Forty years after he made ‘The Exorcist,’ William Friedkin remembers how he had to fight to cast Ellen Burstyn in the lead.
The director, who had won an Oscar for 1971’s “The French Connection,” recalls making the picture in a new documentary called “Tales From the Warner Bros. Lot,” which premiered on TCM and is included in the massive “100 Films Collection” from the studio.
In a segment called “Over My Dead Body,” Fredkin says, “It was a trio of guys who ran the studio, Ted Ashley, Frank Wells and John Calley. Ted Ashley made all the decisions. His word was final. He decided to do ‘The Exorcist,’ he decided to hire me to do it.”
There was a conflict though, when it came to cast the female lead. “The first choice by the heads of this studio was Audrey Hepburn. I thought that was a great idea,” the director says. However, Hepburn was then living in Italy and wouldn’t consent to do the film unless it was filmed there. “The next choice was Anne Bancroft. I thought that was a great idea, too,” Friedkin said. The star of “The Graduate” loved the script but revealed she’d just found out she was pregnant. She asked Friedkin to wait until after she gave birth, but Friedkin told her, “Anne, I think when you have your child, you’re not going to want to make a movie for a while and certainly not ‘The Exorcist.'” The third choice was Jane Fonda, who turned it down. She called Calley and said, as Friedkin tells it, “Why would you want to make a piece of capitalist, rip-off bullsh*t like this?”
Meanwhile, Burstyn had been calling Friedkin and told him, “I’m destined to play this part. Do you believe in destiny, Mr. Friedkin?” He was convinced: “She had been a Catholic, she knew a lot about the church and its rituals. I found her very bright and interesting.”
Burstyn had been Oscar-nominated for 1971’s “The Last Picture Show,” and would go on to be nominated again for “The Exorcist” and win in 1974 for “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” But at the time, the studio was dead set against hiring her. When Friedkin told Ashley she was his choice, the studio head told him, “I have total faith that you’ll do a great job on this movie but Ellen Burstyn will play this part over my dead body.” Ashley then laid down on the floor of his office and told Friedkin to walk over him and when the director did, he grabbed his leg and said, “That’s what I will do if I’m dead and you cast Ellen Burstyn in this part.”
Somehow — Friedkin doesn’t specify in the documentary — he got the go-ahead to cast Burstyn. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards (winning two, for sound and adapted screenplay) and made $232 million at the box office. Years later when Friedkin asked Ashley, “What do you think of Burstyn now?” Ashley responded, “If we had had Jane Fonda, we’d have done a billion dollars!”
Friedkin also noted, “We never previewed ‘The Exorcist.’ That was a choice made by the management, and I’m very glad they made it because if we had previewed ‘The Exorcist,’ I would still be cutting it now.”