Mercedes McCambridge, 87; Radio Actress Played Strong Characters in Films

Times Staff Writer

Mercedes McCambridge, who won an Academy Award as best supporting actress for her 1949 screen debut in “All the King’s Men” and later supplied the chilling voice of the demon in “The Exorcist,” has died. She was 87.

McCambridge, who had lived in the La Jolla area since the mid-1980s, died March 2 of natural causes in an assisted living facility, the assistant to the trustee of the actress’ estate told Associated Press on Wednesday.

McCambridge won her Oscar for playing the hard-boiled and conniving political aide in “All the King’s Men,” which also won an Academy Award for best picture and a best actor Oscar for Broderick Crawford as the corrupt Southern governor Willie Stark.

A versatile, radio-trained character actress with a strong, resonant voice, McCambridge specialized in playing forceful, domineering characters on screen.


She was Joan Crawford’s vindictive nemesis in the psychological western “Johnny Guitar” (1954); Rock Hudson’s strong-willed older sister in “Giant” (1956), for which she earned a second best supporting actress Oscar nomination; and Elizabeth Taylor’s mother in “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959).

Among her other film credits are “A Farewell to Arms,” “Cimarron” and Orson Welles’ 1958 film noir classic, “Touch of Evil,” in which she played a brutal lesbian motorcycle gang leader.

Welles, who once called McCambridge “the world’s finest radio actress,” was the person who talked her into doing her most unusual role: providing the guttural voice of the demon that possessed young Linda Blair in the 1973 film “The Exorcist.”

“I didn’t think I wanted to do it,” McCambridge told the Hartford Courant in 1993, “and Orson said, ‘Listen, you began in radio. This is a 100% radio performance. You go ahead and do it.’ And I’m awfully glad I did. I loved it.”


She was born in Joliet, Ill., on St. Patrick’s Day in 1916, although most references list her birth date as 1918, and grew up on the family farm in Blackstone, Ill., until attending Catholic high school in Chicago.

While majoring in English and theater at Mundelein College in Chicago in 1936, she caught the attention of NBC Radio’s Chicago program director and was signed to a five-year-contract.

On radio, she played roles on “Inner Sanctum,” “Dick Tracy,” “Bulldog Drummond, “The Thin Man” and many other programs.

“I was all the women on ‘I Love a Mystery,’ ” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1992. “Sometimes, in the same episode, I would not only be two women arguing with one another, but also a third woman trying to break up the argument.”


After graduating with honors from college in 1937, she lived briefly in Mexico, then moved to California and, in 1942, to New York, where she continued to work on radio.

She made her Broadway debut in 1945 in “A Place of Our Own,” which closed after eight performances. After two more flops on Broadway, she opened in the 1948 drama “The Young and Fair” but withdrew at the end of the first week to leave for Hollywood to make “All the King’s Men.”

Wrote one critic of her Oscar-winning performance: “She is the cynical, imperious guide for the politician’s early steps, seething with impotent and suppressed rage as she watches him grow out of her control. She has a clipped, dynamic style that is tremendously effective.”

McCambridge later said she tried to resign from the picture during production and gave two-weeks’ notice, which was then the standard for Broadway contracts.


“I didn’t know you couldn’t resign from a movie,” she told the Chronicle. “But I thought my performance was so awful that I’d better get back to New York.”

She continued to work in films and on television for 15 years, returning to Broadway in 1963 to replace Shelley Winters for six weeks in John Lewis Carlino’s “Cages” and in 1964 to replace Uta Hagen as Martha for the four months that ended the two-year run of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Edward Albee.

McCambridge earned a 1972 Tony nomination for supporting actress in the drama “The Love Suicide At Schofield Barracks.” And in 1991, she played the tough German-Jewish grandmother in Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers” on Broadway, and later on the road.

Twice married and divorced -- to writer William Fifield and Hollywood director and producer Fletcher Markle -- McCambridge had her share of personal tragedies.


In 1987, her son, John Lawrence Markle, 45, killed his wife and their two daughters, then committed suicide.

McCambridge also had a long but triumphant battle with alcoholism, which she discussed in her 1981 autobiography, “The Quality of Mercy.”

She often spoke publicly about substance abuse, most notably in 1969, when she testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on alcoholism and narcotics.

Although some observers felt her film career did not attain the stellar quality initially promised, McCambridge told the Boston Globe in 1991 that she was “quite satisfied with where I’ve been and what I’ve done when I’ve been there.”


“You win an Academy Award in your first picture, then you’re expected to go on winning and being in all kinds of films,” she said. “Where is it written life is like that? I was available to films. Nobody cared that much about hiring me. Well, so? There’s other things to do.

“I’ve done a lot of plays, all kinds. I’ve appeared on stage in all but two states in the country. I’ve done a lecture tour, written two books, gone around the world twice by myself, raised my own family. Am I to be considered lost? Oh, no no no!”

McCambridge had no known survivors and no services have been scheduled.