William Peter Blatty: A Retrospective

The power of Blatty compelled us.

by Benjamín Harguindey

Writer and film director William Peter Blatty – best known as the author of The Exorcist (1973) – passed away on the night of Thursday 12th at the age of 89, reported his friend William Friedkin, whom he called “a dear friend and brother“.

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Blatty was born in New York 1928 to Lebanese immigrants and raised with a powerful Catholic background. He won a scholarship to Georgetown University, where he got his master’s degree in English Literature. After working a number of jobs – vaccum cleaner salesman, truck driver, ticket agent – he enlisted in the United States Air Force, where he rose to become head of the Psychological Warfare Division, which in turn would go on to inspire his humorous 1959 autobiographical novel Which Way to Mecca, Jack?

Following an epiphany in his parents’ native Beirut while on “home leave”, Blatty returned to his original dream of becoming a writer. While promoting his first book he participated in the Groucho Marx quiz show You Bet Your Life, winning $10,000 and quitting his day job in pursuit of a literary career. Throughout the 60s he published several humorous novels and wrote several comedy screenplays, such as The Man from the Diner’s Club (1963) and Promise Her Anything (1965). In 1964 he started a lengthy collaboration with director Blake Edwards, penning the Pink Panther movie A Shot in the Dark (1964); Blatty and Edwards would also go on to make What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966), Gunn (1967) and Darling Lili (1970).

Exorcist Set
On the set of The Exorcist with Jason Miller and Ellen Burstyn.

Blatty wrote his seminal horror novel The Exorcist, about a young girl possessed by a demon, in the backwoods of Lake Tahoe; when published in 1971 the novel became an instant bestseller, remaining 57 straight weeks on The New York Times’ bestseller list. He adapted the novel into a movie script, directed by William Friedkin in 1973 and starring Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller and Lee J. Cobb.

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Blatty won the Academy Award for Adapted Screenplay as well as Golden Globes for Best Movie and Best Screenplay. Despite this, Blatty considered the Academy had snubbed the film on every other category. “The Academy should fold its tent and go back to baking apple strudel or whatever they can do well,” said the author.

In 1980 Blatty directed his first film, The Ninth Configuration, based on a novel of his own. The dark farce starred Stacy Keach and his friend Jason Miller (Exorcist’s Father Karras), and while it turned out to be a commercial flop, it earned Blatty his second Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay. The film has since garnered a cult following.

Friedkin was originally slated to direct a sequel to The Exorcist, but left the project over creative differences, so Blatty returned one more time to the director’s chair in 1990 with The Exorcist III. Based off his book Legion (1983), it is a direct sequel to the first story, set some seventeen years after and inspired by the Zodiac Killer (a self-proclaimed fan of the first movie, going by one of his infamous San Francisco Chronicle letters). The film starred George C. Scott (replacing Lee J. Cobb as Lieutenant Kinderman), Brad Dourif and Jason Miller. It received a lukewarm critical reception, and remains one of the most underrated horror films in the history of the genre. October 25 of last year saw the release of Blatty’s own Director’s Cut of the movie.

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He continued to write novels for the rest of his career, often revising and re-releasing them. His last book, Dimiter (published in 2010, sometime released as The Redemption) had been a work in progress since 1974. It was inspired on the real-life story of a priest’s execution in the former Atheist-state of Albania. Interviewed by his friend William Friedkin, he called it “the best writing I’ve produced. I can’t surpass it. I know that“.


BenjaBenjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).

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