I was standing in the back of a theater in New York at the first public press screening of the film, too nervous to sit down,” Blatty told interviewer Steve Head in 2000. “And along came a woman who got up in about the fifth or sixth row, a young woman, who started walking up the aisle, slowly at first. She had her hand to her head. And then I could see her lips moving. She got close enough, and I could hear her murmuring, ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.’ I thought, ‘If this is Pauline Kael, we’re dead.'”
A son of Lebanese parents, Blatty was born in New York. He went to a Jesuit high school in Brooklyn and then attended Georgetown University and George Washington University, where he earned his master’s.
He came to Los Angeles in the 1950s and worked in publicity at Loyola and USC. In 1961, he appeared on the Groucho Marx quiz show You Bet Your Life, where he fooled the host into thinking he was an Arab prince from the Middle East with too many wives to keep track of. He earned $10,000 on the show, enabling him to write full time.
Early on, Blatty was the ghostwriter for Dear Abby (Abigail Van Buren) on the book Dear Teen-Ager. The L.A. Times loved it for its “matronly wit and wisdom.”
Blatty went on to write more than a dozen novels during the course of several decades, including 1978’s The Ninth Configuration and 1983’s Legion (which served as the basis for The Exorcist III).
His most recent work was published in 2015: Finding Peter: A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life After Death. It centered on his son Peter, 19, who died of a rare heart disorder in 2006.
Asked in 2015 by the Washington Post if he believed in reincarnation, Blatty said: “Personally, I do. In the very early Catholic Church there were sects who definitely believed in the transmigration of souls. I’ve read a great deal about it. And maybe there’s something in my own life that tends to convince me it’s a possibility.”
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