Famed ‘Exorcist’ author, filmmaker William Peter Blatty dead at 89

Set in Georgetown and directed by William Friedkin, “The Exorcist,” based on Bill Blatty’s novel and screenplay, remains one of the most iconic horror films of all time.

Still taken from original 1973 PR trailer for "The Exorcist." (Via YouTube video of Warner Brothers trailer)

WASHINGTON, January 14, 2017 – Screenwriter and novelist William Peter Blatty, who won widespread fame as the author of “The Exorcist” (1971), died Thursday morning, January 12 at a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, the Washington, D.C. suburb where he lived. He was 89.

William Friedkin, a longtime friend and colleague who directed iconic 1973 film adaptation of Blatty’s novel, announced the author’s death via Twitter.

According to the Guardian, “Blatty’s widow, Julie Alicia Blatty, told the Associated Press the cause of death was multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer,” which had only been diagnosed recently.

Early life and work

William Peter Blatty was born in New York City in 1928, the son of Lebanese parents who emigrated to America on a cattle boat. When his father abandoned the family three years after his birth, he was raised by his intensely Roman Catholic mother, an influence that was to permeate his life and his writing.

William Peter Blatty at home, 2009. (Image via Wikipedia entry on the author, CC 3.0)

Blatty attended Brooklyn Preparatory, a Jesuit school, on scholarship, graduating as class valedictorian in 1946. Continuing his education with the Jesuits, he then attended Washington, D.C.’s Jesuit college, Georgetown University, on scholarship, and upon graduation, headed across town to George Washington University where he was awarded a master’s degree in English Literature.

He worked several odd jobs before joining the United States Air Force where he quickly rose to become head of the policy branch of the Air Force Psychological Warfare Division—a military branch known more popularly today as “psy-ops.” Blatty eventually wrote about his experiences in psy-ops in his early autobiographical effort, “Which Way to Mecca, Jack?”

After leaving the Air Force, he worked for the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) for a time, working out of that agency’s branch in Beirut, Lebanon, where his Lebanese background proved an asset. However, longing to be a writer and an active member of the entertainment community in almost any capacity, he eventually returned to the U.S., working for a time in public relations on America’s left coast, first for the Jesuit Loyola University of Los Angeles and later at the University of Southern California.

He also continued to write. After the publication of “Which Way to Mecca, Jack” (1960), he wrote and published a trio of comic novels, “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home” (1963), “I, Billy Shakespeare” (1965), and “Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane” (1966). All three proved critical successes but proved only modestly profitable in bookstores.

“The Exorcist” and Hollywood success

Hoping to improve his luck and his literary and Hollywood profile, Blatty moved toward screenwriting. He scored success working with well-known director Black Edwards, contributing scripts for “A Shot in the Dark” (1964), “What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?” (1966), and “Darling Lili” (1970), a popular musical that starred Julie Andrews and Rock Hudson. He also worked independently, penning scripts for several other films including the 1969 classic, “The Great Bank Robbery.”

But all these successes were eventually dwarfed by the recognition he received for his sensational 1971 religion-themed, supernatural horror novel, “The Exorcist.” Intriguingly, the Washington, D.C. based story was based on an actual exorcism, that took place in the late 1940s. This rare, ancient and still controversial Catholic ritual was performed on the boy by a Jesuit priest in the hope of banishing the demonic spirit that seemed to possess him.

Blatty placed his novel firmly in the Georgetown neighborhood of D.C. and in contiguous Georgetown University, the Jesuit college he had earlier attended. He also traded in the real-life teenage boy of the original exorcism for a young teenage girl in his version of the tale, perhaps hoping to give his novel wider appeal.

Almost immediately upon publication, Blatty’s gruesome supernatural horror story of demonic possession quickly proved a novelistic sensation. It soon became a fixture of the New York Times best seller list, remaining there for a remarkable 57 consecutive weeks, hitting the number 1 spot for a total of 17 times.

Hollywood couldn’t resist this compellingly scary psychological and oddly spiritual tale. Blatty soon found himself adapting the novel into a script and working closely with director William Friedkin to create perhaps the most acclaimed and certainly the most original horror thriller of the late 20th century.

The film version of “The Exorcist” (1973) won Blatty a triple play: An Oscar for his screenplay and a pair of Golden Globes for Best Writing and Best Picture, the latter because Blatty had also produced the movie.

“The Exorcist” and its sequels

Blatty continued to work as a Hollywood screenwriter after “The Exorcist.” While he did achieve some successes, none of his film work scaled that movie’s heights, although the 1980-81 film, “The Ninth Configuration,” which Blatty adapted, produced and directed, was nominated for three Golden Globes in 1981.

Hollywood could not resist going back to the Exorcist well for sequels, but the first one—“Exorcist II: The Heretic,” a project with which Blatty was not involved—was a notorious flop.

Blatty gave it a go once again with “Exorcist III,” which he adapted, directed and produced based on his own sequel, which he initially entitled “Legion.” The 1990 film was better received than “Exorcist II.” Yet it, too, was not quite the hoped for hit, which some Exorcist fans attributed to poor editing of the final cut.

But in 2016, “Exorcist III” experienced a notable resurrection of sorts, according to writer Brad Miska who notes that Shout Factory released “the once considered lost Director’s Cut” of “Exorcist II, a version of the film horror fans have been clamoring for since its release in 1990.”

“William Peter Blatty, who wrote the original ‘The Exorcist’ novel and screenplay, directed the third film in the franchise that had been completely retooled by Morgan Creek. While most of the original footage was lost, a VHS workprint has been discovered that carries a lot of the footage, including much of Blatty’s vision for the film. Shout Factory’s release boasts the original title, Legion, as well as a new assembly of the film that includes said shots from the discovered VHS. So while it’s not 100% Blatty’s original vision, it’s allegedly close.

“What’s so interesting about juxtaposing the two cuts is knowing that Legion is Blatty’s direct sequel to The Exorcist. Legion feels intimately connected to the 1973 classic, while the theatrical cut is an action-packed quasi-sequel that forces connections to William Friedkin’s adaptation.”

Final arrangements

Final arrangements have not yet been announced by the family. Blatty’s widow, Julie Alicia Blatty suggests that in lieu of sending flowers, donations be sent to the LC Pastoral Services of the Legionaries of Christ or to Solidarity with the Persecuted Church, an organization that supports persecuted Catholics in the Middle East and other regions.

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