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William Peter Blatty:
Author, Screenwriter, Director

By Matt Slovick Staff

William Peter Blattyis best known to the world and Washingtonians as the author of "The Exorcist," which was set in Georgetown. The 75 steep steps that run from Prospect Street
The Exorcist Stairs
The 75 steps in Georgetown as they appear today.
Photo: Colleen Kaiser/

to M Street are still referred to as "The Exorcist Stairs."

The inspiration for the novel came when Blatty was a student at Georgetown University. In 1949, The Washington Post published stories about an exorcism that took place in nearby Mount Rainer, Md. The subject of the stories was a 14-year-old boy.

Blatty made the possessed a 12-year-old girl in his novel. Myths still abound about the book and the 1949 exorcism. Blatty wants to make it clear that his book did not tell the story of what happened in Mount Rainer.

" 'The Exorcist' is not the 1949 case," Blatty said. "The latter gave me the idea, nothing more. The rest -- except for the possession syndrome which is the same all the way to ancient Egyptian records of exorcism -- came entirely out of my head. Everything is made up."

BlattyBlatty now lives in Montecito, Calif. His latest novel is titled "Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing."

Blatty was born in New York City in 1928, the son of Lebanese parents. He received a bachelor's degree from Georgetown and a master's in English literature from George Washington University. Washington Post readers would have seen a photograph of Blatty and a ram in the fall of 1949. Blatty had helped kidnap the Fordham University mascot.

After leaving college, Blatty entered the U.S. Foreign Service in the mid-1950s and was stationed in Beirut, Lebanon. His writing talent emerged, and he started submitting witty articles to magazines.

He then became director of publicity at the University of Southern California. While there, he successfully masqueraded as the son of Saudi Arabian King Saud in Hollywood to gather material for a humor article for The Saturday Evening Post.

Blatty continued to write, and his impersonation helped him briefly pursue an acting career. He appeared in the 1958 film "No Place to Land" that starred Jackie Coogan. He also was a contestant on the Groucho Marx TV show "You Bet Your Life."

He published his first novel in 1959, "Which Way to Mecca, Jack?" Four years later, his first movie script went to the big screen. The comedy "The Man from the Diner's Club" starred Danny Kaye.

In 1971, the novel "The Exorcist" was published. The book became a global hit, selling about 13 million copies in the United States alone. Blatty then wrote the screenplay for the film and served as its producer. The movie opened in December 1973 and broke box-office records, bringing in $165 million. It's still No. 46 on the all-time money list.

Scene from The Exorcist
Scene from "the Exorcist" when Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) arrives in Georgetown late on a foggy night to begin his exorcism. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) greets his at the door and gets her first look at the man she hopes can save her daughter.
Photo: Warner Bros.

Blatty's screenplay won an Oscar, which he keeps on a shelf in his study. The movie was also nominated for Best Picture, losing to "The Sting." The film's R rating surprised many people because of the profanity, especially since "Midnight Cowboy" was released with an X rating. However, "The Exorcist" did not include any nudity, sex scenes or graphic violence.

Stories circulated that movie patrons fainted and ran screaming out of theaters. The film was banned in England and still can't be rented on video in that country.

Reports also said many strange occurrences took place during the filming of the movie. "Nothing inexplicable happened at all," Blatty said, destroying another "Exorcist" myth.


Name: William Peter Blatty
Birthdate: Jan. 7, 1928
Birthplace: New York City (165th Street and Amsterdam Avenue)
Marital Status: Married with seven children.
Awards: Academy Award, best adapted screenplay for "The Exorcist" (1973); Golden Globe Awards, best writing and best picture for "The Exorcist" (1973), best writing for "The Ninth Configuration" (1980); Academy of Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror award for "The Ninth Configuration" (1980); American Film Festival Blue Ribbon and Gabriel Award (National Association of Catholic Broadcasters) for an episode of the religious "Insight" television series titled "Watts Made Out of Thread."

Here are a few questions Blatty agreed to answer in '90s fashion, through e-mail.

Q. You once lived in Prospect Street in Georgetown. How long did you live in the Washington area?
A. Counting my years at Georgetown and then later in the Air Force in the '50s, plus a "return of the native" effort in the '70s, I've lived in the D.C. area off and on for about eight years.

Q. Since you're a Georgetown grad, do you come back to this area often?
A. Alas, I don't get back anywhere very often, even Georgetown. The older I get the more I hate to travel. I did enough of that while in the Air Force to cure anyone's wanderlust.

Q. Why did you choose Georgetown as the setting for "The Exorcist"?
A. I chose Georgetown because I know it and love it.

Q. Patrick Ewing (former Georgetown center and present New York Knick) and John Thompson (Georgetown coach) made cameos in "The Exorcist III." Does that mean you're a big Hoya basketball fan?
A. I have been a huge Hoya basketball fan starting my freshman year on the Hilltop, and have only grown more rabid since John Thompson -- now a close personal friend -- came on the scene. (Blatty's e-mail address includes the word Hoya).

Q. In the film "The Exorcist," what exactly was the meaning of the opening scenes in Iraq with Father Merrin?
A. The Iraqi sequence was meant to set a tone of foreboding and to introduce Father Merrin.

Q. In the book, Chris MacNeil hears the knocking of the bed and thinks it's rats. In the movie, actual strange sounds came from the attic. Of someone is possessed, why would sounds come from the attic?
A. The first stage of classical possession is called "infestation" and is more or less equivalent to poltergeist activity. The rappings come under that heading, though I intended it should sound like a rat, not an asthmatic elephant.

Q. I understand some people thought that the devil won since two priests died during the exorcism. Explain your thoughts about the ending.
A. The priest won. He lured the demon out of the girl and into himself; then battles the demon's attempt to strangle the girl (using Karras's body to do it) and throws himself out the window before any harm can come to Regan. Mortal death is not a defeat; only death of the spirit is a true loss.

Q. The three main stars -- Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair and Jason Miller -- received Oscar nominations. Were you involved in the casting?
A. Yes, I was fully involved in the casting. All three of the cast you mention were (director) Bill Friedkin's first choices, though he had earlier considered Gene Hackman for Father Karras. Both Jane Fonda and Shirley MacLaine (my choice) were considered for Chris; Shirley was the model for the character in the novel. (MacLaine was once a neighbor of Blatty's). I still keep in touch with Jason Miller and Linda Blair.

Q. References to "The Exorcist" still pop up in on television and films, most recently in "The Nutty Professor." In 1991, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) read from your book during the televised Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings (The passage: "Oh, Burke," sighed Sharon. In a guarded tone, she described an encounter between the senator and the director. Dennings had remarked to him in passing, said Sharon, that there appeared to be "an alien pubic hair floating around in my gin.") What was your reaction?
A. I was watching the hearings that day and damn near fell off the couch when he held up a copy of "The Exorcist." I remarked to my wife later, "Of all the damned hundred thousand lines in the novel, did they have to pick that one to read aloud to the world."

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