Based on William Peter Blatty's 1971 bestselling novel by the same name, The Exorcist (1973) transformed the supernatural horror genre by not only injecting abject terror into movie audiences in very physiological ways — there were reports of fainting, vomiting, miscarriages and heart attacks — but also for being the first horror film that was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair and Jason Miller, The Exorcist tells the story of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Blair) who makes the big mistake of playing with a Ouija board and accidentally invoking a demon to possess her body, prompting her mother to enlist a pair of Catholic priest to conduct an exorcism.
The religious subject matter along with its accompanying dark, sacrilegious scenes were highly controversial, which has contributed it to being one of the highest-grossing films of all time.
Explore what the central cast members have been since the making of one of the scariest movies in history.
Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil)
Chris MacNeil was a famous actress and single mother who took off to Washington D.C. with her young daughter to shoot a film. Little did she know but her priorities would completely shift from reading lines to pulling a demon out of her daughter.
A relative unknown in Hollywood at the time, Ellen Burstyn took on the role of Chris and became part of horror film history, even nabbing an Academy Award nomination as lead actress. It only took a year after The Exorcist for Burstyn to win her coveted Oscar, thanks to her impressive performance as a widower in Martin Scorsese's comedy-drama Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Burstyn went on to win a Tony, two Emmys and countless nominations in film, television and theater. Some of her notable films include Resurrection (1980), Requiem for a Dream (2000) and most recently, Lucy in the Sky (2019). On television, she's starred in shows like Big Love, Law & Order (SVU), Mom and House of Cards.
Max von Sydow (Father Lankester Merrin)
Father Merrin was not only a man of God but also a paleontologist. Working at an excavation site in Iraq, he discovered imagery of an old enemy he once exorcised — the demon Pazuzu — and accidentally unleashed its dark spirit and was ultimately killed by it. Merrin was played by Max von Sydow, who is an all-too-familiar face on film and television. Some of his best-known films include Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Pelle the Conqueror (1987), Awakenings (1990), Minority Report (2002) and Shutter Island (2010). He most recently played the Three-eyed Raven on Game of Thrones, for which he garnered an Emmy nomination. Von Sydow passed away on March 8, 2020.
Jason Miller (Father Damien Karras)
Assisting Father Merrin in Regan's exorcism, Father (and Jesuit psychiatrist) Damien Karras struggled with his faith, but after seeing the evil of Pazuzu, he was convinced there was a God. Unfortunately, his renewed faith was short-lived. After pulling the demon out of Regan, it jumped into him, causing him to kill himself to prevent further harm to Regan. Prior to The Exorcist, actor Jason Miller was famous as a playwright, having won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for his 1972 play That Championship Season. Active on stage and eventually becoming artistic director for a theatrical company in Pennsylvania, Miller took time out to appear on film from time to time, which included Devil's Advocate (1977), Toy Soldiers (1984), The Exorcist III (1990) — for which he reprised his role as Father Karras — and Rudy (1993).
Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil)
Poor tween Regan MacNeil. She played with an Ouija board and got possessed by the demon, which sent her head spinning (literally) and prompted her to projectile vomit disgusting green gunk. Linda Blair's edgy and controversial role, for which she received an Academy Award nod and earned her a Golden Globe, would define the kinds of roles she'd play in the future. After The Exorcist, Blair starred in TV-movies that dealt with teen sexual abuse and drug addiction and soon after became a sex symbol, thanks to the musical drama Roller Boogie (1979). However, the horror genre was never too off from her radar, with Blair taking roles in cult classics like Hell Night (1981) and Savage Streets (1984). More recently, the actress has starred in horror and supernatural-themed reality and scripted shows and is known for her animal rights advocacy.
Lee J. Cobb (Lieutenant William F. Kinderman)
Lieutenant William Kinderman was a happy-go-lucky homicide detective investigating the death of Burke Dennings, the director who was working on Chris' film in D.C. Enlisting Father Karras to provide a religious point of view in the case, Kinderman accurately suspected Regan may have murdered Dennings while possessed by a mysterious entity. As Kinderman, Lee J. Cobb was already known for his roles in 12 Angry Men (1957) as well as On the Waterfront (1954) and The Brothers Karamazov (1958) — the last two of which he received Oscar nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category. Cobb also was a television star, famous for playing Judge Garth in the Western The Virginian. Still, the devil lured Cobb back to his character as Lt. Kinderman, whom he reprised in The Exorcist III (1990).
Kitty Winn (Sharon Spencer)
All Sharon Spencer wanted to do was be a good assistant to Chris and a good tutor to Regan. But after the 12-year-old got body-snatched, Sharon ended up being her caretaker — from injecting her with drugs and changing her diapers to being the receiver of her infamous projectile vomit. Sharon was portrayed by Kitty Winn who was memorable for her earlier role in the romantic drama The Panic in Needle Park (1971). Winn mainly built her acting career in the 1970s, performing not only in film and television but also on stage before retiring. She reprised her role as Sharon Spencer in The Exorcist II (1977).
Jack MacGowran (Burke Dennings)
As a prominent director, Burke Dennings was working on Chris' film in Washington D.C. when he met his unfortunate fate. After getting drunk at Chris' party and making a scene, he ended up babysitting Regan, who broke his neck while possessed by Pazuzu. The alcoholic Dennings was played by Jack MacGowran, an Irish actor of the stage famous for his collaborations with Irish playwright Samuel Beckett in plays like Endgame and Waiting for Godot. A member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, MacGowran also performed on Broadway. His film career launched in the 1950s, and he would later work with Roman Polanski and star in other notable projects like Tom Jones (1963) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). The Exorcist was MacGowran's last film — he died shortly after from the flu.
Reverend William O'Malley, S.J. (Father Joseph Dyer)
A close friend of Father Karras, Father Joseph Dyer was the one to give Karras his Last Rites when the priest threw himself out the window after being possessed by Pazuzu. Interestingly, Father Dyer was played by a real Jesuit priest, Reverend William O'Malley, who was a prolific Catholic book author and high school teacher who directed drama productions in upstate New York. Although O'Malley's professional accomplishments were plenty, his reputation was stained in 2019 when he was accused of sexual assault while teaching in the 1980s.