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Classic Hollywood: This will turn your head around: `The Exorcist' turns 45 this month

Classic Hollywood: This will turn your head around: `The Exorcist' turns 45 this month
Linda Blair, left, Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller in a scene from "The Exorcist." (AMPAS)

During the production of the masterpiece of horror “The Exorcist,” director William Friedkin and screenwriter William Peter Blatty enjoyed having fun with the suits at Warner Brothers. At one point, the two were going to shoot a mock scene from the movie with Groucho Marx and send the footage to the executives.

“We always put them on,” said Friedkin. “They were always concerned that we were both crazy and would eventually implode the movie. We even staged blowups in front of them.”

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The director recalled that one time the studio wanted the production moved from New York City and the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., to the lot in Burbank. To save even more money, Warner’s wanted to nix the night shoots.

“I said no to everything,” noted Friedkin. “Why shoot day for night? Why don’t we just paint all the buildings black when we have to shoot night scenes, then it will look like night. I had just won the Academy Award [for “The French Connection”]. They looked at me like I was crazy. And then Blatty said ‘You know, Bill.”’

Both Friedkin and Blatty, who died last year, were crazy like foxes. “They never bothered us,” said Friedkin. “They never got near us. They saw the film when I had turned in the rough cut.”

“The Exorcist,” the first horror film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar, is being feted Monday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a 45th anniversary, sold-out screening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Friedkin and star Ellen Burstyn will appear in conversation.

Based on the runaway 1971 best-seller by Blatty, “The Exorcist” scared — and still does scare — daylights out of audiences. Burstyn stars as actress Chris MacNeil who, much to her horror, discovers her sweet young daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), is possessed by the devil. The only way to get rid of the demon is to call in two priests, the tormented young Jesuit Father Karras (Jason Miller) and the elderly exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) to cast out the devil.

“The Exorcist” was an epic blockbuster that was nominated for 10 Oscars including best film, director, actress for Burstyn, supporting actress for Blair and supporting actor for Miller. The horror flick won for Blatty’s adapted screenplay and best sound.

The cutting-edge, pre-CGI visual and special effects, Dick Smith’s extraordinary makeup design, Mike Oldenfield’s spooky “Tubular Bells” music and Mercedes McCambridge’s terrifying voice of the demon brilliantly brought the scare to petrifying results.

Burstyn, who had just received acclaim for her work in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 “The Last Picture Show,” was not the first choice to play Chris.

Warner Brothers first wanted Audrey Hepburn. then Anne Bancroft and Jane Fonda. Hepburn ended up turning it down; Bancroft was pregnant and according to Friedkin, Fonda told him “Why would I want to be in a piece of capitalist bull….!”

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During the casting process, Friedkin recalled Burstyn called him about the role.

Burstyn begs to differ.

“We have different memories about that,” she said. “I think the casting reps at Warner Brothers suggested me to him. They called me and wanted to have a meeting. I requested that it not be in the office but that he come to where I live because I find that office meetings are sometimes really stiff. He came to my house, and we had a lovely meeting.”

Burstyn and the rest of the cast and crew were very protective of Blair, who was just 12 and a newcomer to films. “She and I got along very well,” said Burstyn. “I was very maternal to her. She was such a lovely, young sweet innocent girl.”

The shoot was very difficult and went over schedule and budget because of other effects and, of course, the makeup.

“The makeup had to be done fresh every day,” said Friedkin. Blair’s grisly demon and Sydow’s old-age makeup took some four hours every day to apply.

Then there was the fire that put the production behind several weeks. Here’s how the director recalls it: “One morning I got a phone call in the middle of shooting the exorcism scene, which was on an old soundstage on the west side called Manhattan Sound. I got a call at 4 a.m. from my production manager, and he said don’t bother to come to work this morning. The whole set burned down.”

The night watchman, who was outside the locked set doors where Regan’s bedroom was built, saw smoke come out under the door. “The watchman opened the door and the entire set was in flame. They never found out why this happened. We had to completely rebuild the set.”

The academy is screening Friedkin’s first version, which he cut and showed to Blatty in 1973. “I made that film for an audience of one — Bill Blatty. I wanted Bill to be happy with it. I showed him that cut, and he loved it.”

Then Friedkin showed it to then-WB studio chief John Calley, “whom I really trusted, who was the only guy I trusted at Warner Bros. He gave me some suggestions that I followed and took 12 minutes from what I had shown Blatty.”

Blatty wasn’t happy, telling Friedkin he had “taken out the heart of the film.” In 2000, Blatty called Friedkin and said, “Bill, would you at least look at the footage you cut out of the picture because if you like any of it and you put it back in, Warner’s will re-release it in theaters.”

That got his attention. “I brought Bill, who was living in Georgetown, out to Warner Brothers. We looked at the outtakes, and I really liked the stuff. I put it all back and we re-released it. Warner’s wanted to call it a director’s cut, and I said no way. And we agreed on “the version you’ve never seen.”’ (The Academy is showing this version for the Monday-night screening).

If you go

What: “The Exorcist”

Where: Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22

Tickets: The event is sold out but there will be a stand-by line that evening.

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