Ahead of My Time: Linda Blair Revisits the Exorcist Movies
On Sunday, February 17, FEARnet is running the five Exorcist films to honor Linda Blair’s 40 year career. Blair of course played Regan McNeil, the possessed girl in The Exorcist and Exorcist II: The Heretic. Linda Blair came to Burbank to speak with press about the marathon, drum up some buzz for FEARnet (ask your cable provider if you’re not getting FEARnet!) and her animal rescue charity, Linda Blair’s Worldheart Foundation (www.lindablairworldheart.org).
With every re-release, DVD and Blu-ray release there’s another chance to revisit the scariest movie of all time, and we’re happy to do it again but we wanted to go further into Blair’s oeuvre. What she revealed about the Exorcist spoof Repossessed is pretty amazing. And we were given almost an hour to just gab away with Linda Blair, who started things off in great spirits and personable banter. She was wearing a Worldheart T-shirt with a silhouette of a pup and a bright pink shawl, and started in on the name game.
Linda Blair: Okey Dokie, Freddie! Frederama! Freddie-ding-ding-dong!
CraveOnline: You can call me Freddie. It must be amazing that we talk about this movie every several years.
I know, isn’t it?
There may be nothing you haven’t said about The Exorcist already, but did it feel like the scariest movie of all time when you were making it?
No. [Laughs] I think it’s really important for people to remember, for instance, children don’t know anything about religion. So in a situation like that where you are basically sequestered to an area that they can perform these amazing special effects, you don’t understand what they’re doing and everything is broken down into little minute moments. Whether it be the levitation from this angle, the levitation from that angle, the levitation from up above when the eyes roll back, there are so many factors to each element of the film you lose track of what they’re doing, but there’s no fear factor whenever you are shooting a horror film. I think if you have a monster, maybe I was scary for the actors, but because I was the one that looked as I appeared, I can never be afraid of myself.
That’s interesting when you say you didn’t know about religion. When you had to deliver lines, for instance about what Father Karras’s mother is doing in hell, what did you make of that?
A child doesn’t understand other than it doesn’t sound nice. Some of it wasn’t in the script. Some of it maybe was and you sort of ignore it.
That line may have been in the book. I don’t remember for sure.
Honestly, I couldn’t tell you the book and the screenplay verbatim by any means, but I think you skip over it because you’re being told, “Okay, you’re going to do this job.” And you [think], “Okay, it’s not Lassie so I think I’ll just pretend it’s not.” Children are very good at compartmentalizing what they don’t want to deal with.
And you got to do all those effects practical, where today I feel like they might use CGI.
Right, I don’t know how they do any of this stuff right now because I haven’t seen any of them except you’ll see a bit, a scene or little bits and pieces on TV in promos, like oh, gee, I wonder how they did that? So even I’m like, “Oh, I wonder how they did that” and I come from one of the greatest special effects films of all time, but it’s great. It’s magical.
Were you surprised how scared people were by the film?
Mm-hmm. The first time that I saw it all the way through was in New York. They had a screening because remember, they needed to get it out before the New Year. I’m not sure the exact deadline but I know it was right before Christmas, so that’s why I always say it’s a lovely little Christmas film. They had to get it out in order to make the Academy Award breakdown, so I was sitting there and it was the first time. It’s an enormous screen and everything just kept coming up and coming up. I’m looking, I can visualize and then again, a lot of it I don’t understand because it’s more adult language. You’re kind of getting and idea, and then you start to see all of my stuff put together. Storyline-wise, you have to have compassion for the child and Ellen Burstyn’s performance is so amazing. Without it, you wouldn’t believe the film, and I’ve said that so many times. I think it really goes over people’s heads.
Did you go to the Oscars in 1974?
Yeeeees. It was amazing. You know, I was nominated and at the time, it’s so different than it is now. You know how you see party after party, that didn’t exist. It was the first year of the People’s Choice Awards and they didn’t exist [as a ceremony]. It was strictly that this trophy was handed over to me. “You won.” What did I win? “The People’s Choice.” People’s Choice for what? [Laughs] And I had the trophy forever and it fell off in an earthquake out here. Then the Golden Globes happened. Back then, you didn’t have all the technology. Western Union telegrams would arrive from people saying congratulations. Wow, you’d look at these names, I wish I had them. They could be in my memorabilia box. I tried to save everything that I could and my mom did a good job with that in my archives but these telegrams would appear. “You were wonderful, fantastic, good luck.” So the Golden Globes, of course they’re still at the Beverly Hilton and still the same type of thing, the dinner table atmosphere.
They weren’t televised back then, were they?
I think you’re right. My name was called. Nobody told me, “Maybe prepare something in case you win.” Nobody advised me. So I remember standing up and going around the table and going towards the stairs and all I could think was, “I don’t want to fall. I don’t want to trip on my gown. I don’t want to trip.” Just hoping I wouldn’t fall. That is a memory that’s embedded in my brain and Joel Grey gave me the award and I guess by then I must have had tears coming down my face because as I turned to the podium, there was a standing ovation. I remember in the photograph, there’s one with the tears just coming down my face and Joel Grey’s expression in the background was like… That’s a famous picture. I wish I had it on my wall. I don’t know what I said. You don’t know. You’re numb. Just a lot of “thank you” and I think people knew sincerely I was not a molded Hollywood child by any means. It was sincere. I think that’s what people just didn’t expect the naivety. They didn’t expect the realism that I was not a Hollywood child and you could tell. You could always tell.
Who did you get to meet at the Oscars?
So at the Oscars, the moment that I remember very clearly was going to the ladies room and I was walking down, it was a very long staircase, and way in front of me, because it’s so grand, I think at the Dorothy Chandler, just grand staircases and hallways, and Yul Brenner. It was just one on one. I’m 15-years-old. That is a memory because I was so in love. You know, The King and I. I think he was truly taken back but so kind. And then sitting in the audience, that was when John Huston came out and he said, “This is the year that no film qualifies for special effects” and he gave this huge speech. I sat with that expression on my face: huh? No film qualifies? Are they out of their minds? Do they think I really turned my head [360 degrees]? I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know all the politics until years later when I read about that certain people in the industry were determined to [sabotage The Exorcist]. They didn’t even want the film released. They were so angry that such a film could enter the cinematic process and be available to the public. There were a lot of very important people, and later on in life it hurt me because I had such great admiration for these people. There was a lot of politics that weren’t always nice towards me, but the studio and Billy [Friedkin] protected me. It probably wasn’t personal. I don’t think it was personal. It was political. That was also the year of the streaker.
FEARnet is showing the entire Exorcist series and I always like to give love to the sequels too. Was it a difficult decision to do Exorcist II?
Yes, it was quite a process. They kept asking if I would do a part II and we all said, the family, no. No, no, no, no, no. But they presented a really good script, but it wasn’t the script they shot and there lies the problem I believe. First they brought in John Boorman, who’d just won the Academy Award. How much better does it get?
I wouldn’t know. I’ve already done Airport ’75 so that was a complete process, presented itself, did what it was supposed to do. Then I did Born Innocent which changed primetime television and caused a lot of controversy. Again, I’m not writing these screenplays. Now I think you are part of orchestrating your career but I was a kid. We’re talking 40 years ago. TV movies hadn’t been made before. That was the first of, and then you had Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic. That was Dick Donner and I remember being in Dick’s house and asking a couple questions. He’s a real funny, funny person and he said, “Kid, I gotta tell you, I don’t know if my career is over, but we’re going to try this and see what happens.” They made such a comfortable set and we laughed a lot. Of course he went on then after to do Superman, on then after to do Lethal Weapon and of course with Lauren doing Free Willy and all those movies. So I’m part of all that and then we did Victory at Entebbe. You had Anthony Hopkins. All of these movies were some of the greatest actors. Charlton Heston, Gloria Swanson, Richard Burton.
So why would I think something is going to be a failure? And you’re with the biggest agencies and the best. So we have John Boorman, they bring in Louise Fletcher who just won the Academy Award. So it’s Louise Fletcher, James Earl Jones, John Boorman, RIchard Burton.
So they never sold Ellen Burstyn on Exorcist II?
I wouldn’t know. I would not know a thing. I remember all of the rehearsal with Richard, myself and Louise and I remember that the next thing we knew there was another person who was part of the process named Rospo Pallenberg. Everybody was, “What?” He was always whispering in John’s ear and you could tell, Richard and I did not like this Rospo and I can’t speak for Louise at all because I don’t remember. It’s Richard and I that I remember so much. We were not comfortable.
They brought in a hypnotist, because in it he’s being hypnotized and so on and I remember the hypnotist. I don’t remember if Richard was or wasn’t. I couldn’t tell you this. I sat on the couch going [laughing]. I found it a joke, but they just started presenting rewrites and rewrites. I remember that we just were not pleased with the constant rewrites and then my makeup people came to see me and they brought me something that was a storyboard, and it was not acceptable at all what Rospo presented. Let me put it this way: it had a sexual content to it. To see it physically drawn out as a storyboard was unacceptable.
So I’ll never exactly know what happened, whether John lost his path. I still don’t know who this Rospo Pallenberg is. Some people do. In my opinion, he destroyed the film. I think that John had just maybe lost his way. He should’ve trusted his gut because he’s an Academy Award-winning director, and I think it’s a shame whatever happened. Some people think the film is extremely intriguing, so that’s good. [Laughs]
But that offensive storyboard didn’t get shot, did it?
Oh no, I wouldn’t have done it. They wanted to make sure I saw it and whatever happened after that, whether I went to them, whether I waited, whatever we did, it was more than offensive. I think I understand what he was going for. He just went a little too extreme. To get back to looking at a film, if you do anything in life the best that you can do, no matter what it is, it will withstand time. With The Exorcist not only do you have everything is the best of the best that it could be, this is supposed to be, as Bill Blatty calls it, a theological thriller. So it’s a story. It’s a theological story and I ask people to realize the movie opens in Iraq. Well, we’re still over there fighting the war. What are we fighting the war over? Over religion. I know I was trying to get that point across in a couple of the interviews this morning on TV and saying, “Look, everybody wants to claim it’s their God but in the long run really, it’s one God. Forgive me, I’m not trying to be rude to your God, but it’s all about 1, life is very short and we are fighting wars and killing over our God when any of them say: be kind to each other, live a spiritual, live a centered, be good, be respectful and you’ll have the gifts that life has to offer.” That’s just not how some people are looking at their documents so to speak. So it’s a shame and I think it’s good over evil. Listen to the dialogue between the priests. Listen to the film. It’s extremely intelligent and that’s why it’s withstood time.
I was a huge fan of Repossessed. Was that your Exorcist III?
I made a movie. Murray Langston is The Unknown Comic and he’s a very dear friend and he was really, really instrumental in my entire life. I feel I owe Murray an enormous amount to remember laughter, to let certain things go, not to be super intense. I feel like he was a gift to my soul, my life. And we did a little movie called Up Your Alley and we all participated so it was one of those little small films. We carried the equipment. We helped do everything. It was a project of love.
So the director came to me, Bob Logan, and he said, “Hey kid, let’s do the comedy of The Exorcist!” And I’m like, “Yeah, let’s not. Let’s forget that story.” With that, all of a sudden a script shows up and Carolco called and said, “What would it take to get you to do it?” And I said, Leslie Nielsen or Tom Hanks, because Tom Hanks wasn’t as famous as Leslie. Leslie Nielsen was the king. He was the top of the game, but I was a fan of Tom Hanks. He doesn’t even know this story. So they came back with Leslie Nielsen within three days and I went, “Oh, crap. Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Then I had to figure out how to play the character. There wasn’t anything. The only thing I had was Jack Nicholson in my head. If you think of Jack, watch my performance. “Hey devil, where you going?” “I’m goin’ to Disneylaaaand.” It’s Jack, and he doesn’t even know that. But that’s all I had. Now you would have some of these other great actors to draw from but there was no character, and nobody was stepping up going, “Oh, let me help you.” How do you think I’m going to know how to play [that]? You can’t, but I’ll tell you, while we were filming a few times they did challenge me to do things more straight and I said, “If I do this character straight, I will scare the living bejesus out of you.” To this day, I don’t even have to have makeup on and I can scare the living bejesus out of you. A lot of it’s just looks and things, and it’s the voice. It’s many things. So I was right, and then they went back and we reshot a lot of stuff and made it more stupid.
I love Repossessed because I say to people, “Don’t show your kids The Exorcist. It’s not for kids. Show them Repossessed. They know the jokes. They know there’s vomiting and head spinning. Leave the religion, leave all that out. Then later, when it’s their time, let them see it as the masterpiece that it truly is.” That’s why.
I love that Tom Hanks was the second choice for Repossessed.
Well, no, I mean it’s one or the other. I thought they’d get Tom because he was not as popular at that time compared to Leslie. That’s 1988/89 so I was hopeful for Tom. Leslie was out of the ballpark. What do you mean you got Leslie Nielsen? I knew Leslie. His daughters rode horses. I come from the horse background so I did know him. I knew him as the straight character, the great dramatic actor he was and we used to travel a lot up in Canada. There was a certain PR circuit that you did with some of the talk shows and he’s one of the first ones that started with the hand fart. So we’d all be at dinner and all of a sudden just this godawful noises. Later on, Howie Mandel also, the two of them could make the most extraordinary, gut wrenching, foul noises but they always put the face with it, especially Leslie. So you just assumed it was an older gentleman having gas. It was awful. And then you came to realize this man cannot have gas that often at dinner. [Laughs] They were wonderful. What great luck for me to have known them in my life.
So back to FEARnet when they came and said, “We’d like to celebrate your career” and all the work that I do with my animal charity, Linda Blair Worldheart Foundation which you already know about, that’s what it’s all about. I worked with all the large organizations and one day turned around and said, “We should not have a pet overpopulation. We should not have animal cruelty. We shouldn’t have these things because too much time and too much money’s been dumped into it.” So I said I’m going to start my own foundation and then I’ll be able to keep people accountable. So I’m going for a lot of new laws that will prohibit, will bring in revenue, will stop some of this. Whether I ever get them passed, because I think there’s so much politics involved, and I’ve come to realize that even at my age, but I’m still going to do that until the day I die.
Look, FEARnet is basically a new network born out of the internet. It allows people to realize you can dream. I say: be the best you can. We must all dream. Look at what I have done. I’ve created one of the largest animal rescues in America during a tanked economy. I had to survive. I was not willing to lose everything that I put into it. I never thought it would take over my life. So when something like FEARnet, the horror genre, the thriller, any of these, there’s an enormous, enormous fan support behind these movies, whether it’s Saw, whether it’s any. They’re not competition but these movies, there’s an obsession to feel fear and therefore they put together FEARnet and from that they are now a cable network that people may or may not know about. So in running the series on Sunday, they are allowing for people to know and therefore ask for people to call their cable supporters and say, “Hey, if you don’t have it, you should get it.”
Have you seen any of the recent crop of The Possession, Last Exorcism or Devil Inside?
No. No, I have seen a lot of dogs. What happened was in 2005, in the 2000 area if you recall through 2006/7, there were two series I worked on. One was called “S Club 7.” It was a comedy like “The Monkees” on Fox Family Channel. Then from that, I went to hosting “Scariest Places on Earth” and that was their number one film, which led to a two film contract per year, and they folded. Everyone thought they would sell to Fox. They sold to Disney who did not know what to do with reality and told me so up front. So now I find myself fighting for the anti breed ban in Sacramento against Senator Speier who still doesn’t understand the damage she has put upon the pit bulls and Bully Breeds. From coming off of the challenge that was, believe me I staked myself out on the Capitol lawn until we at least stopped the ban, got back and had not even taken a breath when Hurricane Katrina happened.
I could not sit in my house any longer, and got on a plane and got the last rental truck and slept in a truck for two and a half weeks and helped remove the last 350 dogs out of Louisiana. Camped with 51, it was not fun, they were dying, there was no aid. I had to call everybody that I knew that could possibly come. There were a lot of politics involved in the rescuing of the animals. My animals were then shipped through Texas into New Mexico. I bought a used motorhome, I transported to California during the holidays. I could get two days here and two days there to board 25 dogs. I already had 15 dogs. The expense took over to the point I had no choice but to buy this property. So I came out thinking my world would be okay. They’re all under the roof. They’re on the property. This makes sense to me. And the economy tanked and people couldn’t come and they couldn’t afford gas and they were losing everything, but I’m still here. So I thought God willing, I have gotten us this far. I am pleased. WIthout the film, I would not be here. I can find the good in something that is so difficult and that’s really the message of it.
You did some great TV episodes too: “Fantasy Island,” “The Love Boat,” “MacGuyver,” “Married with Children” and recently “Supernatural.” Do you have good memories of those?
Yes! Yes! Yes! Great memories because it was part of the ‘70s and ‘80s. God, “The plane, the plane.” Yes, I’m glad I got to do and be part of those projects. It’s Americana, history so yeah, I enjoyed it.
Did you ever see Exorcist III, Exorcist: The Beginning or Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist?
Nope, nope, nope. No, no, no, I was busy. I’m always busy. I’m not one that sits around, ever. I can’t. I got very involved with training horses. I wanted to be in the Olympics. As I said, I was trying to find what I wanted to do with my career. Now I would know how to go back to school to pursue at least being a vet tech, but I do animal husbandry so I’ve never stopped. I have a lot of really great vets who will let me sit in on operations, so I am still at my age rediscovering. You can never stop learning. I don’t care if it’s the day before you pass away, you can still learn. I don’t care if it’s history. I don’t care what it is. There’s so much.
Opportunities sort of exponentially build on your experience. You do one thing, and maybe years later that comes into play with an opportunity like Worldheart.
Mm-hmm. Also I think it’s really important, in the business, you need to make choices of what you are given with opportunities. So I started to create some projects. A lot of people are finding out that I was an athlete all my life. They just didn’t know, and it’s a very, very expensive sport so I had to keep working. I didn’t have a man taking care of me. Of course now it’s woman, hear us roar. We don’t need to be always taken care of. So I started creating projects. Most of my projects have been optioned, and this is what all goes into the autobiography, by either big studios or others that either took the project, made it themselves without me, took the project, manipulated, it never went anywhere.
I have a sitcom that was optioned by Fred Silverman. Carsey-Werner wanted it for another actress. I’m like, “How dare you? It’s for me.” Then William Morris took it and tried to make a version of it over here at another studio. I still own that and I still think that is the breadwinner. That one right there is what could be what keeps my charity going. That’s the legacy. I still think it’s viable with the right people, but even television is so controlled, your head writers and everything. In ’97 I started rescuing and I was like, “These are pets. Why are they dying in the shelter?” So do I feel bad about choices I’ve made? Do I think I’m a frontrunner as I know I am on so many levels? I’ve just always been ahead of my time. I knew it was coming. So I’m proud of where I am, but it doesn’t mean I’m done with [acting]. I’m not sure. I’m only, I’m proud to say I’m 54 and I own it. Own it, love it, own it, just trying to get ready to figure it all out.
I promise I was going to ask about the animals, but you brought it up beautifully. And I’m glad you mentioned Airport and Born Innocent in there too. I would cover everything if you’d let me.
You forgot Roller Boogie, and you forgot Hell Night. Hell Night works. FEARnet’s probably going to have that on sometime. Another one is Stranger in Our House i.e. Summer of Fear, Wes Craven.
Oh yes. Stranger in Our House is Wes Craven and people don’t realize he’s just this collegiate intellectual who just enjoys the horror genre and he’s funny. He’s funny. So that’s a brilliant film. Again, television. Then Hell Night came after that. You had Mac Ahlberg, the director of photography, so he did the beautiful old romantic, like an old Frankensteiny type of thing. You had Vinnie Van Patten. It was mostly Vinnie and I and the rest of the cast but the way it’s written, it’s really a good film for those that don’t want to go too extreme. I know another one I did, a Hallmark Horror Film.
I didn’t know they did those.
It’s their Halloween movie. Monster Makers, the kids like it. It’s a good kids movie. It’s a good Halloween kids movie. Roller Boogie is a staple. It’s a slice of Americana. It’s Beach Blanket Bingo meets roller skates. I hear they just ran it not too long ago on Sunset Blvd. A couple weeks ago someone told me they ran Roller Boogie. I’m like, “Why didn’t somebody call me? Bad on the PR people. You should have made it a charity event. Why would they not have?” But they did, they ran Roller Boogie. I could have skated up and down. Well, probably not. I might’ve fallen on my noggin.