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Director of ‘The Exorcist,’ William Friedkin, dies at 87

Director of "The Devil and Fr. Amorth" with subject of documentary

LD Entertainment | Collection ChristopheL via AFP

John Burger - published on 08/09/23

Georgetown University was used in filming 1973 horror hit. Raised in a Jewish household, he said later in life that he came to believe in the teachings of Jesus.

William Friedkin, the director well known for his 1973 film version of William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist, died August 7 at the age of 87. Friedkin, whose parents had emigrated from their native Ukraine in the early 20th century because of tsarist pogroms against Jews, also made the 2017 film “The Devil and Father Amorth,” about the Vatican exorcist Fr. Gabriele Amorth (pictured in photo above with Friedkin).

“The Exorcist” was a tremendous hit at the box office when it came out the day after Christmas 50 years ago. The movie was filmed largely in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and involved the Jesuits at Georgetown University. It wowed moviegoers with special effects, such as the spinning head and levitation of the possessed girl at the center of the story. 

Blatty’s 1971 novel was based on a true story he had learned when he was a student at Georgetown. He produced and wrote the screenplay for the movie version, which involved Jesuit priests performing an exorcism of a girl, played by Linda Blair. 

Sites on or near the Georgetown campus that were used for filming included the Quadrangle, Dahlgren Chapel, Healy Hall, Old North, Kehoe Field, the Lauinger Library steps, and the famous “Exorcist Steps,” where one of the priests conducting the exorcism in the story fell to his death. 

Filming in the GU area lasted 22 days in October 1972, during which time a series of “mishaps” led some people to believe that the film was “cursed.” According to a campus newspaper at the time, a carpenter with a number of years of experience accidentally lost several fingers, for example. And the six-year-old son of one of the actors was hit by a motorcycle and seriously injured. 

Friedkin was nominated for an Academy Award for the film, but it won only two Oscars, including Best Screenplay for Blatty. Friedkin did win in the Best Director category in the Golden Globe Awards, however. 

Blatty, a Catholic and a son of Lebanese immigrants, died in 2017.

Two years before “The Exorcist,” Friedkin directed “The French Connection,” based on the true story of two New York City police officers who broke up an international heroin-trafficking ring.

In its obituary of Friedkin, the New York Times wrote that “the ripple effects from both films lasted for decades. ‘The French Connection’ injected realism and violence into hard-boiled thrillers like the ‘Dirty Harry’ films and television police series like ‘Hill Street Blues,’ while ‘The Exorcist’ changed critical attitudes toward horror films.”

After his early hits, Friedkin came out with a number of films that received mixed reviews from critics.

“Late in his career, he returned to familiar territory with ‘The Devil and Father Amorth’ (2017), a documentary account of an exorcism performed in an Italian village by the Vatican’s chief exorcist,” the Times noted. 

Friedkin said that when he made “The Exorcist,” he had never seen an actual exorcism. Now, he said, he not only witnessed one but “was there to film it.” 

In a 2013 interview with The Wrap, Friedkin was asked if someone who was a religious skeptic could have directed “The Exorcist.”

“I think somebody who was an avowed atheist should not have directed the film,” he said. “My personal beliefs are defined as agnostic. I’m someone who believes that the power of God and the soul are unknowable, but that anybody who says there is no God is not being honest about the mystery of fate. I was raised in the Jewish faith, but I strongly believe in the teachings of Jesus.”

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