The Exorcist, scandal and S Club 7: The remarkable story of child star Linda Blair (2024)

The Exorcist, scandal and S Club 7: The remarkable story of child star Linda Blair (1)

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As Regan McNeil, the demonically possessed schoolgirl in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Linda Blair spits obscenities, projectile vomits, defenestrates a man, slaps a priest and masturbat*s with a crucifix. It is hardly viewing material appropriate for minors then – let alone the 14-year-old playing her.

A half-century ago the image of Blair, foul-mouthed, sore-ridden and yellow-eyed, seared itself into the corneas of an entire generation. Now, not one but two young stars are hoping to replicate her impact in The Exorcist: Believer, the first in a planned $400m trilogy picking up where Friedkin’s iconic picture left off. Director David Gordon Green and production company Blumhouse have some experience resurrecting franchises, having recently rebooted John Carpenter’s much-loved Halloween series for a trilogy of films. Spoiler alert: in the case of the dismal Exorcist: Believer, which features a double dose of demon-children, more isn’t always better. Other than the return of Ellen Burstyn, who played Regan’s mother Chris in 1973, the sequel has little in common with its predecessor. No sophistication; no tension; no Blair.

Now 64 and a devout animal activist, Blair has put showbiz in her rearview. In 2021, she tweeted to say she had not been asked to return for the reboot. “As of now there has not been any discussions about me participating or reprising my role,” she wrote on Twitter. There have been some developments since then. Blair was eventually brought on as a consultant, tasked with guiding its two youngsters (Lidya Jewett, 16; Olivia O’Neill, 15) through the murky psychological terrain of playing evil incarnate. “We brought her in as an advisor because we’re dealing with young people, and we want to take them to dangerous places safely,” said Gordon Green. Sadly, the same wasn’t true for Blair all those years ago.

Friedkin, tasked with adapting William Peter Blatty’s 1971 bestseller, had seen some 2,000 girls for the role of Regan before Blair and her mother came in without an appointment and on nobody’s recommendation. “She was like a gift from the movie gods,” Friedkin later said. Not only did she look the part (apple cheeks and a button nose; butter wouldn’t melt) but she demonstrated a preternatural ease with the script’s adult subject matter.

In his 2013 biography, Friedkin recalled that first telling encounter: “‘Do you know what masturbation means?’ I asked her. ‘What?’ ‘To masturbat*.’ ‘It’s like jerking off, isn’t it?’ she answered without hesitation, giggling a little. I looked again at her mother. Unflappable. ‘Have you ever done that?’ I asked Linda. ‘Sure, haven’t you?’ she shot back.” Then and there, Friedkin knew: “I’d found Regan.” Years later, he would go on to say, “She was the only one I had met for the part that I thought would not be damaged by the experience.” Well, yes and no.

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Blair had little acting experience when she entered Friedkin’s audition room that day. She was no stranger to the industry, though. By age five, Blair had starred in commercials for Ivory Soap, Welch’s Grape Jelly, and Carefree Gum. In 1968, she scored a role in the daytime soap Hidden Faces but already had an eye on the door. Mad about horses, Blair wanted to be a vet – then came The Exorcist, a movie that would change her life for better or worse.

‘The French Connection’ was life-threatening in many ways. ‘The Exorcist’ was threatening to the sanity of that wonderful 12-year-old girl

William Friedkin, ‘The Exorcist’ director

The making of The Exorcist is almost as storied as the film itself. During the shoot, several of the cast – and their family members – died unexpectedly, including Blair’s grandfather. Production had to be halted after a sudden electrical fire burnt down the set; a pigeon had flown into a lightbox. Depending on who you speak to, what befell the movie is either a string of bad luck or the mark of the devil. At one point, a priest was called upon to exorcise the set. The traumas faced by its star, though, were undeniably real.

With the dawn of CGI still decades off, the challenge of bringing Blatty’s horrific vision to life was a very physical task – and Blair’s stunt double, Eileen Dietz, who was supposed to stand in for the child’s most trying scenes, ended up on screen for less than 20 seconds with Friedkin wanting Blair to shoulder the burden instead. “Billy Friedkin came to me before we were filming and said, ‘If you do not do all of this film, the film will be a joke,’” Blair recalled. The bedroom on set, where she spent the majority of her days, was kept to a glacial zero degrees so that the breath of anyone entering would leave a ghostly trail in the air. While others were given heavy coats and thick knits, Blair endured the cold in only a gossamer-thin nightgown. Similarly, the two hours she spent in a make-up chair every morning were tolerated without complaint. Even when, as she recalled years later, the make-up proved so caustic that it burned her face.

The Exorcist, scandal and S Club 7: The remarkable story of child star Linda Blair (5)

You’ll recall that Blair spends a good chunk of The Exorcist in paroxysms of fury, her limp body at the whim of a crewmember tugging the ropes of her harness. Watching the film back now, and the violence of her thrashing and jerking, it is little wonder that Blair suffered a spinal injury. A fracture in her back developed into scoliosis, leaving her in chronic pain for years. “The back injury was far more serious than I ever imagined and really affected my health negatively for a long time,” Blair later said. For his part, Friedkin has acknowledged the dangers of his set – physical and otherwise. “It was only by grace of God that nobody was injured or killed on those pictures,” he said of The Exorcist and 1971’s The French Connection, with its notoriously perilous car chase. “The French Connection was life-threatening in many ways. The Exorcist was threatening to the sanity of that wonderful, 12-year-old girl.”

The Exorcist, scandal and S Club 7: The remarkable story of child star Linda Blair (6)

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Blair has spoken previously about how her adolescent mindset provided an effective layer of protection between her and the film’s dark themes. “You have to understand that when we made The Exorcist, I was a child first and foremost,” she said. “So when I first read the novel before auditioning, I saw it more from the perspective of a kid – how were they going to do these things? How was the bed going to levitate? That kind of stuff.” Later, she added: “The Exorcist was a work of fiction. I didn’t realise then that it dealt with anything in reality.” In a similar vein, it was by indulging Blair’s childlike nature that Friedkin was able to elicit such a mature performance from his star. “She thinks of the picture as a big game. She doesn’t know any of this stuff is supposed to be p*rnographic or dirty or vile,” he said. Friedkin would coax Blair with milkshakes any time she was required to do something especially difficult – which was a lot. Theological discussions of the text were left at the door.

The Exorcist, scandal and S Club 7: The remarkable story of child star Linda Blair (8)

If the film itself did not do damage, the resulting media attention certainly did. The Exorcist was an instant, if controversial, hit. Unsurprisingly, the film attracted huge religious attention and Blair was accused of glorifying Satan. Influential Christian evangelist Bobby Graham declared the movie to be tainted by the Devil himself. Blair would go on to recall the death threats she received and how people would heckle her in the street. “Police were hired to live at my house,” she said. A bodyguard was enlisted by the movie studio to protect Blair. What they couldn’t protect her from, however, was the media.

Shuttled around the world on a press tour, she became the face of The Exorcist – and the de facto mouthpiece. Blair, then 14, was intensely questioned about faith; God; the Devil; evil; the state of religion. “When the movie came out, the amount of pressure that came down on me wasn’t anything I was prepared for,” she said. “Especially all the pressure the press put on me – they thought I had all the answers about faith and Catholicism. It was probably the most awful thing you could imagine.”

It is some consolation that amid the death threats and religious interrogation, Blair did receive the praise she deserved. “Whatever one’s reaction may be to the film, Linda’s performance has to be considered the most powerful and moving ever given by a young actress in her first role,” reads an article in The New York Times from 1974. She earned a Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actress as well as an Oscar nomination, although lost to 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal in what Variety dubbed “the battle of the babes”.

The Exorcist, scandal and S Club 7: The remarkable story of child star Linda Blair (9)

The Exorcist cast a long shadow over Blair’s life. In the following years, she was typecast as a helpless teen in straight-to-TV movies like Born Innocent (1974) and Sarah T – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic (1975), and later starred in B-movies such as Hell Night (1981), Chained Heat (1983) and Savage Streets (1984). When she was 15, Blair began dating “Jessie’s Girl” singer Rick Springfield, who was 10 years her senior. In his 2010 biography, Springfield recounts their relationship in icky detail: “I am her first lover and she is an enthusiastic learner. We share a love of dogs and sex – separately, not in combination.” (The two appear to remain on good terms, sharing a passion for animal rights.) In 1977, Blair was charged with the sale and possession of cocaine. That same year, The Exorcist II was released, although this time to utter disdain. Blair reprised her role as Regan one last time opposite Leslie Nielsen in the 1990 spoof Repossessed.

Her last screen appearances of note were more than two decades ago: an uncredited cameo as a news reporter in Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) and then the slightly mystifying role of S Club 7’s landlord in the nine-episode series LA 7 (2000). “I did S Club 7 because it was light. It’s a teenage band out of England,” she said in an interview that year, explaining how she wanted to be recognisable to a new generation. “They’re number one on Fox Family and on the BBC. It’s international. I needed kids to walk up and say. ‘You’re that lady from S Club 7’, which is what they do now. And I like having little kids look at me. It’s fun. They make these little faces.”

The Exorcist, scandal and S Club 7: The remarkable story of child star Linda Blair (10)

Off screen, Blair has devoted herself to advocating for animal rights; in 2004, she founded the Linda Blair Worldheart Foundation, which rescues and rehabilitates abused and neglected animals. To this end, she uses her Exorcist fame for good, frequently auctioning off signed movie posters for animal charities. Reflecting on her role in the seminal film, Blair has said she wouldn’t let her child do it.

“I mean, I can’t disagree with people,” she said. “I can only tell you that I didn’t understand. I never knew what that was about. I thought it was very odd that I had a cross and that I was sticking it in a box [and] saying terrible language. But I have to say that I did not understand.” In a 2000 interview with IGN, Blair pondered on what her life might look like had she not walked into Friedkin’s audition room in 1972. “I might be a veterinarian in Connecticut,” she said. “I would probably be married with some children. That’s probably the way it would be.”

‘The Exorcist: Believer’ is in cinemas

The Exorcist, scandal and S Club 7: The remarkable story of child star Linda Blair (2024)

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