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The Exorcist Actors You May Not Know Passed Away

In 1973, "The Exorcist" hit theaters and forever changed how the world saw everything from pea soup to long flights of stairs. It's one of the most significant horror films of all time, leading to a whole family tree of Catholicism-infused demonic possession movies ranging from "The Amityville Horror" to "The Conjuring." And what's best of all is that the film still holds up. Sure, it's historically important, but it's not at all outdated or toothless. We still have to watch it with the lights on.

Of course, it's not only a great horror movie: It's a great movie, plain and simple. Director William Friedkin grounds all the supernatural happenings in a well-observed and realistic setting, and the storytelling takes its time and lets the tension build up inescapably. And the cast — maybe the key element here — ties all of it together, embodying that nuanced realism and playing that sense of increasing fear. Even the most minor roles are perfectly cast and superbly performed.

By now, a number of the actors who made "The Exorcist" feel so terrifyingly real have passed away, and we want to make sure they get their due. Let's talk about the lives and careers of "The Exorcist" actors we've lost since the movie wrapped.

Jack MacGowran as Burke Dennings

Jack MacGowran played the ill-fated Burke Dennings, Chris MacNeil's director and — fatally — Regan's one-time babysitter. Burke's heavy drinking makes the police excuse the fact that he dies falling from Regan's window ... but we know better.

MacGowran himself had a much quieter passing, but it was also tragically early: He died of a heart attack, brought on by a case of the flu, at only 54. The Irish Times noted this as the passing of a legend, deeming MacGowran one of the nation's finest actors. While his film presence was substantial — as that obituary notes, four of his movies, including "The Exorcist," were Best Picture nominees — he may have been even more influential on the stage. He was particularly respected for his work in the plays of Samuel Beckett, so skilled at drawing out the author's qualities of hope and humor that his biographer believed "he changed forever the public perception of Beckett."

"The Exorcist" was MacGowran's final film role; he passed away in January 1973, almost a full year before its release.

Barton Heyman as Dr. Klein

Dr. Klein is one of several doctors Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) cycles through while her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) worriedly searches for a diagnosis. He's also someone you might recognize from numerous other film roles: Barton Heyman.

Like a lot of hard-working character actors, Heyman — who died of heart failure at the age of 59 in May 1996 — spent a considerable chunk of his career on stage, most notably as part of the New York Shakespeare Festival. He had a considerable movie presence, and avid horror fans in particular might also recognize him as the husband from the eerie little cult flick "Let's Scare Jessica to Death," where he gets a lot of screen time.

But his obituary in The New York Times pegged his most widely famous role as one of his last: "Dead Man Walking," with Sean Penn, where he got to make the ominous title announcement. The LA Times seconded this, mentioning Heyman's belief that these "three words earned him more fame than anything in his long career on stage, screen and television." Which means that was one great line delivery.

Lee J. Cobb as Lt. William Kinderman

Veteran actor Lee J. Cobb plays Lt. Kinderman, the cop who investigates Burke Dennings' death. If you've seen the director's cut of "The Exorcist," you'll feel especially fond of him: He and Father Dyer, the two shaken-up witnesses of all this, end the movie by starting to become friends.

Kinderman would return in 1990's "The Exorcist III," but the role would pass to George C. Scott because Cobb tragically died of a heart attack in 1976, only a few years after the first film's release. He was only 64. Although his career was cut short, he had already established a lengthy list of high-quality credits, appearing in classics like "On the Waterfront" (where he picked up an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor), "How the West Was Won," and Sidney Lumet's iconic "12 Angry Men." And he didn't limit himself to the movies: He also worked extensively in theater, originating the role of Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman," and starred in the first four seasons of the long-running TV Western "The Virginian." It's an impressive run by anyone's standards.

Vasiliki Maliaros as Father Karras' mother

Vasiliki Maliaros only ever made one on-screen appearance, and this was it: She played Damien Karras' dying mother, and the film's use of her beautiful but plaintive voice is unforgettable — especially when it's coming out of the possessed Regan, used as the perfect twist of the knife on Karras, who is still weighed down by grief and guilt.

You need a certain kind of instantly motherly and instantly memorable woman for this role. And director William Friedkin found her — but not through any kind of ordinary audition process. According to the movie trivia compendium "Serket's Movies," Friedkin discovered Maliaros in a Greek restaurant. It's unlikely Maliaros would have ever been able to take on too many roles after "The Exorcist" – she was already 89 when Friedkin found her — but in any case, she died of natural causes before the film ever premiered. It's a sad fact that certainly lends an additional poignancy to her work as Karras' mother.

Mercedes McCambridge as the voice of the demon

Once you've seen "The Exorcist," you can't forget the ravaged, snarling voice of the possessed Regan — and that means that you can't forget the legendary work of Mercedes McCambridge, who died in March 2004 at age 87 from natural causes.

Nor should you. McCambridge had an impressive career that included a Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for "All the King's Men" and a nomination for "Giant." Her obituary in The New York Times reports that her film offers weren't always thick on the ground — she didn't have the right "look" that the studios favored — but she made up for it with a superabundance of radio work. Orson Welles worked with her frequently and referred to her as "the world's greatest living radio actress" (via The New York Times). That comes as no surprise to us. And it's not like McCambridge specialized in the demonic, either: She had tremendous vocal range and could handle a wide variety of roles.

Playing Pazuzu was one of her most difficult jobs, so she was understandably heartbroken when the initial screenings left her uncredited. Thankfully, the problem was soon fixed, so there's no ambiguity about who was responsible for one of cinema's most shiver-inducing performances.

Jason Miller as Father Karras

It doesn't surprise us at all that Jason Miller picked up an Oscar nomination for his work as Father Damien Karras. His nuanced and emotionally raw performance is the beating heart of the film, especially in the second half.

For all his acting prowess, Miller might have been even better known as a playwright — winning both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for the acidic, anti-nostalgic drama "That Championship Season," where the reunion of a once-celebrated high school basketball team slowly reveals the hollowness of both the players' glory days and their fading lives now. Miller stayed involved with the theater for the rest of his life, according to his New York Times obituary: He guided the overall artistic aims of the Scranton Public Theater, and in 2001, at the time of his death at age 62 from a heart attack, he was scheduled to star in a stage production of "The Odd Couple."

But Miller's other screen performances are worth catching too. In particular, he reprised the role of Karras in "The Exorcist III," lending even more pathos to the tormented priest's story.

Max von Sydow as Father Merrin

Max von Sydow's career was, like that of his character Father Merrin's, long and impressive. (We can't turn up any concrete proof that Max von Sydow ever performed a successful exorcism, so we have to give his "Exorcist" the character the edge there. Expelling demons is important work.) He was a huge part of some top-tier classics, especially when he worked with legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman — their collaborations include "The Seventh Seal" (one of our all-time favorite movies), "Through a Glass Darkly," and "The Virgin Spring."

He left an indelible mark on world cinema — but you could miss every one of his Bergman films and still recognize him as an outstanding actor, because he was also a key part of some amazing mainstream movies, including thrillers like "Three Days of the Condor," "Minority Report," and "Shutter Island." Late in his career, he even cemented his place in pop culture geek hearts everywhere by appearing in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and "Game of Thrones." He was a subtle but powerful actor whose finely crafted performances were complemented by enormous dignity and charisma.

Von Sydow died in 2020 at age 90. And we can't think of a more fitting memoriam than what critic Terrence Rafferty wrote about him in The Atlantic, five years before his death: "For a significant portion of his six decades onscreen, he has been the greatest actor alive."

Thomas Bermingham as Tom, President of Georgetown University

Thomas Bermingham projects effortless authority in "The Exorcist" as the President of Georgetown University. You trust this man to assign the right priests to perform exorcisms. There's a reason for that: Bermingham was a real-life Jesuit priest. He served as one of the film's technical advisors ... and almost had to act as its on-call exorcist. According to American Hauntings, the set was plagued with accidents and injuries — enough to make everyone involved a little jumpy. Director William Friedkin asked Bermingham to perform an exorcism, just in case. They settled on a blessing.

The rumblings about an "Exorcist" curse didn't deter Bermingham from going on to supervise the use of religion in "The Amityville Horror" and "Amityville II: The Possession," but "The Exorcist" was the only time he actually appeared on screen.

Bermingham died in 1998, aged 80. He's honored by his subtle but significant influence in horror movie history and by an academic scholarship bearing his name.

Peter Masterson as Dr. Barringer

Dr. Barringer is the doctor who talks to Chris MacNeil about an unorthodox possible solution for her daughter's problems: an exorcism. He doesn't believe in them, but he believes in the psychological value of the placebo effect.

Barringer is played by Peter Masterson, who had a relatively short but highly varied career as an actor, writer, director, and producer. If you can't shake the feeling that there's something a little weaselly and unlikable about him, it's probably because you remember how great — if despicable — he was as the husband in 1975's "The Stepford Wives." That might be his most famous film role, but his obituary in The Houston Chronicle pegs his writing as his biggest artistic impact: He co-wrote the Broadway smash, "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." He worked frequently with his daughter, Mary Stuart Masterson, who described him as "a man of few words, but every one of them a gem" (per the Houston Chronicle). It speaks to Masterson's artistic talent of doing a lot with a little, which is exactly what makes him memorable in "The Exorcist."

Masterson died in 2018, at age 84, after many years of living with Parkinson's.

Robert Symonds as Dr. Taney

"The Exorcist" offers plenty of fuel for your nightmares. But as much as we love all the head-spinning, let's not forget about one all-too-real and down-to-earth bit of medical horror: that needle going into Regan's neck. We wince just thinking about it. She gets that procedure from Robert Symonds' Dr. Taney, who is still hoping for a concrete physiological explanation for Regan's troubles. No such luck.

Robert Symonds was a terrific character actor, and once you start recognizing him, you see him everywhere. He played the devious Colonel Baldwin on "M*A*S*H" and a fanatical Bajoran traditionalist on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," while racking up additional appearances on everything from "Dynasty" to "Alias." Most of his work was on the small screen, but he ended his movie career on a high note with Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can." As his Playbill obituary notes, he also had a theater career both on and off the stage, including years as the associate director of Lincoln Center.

He died at the age of 80 in August 2007, of complications from prostate cancer.

Rudolf Schundler as Karl

Rudolf Schündler plays the MacNeils' devoted and sharply intelligent butler, Karl — one of the first people to really recognize what the family is dealing with. (Just listen closely for that moment he tellingly refers to "it" instead of Regan.)

In addition to Karl, Schündler played ... almost everyone. He was an unbelievably prolific actor with a list of screen credits that seems to go on for miles. Since he did most of his work in German, English-speaking audiences may have missed a lot of it. But some of his films, like "The Exorcist," are globally famous: We particularly recommend the off-kilter Italian horror movie "Suspiria" and "The American Friend," a dark crime movie that follows up on the later adventures of "The Talented Mr. Ripley."

Schündler also left behind a legacy as a director, making multiple films in the '50s and '60s. Combine that with his acting career — which started in 1924 and spanned all the way to 1990, two years after his death from a heart attack at age 82 — and we're in awe of his work ethic.

Arthur Storch as the psychiatrist

The psychiatrist who briefly and unwisely tries out hypnotism on the possessed Regan is played by Arthur Storch, who made much smarter life choices.

Most of Storch's acting work was in television, where he appeared in some of the classics of TV's First Golden Age, including the teleplay "No Time for Sergeants." But he made a good pick when he chose one of his few movie roles, as "The Exorcist" stands as his most prestigious on-screen project.

This minor, unnamed role in a great film was only a small part of Storch's overall career, however. He spent most of his time on Broadway, where he did a little acting and a lot of directing. His New York Times obituary focuses on his theater work, where he directed actors like Al Pacino, Alan Alda, and Jack Lemmon. He also founded Syracuse Stage, one of the best-regarded regional theater companies in America. And he was a crucial influence for writers and directors, especially Aaron Sorkin, who would go on to create "The West Wing" and script movies like "A Few Good Men" and "The Social Network." Sorkin told the Time that Storch passed on an invaluable piece of advice: "Dare to fail."

Storch died in March 2013, aged 87.

Titos Vandis as Karras' uncle

Titos Vandis, who plays Father Damien Karras' uncle, worked extensively over the course of a nearly 50-year career. He did many of his early movies in Greece, and two of them garnered him Best Actor awards from the Thessaloniki Film Festival.

His eventual American roles might not have ever brought him the same attention, but they certainly kept him busy — and he absolutely made the most of them. "M*A*S*H" fans will remember him as the jovial Greek Colonel Andropolis in the episode "Private Charles Lamb," and he also appeared in numerous other major TV shows of the time, especially sitcoms like "Newhart," "The Odd Couple," and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." He also had several noteworthy English-language movie appearances, including in the colorful international heist movie "Topkapi" and the Woody Allen comedy "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)."

Vandis died in 2003, back in his native Greece.

Dick Callinan as Captain Billy Cutshaw

Dick Callinan's role as Captain Billy Cutshaw is a small one, but the odds are good that you remember it. He's the astronaut who received Regan's ominous warning that he's "going to die up there." The film's full of visceral shocks, but this quietly disturbing moment is still one of our favorite parts. It may have been one of author William Peter Blatty's favorites, too, since he reused Cutshaw — if not Callinan — in a kind of loose (and very strange) spin-off called "The Ninth Configuration."

While he did some films besides "The Exorcist" — most notably Woody Allen's "Bananas" – his obituary reports that he did even more extensive work in commercials and voice-overs during a long career. He lived in Florida for almost 50 years, and he poured a lot of his talent and focus into his community, promoting local businesses and serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild's Florida branch. He passed away in 2009 at the age of 81, leaving behind a large family and an even larger body of work.

William Peter Blatty as the producer

William Peter Blatty, of course, isn't known for his small cameo in "The Exorcist," where he plays a film producer; he's known as the man who wrote "The Exorcist." According to The Guardian, Blatty's original novel spent 17 weeks at No. 1 on the New York Times best seller list — and an incredible 57 weeks on the list total. His potent and terrifying battle between good and evil grabbed the world by the throat. And he then went on to write the movie's Oscar-winning screenplay, just as a bonus.

"The Exorcist" remains Blatty's one true classic, but it was hardly the end of his career. He continued to write both novels and screenplays, and he even successfully turned his hand to directing. You can probably skip the lackluster "Exorcist II: The Heretic," which he had nothing to do with, but you should definitely check out his unrelated sequel, "The Exorcist III," a deeply felt film with one of the finest jump scares in all of horror.

Blatty died of multiple myeloma in 2017 at age 89, leading to a flood of Twitter tributes from some of his fellow horror icons.