‘Exorcist’ Director William Friedkin — 1935-2023

The man who terrified a generation (and many more after) with his hit horror film, “The Exorcist,” has passed away at his home in Bel Air, California, of heart failure and pneumonia at the age of 87.

William Friedkin won an Oscar for “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.” The latter broke ground in the horror movie genre, with many 50 years later still calling it the scariest movie ever made.

Of course, Georgetowners are most familiar with the Exorcist Steps, the infamous set of stairs featured prominently in the movie. The stone steps built in 1895 are dark, steep, and narrow—the site of a key scene in the horror film. They were designated an official D.C. tourist attract in 2015 and a plaque at the site notes their role in the classic film. “The Exorcist” author William Peter Blatty, who died in 2017, spoke at an October 2015 commemoration ceremony with Friedkin and Mayor Muriel Bowser.

For people in Georgetown, the work of Friedkin and Blatty is a personal thing. Georgetowner Publisher Sonya Bernhardt, who was also president of the Georgetown Business Association in 2015, helped with the commemoration. “Amid all the hoopla, it was such a privilege to meet William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty,” Bernhardt said.

In 2019, the Historical Preservation Review Board granted historical landmark status to the steps, along with the retaining wall on one side of them and the Car Barn (the old Capitol Traction Station) building as well.

Georgetowner Editor-in-Chief Robert Devaney recalled seeing “The Exorcist” being filmed on location in Georgetown. He writes: “Along with director William Friedkin, actors and crew worked inside and in front of Healy Building, where a student protest was part of the film within a film. Other campus locations included Healy Circle, the Quadrangle, the facade of Dahlgren Chapel, Kehoe Field and the Lauinger Library steps, which one of the priest walked down in the fog during a spooky scene to the Prospect Street home of the possessed Regan MacNeil.”

In 2022, Devaney recalled the 50th anniversary of the filming of the movie: “Georgetown has always exhibited a spirit of Halloween with its stories of haunted houses and apparitions, but it really came into its own as a Halloween spooktacular in the last half century. For me, as a Georgetown University student, I witnessed some of the filming of ‘The Exorcist’ on campus and have lived in Halcyon House (supposedly haunted) — and been one of those costumed bar hoppers years ago. So, you can see how I might feel possessive about Halloween. One can point to the filming of the 1973 supernatural horror movie exactly 50 years ago this month at Georgetown University and nearby streets. While the production work was only for a couple of weeks, its impact is still felt today. The timeless movie remains thrilling and horrifying, and the Exorcist Steps at 36th Street are an official tourist attraction.”

After Friedkin’s Hollywood successes, he recalled in his 2013 memoir, “The Friedkin Connection,” growing up in Chicago slums to having access to the finest hotel suites in the world, along with “first-class air travel, the finest tables in the best restaurants, beautiful women who sought my company…”

Friedkin was born in Chicago on August 29, 1935, to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. His father was a clothes salesman and his mother was an operating room nurse who lost an eye in an accident involving surgical instruments.

Friedkin is survived by his wife, Sherry Lansing, the former chief of Paramount Studios, and two sons, Jackson and Cedric.

Father Damien Karras, played by Jason Miller, walks with Lt. William Kinderman, played by Lee J. Cobb, in the Quadangle at the main campus of Georgetown University during the 1972 filming of “The Exorcist.” Courtesy Georgetown University.

On 36th Street, 1972: Actress Ellen Burstyn, playing Chris MacNeil, and director William Friedkin of “The Exorcist.”

William Friedkin, 1935-2023.



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