Veteran actor Ron Faber remembers his key scenes in The Exorcist and reflects on the film’s legacy
Theatre actor Ron Faber cut his onscreen teeth with his performance of Chuck, the assistant director in William Friedkin’s masterwork The Exorcist. Chuck was a tiny part – primarily notable in the scene where he delivers the news of Burke Dennings’s (Jack MacGowan) death to actress and protagonist Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). However, regardless of only being in two core sequences (the aforementioned scene as well as Chris’s lavish party scene where young Regan (Linda Blair) urinates on mommy dearest’s lovely carpet) and the Georgetown University shoot of the movie within the movie “Crash Course” (which was dramatically cut), Faber has some fantastic insight into the production and the world of one of cinema’s most treasured films…
CS: Did you read William Peter Blatty’s novel before going into production? What were your thoughts about it as a story as well as a phenomenon?
Ron Faber: Yes I did read the novel. As soon as I knew I was going to see William Friedkin about the film, I read the novel straight away. I thought it was very good, I thought of it to be a wonderfully written and composed horror story, however, I never understood people’s reaction to it in that they all felt that it was real or could be real. I’m an ex-Catholic so I thought the follow up to what happened to the readers of the book thinking that possession was a reality was a bit silly. A lot of people got far more terrified by the book because they believed in possession, but for me it was simply a very effective and well-written horror story. But I really, really loved the way William Friedkin shot the film, he gave it a tremendous amount of realism and an almost documentarian look at this thing that was happening to this little girl and her mother and everyone around them. The look and feel to the film was so beautifully grounded in a dense reality.
CS: How did the part of Chuck the assistant director on the movie within the movie “Crash Course” come about and what did you know of the character?
Faber: I had just won an Obie Award that year for the play And They Put Handcuffs on Flowers (Off-Broadway, 1972) and William Friedkin had wanted to give the film a lot of great publicity as they went along; so he could write in the trades that he had hired me to play a small part in the movie just coming off the fact that I was this actor who had just won an Obie Award. It was all part of a publicity thing. Chuck was a small part that he could hand out, but have someone who had been in the public’s eye and had gotten this recognition Off-Broadway to give the film a great publicity campaign. As far as I could tell, William Friedkin looked me over and I kind of knew that he was interested in me for the part of Chuck. However, when I did get a copy of the script and read through it, I had fallen in love with the demon and I thought the demon was really interesting and I wanted to get a chance at doing some voice over work. So I went to the producer of And They Put Handcuffs on Flowers and he had a friend who had an audio studio and I made a recording for William Friedkin who took it and told me that he would listen to it later down the track. When he finally did listen to it – and shooting on The Exorcist was done – he called me over to come to Los Angeles and do an hours work on doing one of the voices of the demon. Friedkin told me that there were three people doing the voice of the demon for the film. He was determined to make sure that the devil did not sound like just one person, he wanted it to sound like a legion of voices. So he had Mercedes McCambridge do the core part of the voice of the demon, and myself and someone else, and I never got any credit for it. That was my shock when I saw the movie – Mercedes McCambridge got the sole credit on the end film, so that pissed me off. What was really interesting was the fact that I didn’t actually have many lines as the demon. Friedkin flew me over to LA for the day and I had a car for the day and he really worked with me for only an hour, and the thing is there were certain things that I know that I didn’t do in LA that I had done in the recording over in New York at my producer’s friend’s sound studio. Now, the thing is, there were things from that recording that I was certain made it into the final film, and these were mostly sounds that I made – deep guttural moaning and groaning. The sound design people on the film played with the voices, mine included, and did the overlapping and so forth. Mercedes was the person responsible for all the wheezing! She was a well known asthmatic! It was great working with her, I loved her – I especially loved her in the film Touch of Evil (1958) by Orson Welles, and that creepy scene where they’re gang raping Janet Leigh and she is standing there and she says “Let me watch…I wanna watch”. Incredible. I mean she got the Academy Award for All The King’s Men (1949), but for me its Touch of Evil that I love her in.
CS: Were there more scenes involving Chuck omitted from the theatrical cut of the film?
Faber: It was very disappointing for me when I first saw the movie because, after all that great opening stuff in Northern Iraq with Father Merrin, William Friedkin really just cut out half an hour of the film! There was at least half an hour of footage and story and character subplots that went on in between Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil working on the movie within the movie and when we get to Father Karras. I understand that Warner Bros. wanted to make sure that the movie was cut down to two hours so they could run it at ease at theaters, but this early stuff in the movie had all these wonderful red herrings to make the audience wonder what is going on and what everybody’s motives are. They made the decision to cut to the chase and Friedkin himself made the choice to cut out an entire half an hour of subplots and a keen focus on the supporting characters such as Kitty Winn’s Sharon and the housekeepers. He couldn’t cut the Merrin stuff in Iraq, because I understand that Max Von Sydow had a contractual agreement to not have his part cut at all. So if they were doing any cutting they would hit all the subplots and red herrings which were developmental plot points but the sacrifice to make. This was really sad, not just for me, but for fellow actors. As I mentioned before, there was this German couple who were playing Ellen Burstyn’s housekeepers, and they got really cut out of the movie and they had a great subplot that was going on which involved a daughter of theirs, and they weren’t happy about that at all. Also, Jack MacGowan’s part as the director Burke Dennings got cut out a lot. Of course, I played Jack’s assistant and we had a couple of great scenes such as this one time where he’s shooting his film “Crash Course” (the movie within the movie) and it was a very charming scene dealing with the interaction between the two of us. When we finished doing the scene, he turned to me and said “Now we’re in the movie” because he knew that the scene was so good and would be kept. But of course, it was gone and that sequence shot at Georgetown University where they are working on the film within the film was cut down remarkably, and it was all about running time. The longest shoot for me was done on the campus at Georgetown University and yet in the final cut, you don’t see me at all! I was playing the AD so I was running around and hollering through a megaphone, and it was all about shooting this student rebellion movie which acted of course, as the movie within the movie. It was a very intelligent choice by the writer William Peter Blatty because it reflected what The Exorcist said – that this was a story about restraining and controlling the rebellious youth. It was shot early in production.
CS: Your core scene is the moment where you tell Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) the news of Burke Dennings’s (Jack MacGowan) death – with Sharon (Kitty Winn) in the same scene. What do you mostly remember about this moment in the production?
Faber: The weird thing was, this was the first scene I was slated for, and this was in July. I didn’t have an agent, so I asked a friend what I should do. He asked me if I had more than one scene and I said “Yeah, I have a number of scenes”, so he said “Well, then…take what is offered to you but say that you want a spread.” A spread is a term in the industry which means that from the moment you rehearse to the moment you wrap you are getting paid. So that is what I did! However, in July I went to shoot what was my last scene which was the scene where I come in and tell Ellen that the director has died. We got to the set in the West 50s and we started to rehearse the scene. It was shocking to me because I had never worked in movies and Ellen was so quiet and it was a shock to me because I was used to theatre where everyone is loud and projects loudly, and here I was not even a couple of feet away from her and I couldn’t even hear her! Anyway, we were rehearsing and William Friedkin had this really upset look on his face and he had gotten onto the phone and was talking to his designer of the MacNeil house, and he got into a great big battle over the phone and he called the designer over and they got into a massive fight which ended up with the designed getting fired. Right after that it got too late and Friedkin goes to me “We will let you know when you can come back and finish up on this scene”. This was in July. Then, in October we started this small scene again. Mind you, I was getting paid through this period! Which was great! Finally, yes, in October, I get a call and they say “Yes, we are shooting it” and they had gotten a new set and a new designer. So, the day after I get that call, I go back to the West 50s and when I arrive I hear that Kitty Winn had come down with a terrible flu, and she couldn’t shoot the scene, and this was going to be the last shot in an interior in New York. We had to go back to Georgetown and reshoot the scene there. I didn’t shoot the last scene I was in as Chuck until just before Christmas, then I was wrapped. So I was paid for all that time, isn’t that great?! As I mentioned, I remember that the new design for the MacNeil foyer was not that different from the original set we had before the initial designer was fired. I mean I didn’t see the set through the eyes of William Friedkin, but he hated the first look for the house, but I couldn’t see much different. My costuming in that scene consisted of my own clothing – that was my jacket and my hat, Friedkin saw me in them and liked it, so we kept it.
CS: Jack MacGowan makes an incredible impression as Burke Dennings – what was he like?
Faber: I remember watching Jack MacGowan during the fight scene at the party, and I loved watching him throw the glass, smashing it to the floor. Jack was great. I loved him. I really loved him. Jack had quit drinking at that time and he had been a very heavy, serious drinker. He was roommates with Peter O’Toole and they were both heavy drinkers. At the time we shot The Exorcist, Peter O’Toole had just come off doing the film version of the musical Man of La Mancha (1972) which was a grueling shoot for Peter and Jack was really concerned about Peter’s health, however, the irony was that Jack was going to die within months after completing his scenes on The Exorcist. As far as Jack’s alcoholism on camera and off, let’s just that it’s easier to play a drunk than to be a drunk!
CS: Can you talk about the death of Jack MacGowan…what was that like to deal with after wrapping?
Faber: Ellen Burstyn and I had gotten into conversations about the esoteric and all things spiritual while we worked together on The Exorcist. We were also obsessed with the idea and concept of synchronicity and we had a number of conversations about it, so when Jack died she called me and she asked me if I had any inkling or any feeling that this tragic event was going to happen. I said “No”. But the weird thing was at that time I had been partying and drinking with friends and I had started acting out the way Jack did the character of Fool in the Peter Brook film King Lear (1971) for my friends as he was dying. I didn’t admit that to Ellen however, I shied away from it and said “No.” Now another thing, as I hung up on Ellen, the kid next door to me who was learning the trumpet and up until that time had only been playing songs by The Beatles, started playing “Taps”, the bugle call for sunset and burial and death. I had denied to Ellen that I had an inkling, but I just happened to spend that time imitating Jack. He was a wonderful actor, and we had both done a lot of Samuel Beckett, and we got along great. Also, my father was an alcoholic and he had quit so he had that same haunted look in his eyes that Jack had, so there was an immediate affection to Jack from me straight away, and he could tell wonderful stories.
CS: You had come from the theatre and this was your first film, do you remember any jarring differences between mediums?
Faber: Working with Ellen Burstyn I realized there was a major difference, and most of that was to do with volume. The scene where I tell Ellen Burstyn about the death of Burke Dennings – Jack’s character – was a great little scene, I really loved doing it. I loved working with Ellen, I just think she’s fantastic. When we were in Washington, Ellen and I would talk about the occult and we were both very interested in the esoteric. We both shared a second sight and a deep connection to spirituality. I love her work, but it was a shock for me coming from the theatre and dealing with film acting – I was amazed as to how quiet Ellen was. It changed my whole view of movie acting. I saw how small you could get and how much you can say in those small choices in acting on film.
CS: What was Kitty Winn like to work with – what do you remember about her?
Faber: If they had kept that original half an hour that was plotted after the Iraq sequence there would have been so much more in regards to Sharon. Kitty Winn is an excellent actress and she got to play out this whole thing where she felt the anxiety and tension from the strange happenings that would lead to this little girl’s possession. The more Kitty Winn the better I say. Sadly, a lot of her stuff was cut. The last time I saw Kitty Winn was when I was doing a show in New Haven and she was in another play in Long Wharf and I ran into her at the Old Heidelberg restaurant and she was terrified! She was curled up in a foetal position in the corner of the restaurant and was just completely frightened by the concept of doing this play! We couldn’t even communicate she was that scared. She left acting after that.
CS: The party scene is a great assortment of segmented sequences that build towards Regan urinating on the carpet, what was this entire sequence like to shoot?
Faber: The party scene was bizarre, but great. I loved the song! “Up on the Eastside of thirty and third lies my own true love…” It was a weird scene because we had all these Jesuits who were all experts on the religion and so forth. Now Jesuits don’t have sex but they had the biggest vocabulary of the filthiest words and terms I had ever heard in my life! And not only that, but they shared the dirtiest most offensive jokes I had ever heard, they were hilarious! The things that came out of those Jesuits mouths was amazing! Now one of the actors playing one of the Jesuits was overacting and technically things weren’t going well that day, and usually in my experience when a director is having difficulty they won’t blow up at an actor, instead they would take it out on someone on the technical side. The reason they do this is because the actor is usually sensitive and if you lose it at them then they won’t be able to deliver. But Friedkin blew up at this actor and this guy was destroyed and he was fired. So Friedkin took one of the Jesuits and gave him the part and this guy did it very well. I remember Ellen telling me that Friedkin tore her to shreds when we were shooting the movie within the movie sequence at Georgetown University. She told me that she was completely broken by this and couldn’t work. But, because she was the star of the movie she was able to come back the next day, and she thought that the actor who was fired and replaced by a real life Jesuit wouldn’t be able to bounce back as easy. Years later I was doing a show with this same actor in Washington! We did this show at Kennedy Centre. I talked to him about being fired on THE EXORCIST and he said that it didn’t bother him at all. Some nights later we went out and got really drunk and he opened up and said that he was destroyed for weeks by being fired from the film, and Ellen was right, he didn’t have a chance to go back the next day.
CS: How would you describe William Friedkin’s directorial approach?
Faber: When there were technical problems William Friedkin would do the complete opposite of what other directors would do, he would seem to take it out on actors. He never did it with me. I mean he would come out really strong against an actor’s performance and this was only because things weren’t moving very well on the technical side of things. Over the years now I have not seen other directors come down on an actor very strongly. Friedkin was riding high through a lot of the shooting because The French Connection (1971) had just won five awards. One day when we were shooting the party scene he was sipping a bottle of Jack Daniels and running around flashing his full five fingers and mouthing “Five Academy Awards!” in celebration. But things were very volatile during the shoot of the party scene. During the party scene there were many more integrated scenes that ended up cut out – what eventuated of course was mostly the singing at the piano and the little girl peeing. But in one of the extra parts however, there was a bit with me and this beautiful model. Friedkin had me chatting with this beautiful model next to a big potted tree that was in the middle of the set. She says to me, “You know, my parents have a tree in the middle of their house; its in the middle of the living room” and I say “Oh…” and we went on talking, and she then tells me “The tree was a gift from Bill Friedkin” and we kept talking and then she gave Friedkin a look and then turned to me and said “He’s not sincere”. The urination scene utilized a simple approach.
Linda Blair had a bulb that she pressed on and it ejected the liquid through a tube underneath her nightdress. It was just squirted out of a bulb, there was no real special effect there. The astronaut was probably the squarest actor I had ever met! I mean he was there because he looked like an astronaut, and that was it!
CS: In THE VERSION YOU’VE NEVER SEEN (The Exorcist’s director’s cut) release of the film back in 2000, there is the infamous spider-walk moment which happens at the tail-end of the scene where you deliver the news of Burke’s death. The scene has you leave and Chris and Sharon forced to bear witness to Regan glide down the stairs, and the rest is Hollywood horror history…Were you on set for this?
Faber: Oh yes! For sure! I saw it all being done. The stunt girl who did the spider-walk was amazing, and it was scary to watch. Watching her glide down the stairs was amazing. This stunt lady and I had the same agent so we knew each other. It was very well done.
CS: I’ve always loved that The Exorcist uses the profession of acting and show business as a target for the evil – much like ROSEMARY’S BABY – both Ellen Burstyn’s Chris and John Cassavetes’s Guy are both actors (one incredibly successful, the other struggling). I also like that “Crash Course”, the movie within the movie in The Exorcist, is a student protest movie, something that was a fad at the time with movies like The Strawberry Statement being influential, and this is something that reflects the concept of angry youths questioning the system. What are your thoughts on these two aspects of the film?
Faber: I love Rosemary’s Baby so much and why I love it so much is the fact that you don’t know if its all happening in Mia Farrow’s head. But yes, to answer the question – the film industry as a magnet for evil, well maybe so! I think politics draws more evil. Also, I had seen a lot of student protest pieces because I had worked with the Open Theatre and we did a lot of improvisational theatre that worked that kind of politically motivated agenda into our works. The Exorcist definitely discusses this.