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William Friedkin reveals long-kept 'Exorcist' secret at TCM Classic Film Fest

Director William Friedkin discussed his classic movies 'The Exorcist,' 'The French Connection,' and 'Sorcerer' at the TCM Classic Film Festival Friday and revealed a secret he's never told anyone about 'The Exorcist.'

William Friedkin talked his most famous films at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival.
Sharon Knolle
William Friedkin on the set of 'The Exorcist'
Warner Bros.

Friedkin has a new memoir out, 'The Friedkin Connection,' from which he shared several anecdotes. One of them was how he hadn't sought any of the key Oscar-nominated cast of 'The Exorcist.' Ellen Burstyn wasn't his first choice, Linda Blair was seen only after 2000 other girls already auditioned and the director shared that he'd already had an actor under contract for the role of Father Karras.

Then he heard from Jason Miller, the playwright who'd never acted before. Miller, who'd studied to be a Jesuit priest for three years, told Friedkin, "I am Karras." He convinced Friedkin to do a screen test, something he never did, and made him wait four days to do it since Miller refused to fly. Miller did the test and, as Friedkin told the audience at the Hotel Roosevelt, he wasn't impressed. But then he saw the rushes and realized he had his man. "The camera loved him," he said.

Friedkin told Warner Bros. they had to pay off the other actor, whose identity the audience was dying to know. The director said, "I've never revealed this man's name," saying only that he was a respected stage and screen actor at the time. He decided to let the audience guess at the end of the presentation, and if they were right, he'd say so. The first guess was "Jack Nicholson." With the second, "Stacy Keach," Friedkin announced, "That's it."

Keach, star of "Fat City" and "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer," played another man of the cloth, Martin Luther in the 1973 film, "Luther."

The director was a lively presence, giving moderator Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation a goodnatured needling that his introduction, in which Muller waxed about how life-changing 'The French Connection' had been for him, was too long.

Friedkin also shared his method of working with actors, tapping into sense memory for 12-year-old Linda Blair, to evoke sadness, he had her think of her late grandfather. For happiness, he gave her her favorite thing, a chocolate milkshake, before a scene. When someone asked if he used the same method for Gene Hackman (who won a Best Actor Oscar for 'The French Connection,') Friedkin laughed, "Well, he didn't want a chocolate milkshake."

One of Friedkin's most overlooked films, "Sorcerer," is screening tonight as part of the film fest. He lamented that it came out the same weekend as "Star Wars" in 1977, and was promptly crushed at the box-office. It also received scathing reviews, but time has greatly improved the reputation of this tense action drama, in which four men must drive loads of nitroglycerine through the jungle.

Friedkin noted that today, it would all be done with CGI, something that didn't exist at the time. He added that even if he had the choice to use CGI, he "would still do it live." Muller pointed out that he'd probably put his own actors at risk in his efforts for realism.

Of all his films, Friedkin says he's most proud of "Sorcerer," and that it's only film in which he wouldn't change a single thing. It screens tonight at the TCL Chinese Theater IMAX and the film is being released on Blu-ray on April 22.

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