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William Peter Blatty (1928 - 2017)

Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives

William Peter Blatty (1928 - 2017)

William Peter Blatty, the best-selling author and screenwriter who terrified readers and moviegoers with "The Exorcist," died Thursday, January 12, of multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. He was 89.

Written in 1971, "The Exorcist" was never intended to be a horror novel. When Blatty started it, he told the Los Angeles Times, he intended to write "a supernatural detective story that was filled with suspense with theological overtones." He wasn't trying to be scary – but as he delved into the Roman Catholic ritual of exorcism, he created a terrifying tale for the ages.

Inspired by a variety of real people and real cases of alleged possession and exorcism, "The Exorcist" didn't initially look as if it would be a best-seller. As Blatty told it, copies sat resolutely on bookstore shelves, and some bookstores were even returning mass quantities of unsold books to the publisher – this despite the fine reviews the book received and the heavy-duty marketing it received from publisher Harper & Row. Readers just weren't picking it up, and neither were Hollywood executives to whom Blatty pitched the story as a movie.


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"The Exorcist" – and the entire genre of imitators that followed it – might never have gotten off the ground if not for a lucky break, courtesy of "The Dick Cavett Show." Blatty was under consideration for a brief guest appearance on the late-night talk show, but insiders cautioned him that he probably wouldn't even get that, since Cavett wasn't a fan of supernatural tales like Blatty's. But when one guest canceled, Blatty was called for a last-minute appearance. And when a second guest, "Jaws" star Robert Shaw, had his appearance cut short, Blatty ended up chatting with Cavett for a full 45 minutes rather than the five for which he had hoped.

The unexpectedly weighty appearance gave "The Exorcist" a major boost. Copies began to fly off shelves, and it shot to No. 1 on The New York Times Best-Seller List, remaining there for 17 weeks (and holding lower spots on the list for another 40 weeks). The movie executives who had previously ignored Blatty's pitches were suddenly ready to push a film into production. Blatty wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation of "The Exorcist."

The book that had captivated readers became a terrifying film, one that's still considered by many to be the scariest movie of all time. But Blatty still insisted that it wasn't a horror story, even that it wasn't scary. The author, a devout Catholic, hoped it would help believers examine their faith: "It's an argument for God," he told the Washingtonian.

Blatty came by his religion via his mother, a Lebanese immigrant who retained her deep faith even after Blatty's father left the family and she was reduced to keeping them afloat by selling her homemade jam. It didn't bring them prosperity, and Blatty, born Jan. 7, 1928, remembered his New York City childhood as a series of new apartments and evictions. There was little money for rent, but Blatty was able to attend Georgetown University on a scholarship.

Writing wasn't Blatty's first career, though he received his master's degree in English literature from George Washington University. But he spent the 1950s in a variety of other occupations, from sales to truck driving to military service in the U.S. Air Force. For some time, he worked for the U.S. Information Agency as an editor, stationed in Beirut, Lebanon. When he left Beirut, it was to pursue a career in the entertainment world as an author and filmmaker.

When he began to see success as a writer in the late 1950s, his subject material was about as far from "The Exorcist" as it could get. In fact, one of his very first successes was as a ghostwriter for the newspaper advice guru Abigail Van Buren. He ghostwrote her 1959 best-seller, "Dear Teenager," offering sage advice under the moniker Dear Abby that earned the advice columnist Mother of the Year praise.

Blatty soon began publishing under his own name, but his early novels weren't "Exorcist" prequels by any stretch. His first, "Which Way to Mecca, Jack?" (1960), was a comically fictionalized memoir of Blatty's stint in Beirut. He followed it with several more funny novels: "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home" (1963), "I, Billy Shakespeare!" (1965) and "Twinkle, Twinkle, 'Killer' Kane" (1966). They were only moderately successful, not making Blatty a household name. But critics enjoyed them, and The New York Times critic Martin Levin offered Blatty a piece of praise that the author would happily cite for years: "Nobody can write funnier lines than William Peter Blatty."

Blatty's writing made its way to the silver screen beginning in 1963 with the screenplay for "The Man From the Diners' Club." Blatty's Hollywood cachet rose in 1964 when he entered into the first of several collaborations with director Blake Edwards. That was the year when the pair co-wrote the second of the "Pink Panther" movies, "A Shot in the Dark," starring Peter Sellers as the famously bumbling Inspector Clouseau. The pair would go on to work together in several other movies, including the 1970 musical "Darling Lili," and Blatty wrote a number of other scripts on his own.

Though Blatty's comic novels and movies of the 1960s were often successful, they can't have fully prepared him for the heights to which "The Exorcist" – both book and movie – would take him. He won an Academy Award for his screenplay and Golden Globe statues for best picture and best writing. For his future work, he would take this cue from the public, writing supernatural novels including "Legion," the sequel to "The Exorcist," which he would adapt into the movie "The Exorcist III." Blatty was not involved with the poorly received film "Exorcist II: The Heretic."

Though Blatty's publications became more sporadic in later years, he published several books in the 2000s and beyond, including the novels "Dimiter" (2010) and "Crazy" (2010) and the memoir "Finding Peter: A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life After Death" (2015). The latter book dealt with Blatty's loss of his son, Peter, in 2006 – specifically the many signs Blatty believed he saw as evidence that Peter was communicating with him from beyond the grave, reinforcing his faith and comforting his grief. In an interview with The Washington Post about "Finding Peter," Blatty described the broad message he thought he was receiving from Peter: "I'm alive. I have not been extinguished. I have not plunged into oblivion. I care, and I am in communion."

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