William Peter Blatty died last night, at 89, his passing announced on Twitter by his friend and famous collaborator William Friedkin. Inevitably, the first project Blatty’s name to mind is The Exorcist, Blatty’s 1971 novel which he later adapted into the screenplay for Friedkin’s classic 1973 film. And The Exorcist is one of the great horror films, thanks in no small part to Blatty. But he had a long, and frankly often underappreciated, career as a novelist and screenwriter that deserves to be remembered as well.
Before The Exorcist, Blatty worked in Hollywood for more than a decade, but not as a creator of horror. Instead, he was a comic writer known for his literary gags and his wit. His book John Goldfarb, Please Come Home, a farce about an Arabian fiefdom forcing an American pilot to teach them football and his fantasy novel I, Billy Shakespeare, where the Bard is pulled out of time and dropped into Havana and forced to write about the Bay of Pigs as if it were Henry V were hits, with the former turned into a movie with limited success. It was director Blake Edwards, though, that brought out some of Blatty’s best humor.
Between 1964 and 1970, Blatty and Edwards went on a creative streak, starting with Blatty’s work on the classic A Shot In The Dark, the second entry in the Pink Panther series. They followed it up with What Did You Do In The War, Daddy?, a farce in which an American GI unit “captures” Italian troops celebrating a festival and goes on a bender… only to wake up the next day and learn they’re trapped between a unit of Germans and a humorless American tank corps. After an odd but entertaining diversion turning the TV series Peter Gunn into a movie, Blake and Blatty put out Darling Lili, a musical starring Julie Andrews that, sadly, was mishandled by the studio, leaving Blake and Blatty to take the blame for it.
After that, Blatty shifted gears. He’d been struggling with his Catholic faith for years and remembered a story he’d heard about a Maryland boy and the horrifying exorcism he underwent while attending Georgetown. Blatty was well aware that many “demons” were simply the manifestations of mental illness, but wondered what would happen if a modern priest confronted a true possession. Blatty’s approach was more that of a journalist than novelist: The Exorcist follows a strict timeline, and details what happens to Regan in clean, sometimes even blunt, terms step by step, slowly ruling out the rational explanations until only the irrational is left.