“There’s two ways to look at The Exorcist,” stated actor Jason Miller who portrayed Father Karras in the horror classic. It is September 2000, and Miller is speaking about the film during a workshop at the Pennsylvania Film Festival being held in Scranton, Pennsylvania. “One way is that he [Father Karras] gives his own life to save the girl. He jumps out the window and Satan has been thwarted. The other way is that if Satan really wanted the two priests, and he was just using the girl as the instrument, he’s up by seven points. That’s why the theologians got a little crazy about it. Because when the start looking at it at that level they said, ‘Wait a minute. What kind of picture is this guy making?’ It’s that existential ambiguity that makes it go. You don’t have that in movies anymore.”
It’s no surprise that the script’s powerful and ambiguous ending intrigued Miller. Growing up in Scranton, he attended Catholic high school and graduated from the Jesuit-run University of Scranton. It was this background that attracted Exorcist director William Friedkin to the idea of casting Miller in the role of Father Karras, following seeing the actor in the Broadway production of the Miller-penned play That Championship Season.
“My picture’s in the program and there’s a whole lot of stuff about Jesuit schools in Championship Season and he had a hunch,” Miller recalled. “He said ‘Do you want to go on a screen test?’ I thought I was dreaming. I went out and did a screen test and the rest is history.”
Miller faced some stiff competition for the role. Warner Brothers, the studio bankrolling the film, was pushing for an actor with star power for the role. Jack Nicholson and Ryan O’Neill had already tested for the role of Father Karras. But the fact that Miller wasn’t a big film star ultimately played to his advantage.
“They [the producers] preferred an unknown because they wanted the story to be the star,” he said. “They had to convince the powers that be at the studio and that was quite a bit of salesmanship.
“The Exorcist had 56 weeks on the [New York] Times best seller list. They didn’t really need a star, they had a built in audience. Fifty-six weeks for a book on the best seller list means there’s an enormous amount of people reading that book, which means an enormous amount of people are going to go see that movie. They also don’t want people to say ‘Wasn’t Jack Nicholson great?’ They want someone like me with no face at all to lend a sense of honesty and truth to the character. They didn’t want people to go see the movie because of Jack Nicholson. They felt they didn’t need Jack Nicholson because the movie itself was strong enough, if they cast it right, which they did all the way around. Ellen Burstyn was terrific. Lee J. Cobb hadn’t worked for years and he’s a great, great actor. Max Von Sydow was known as a European star. The story was the star. And the director, Friedkin was at the top of his game. He was just coming off The French Connection.”
Over his career, Friedkin would develop something of a reputation for his unorthodox directing methods, which Miller confirmed. “Friedkin’s a lunatic,” he recalled with a chuckle. “He’d shoot guns off behind [an actor’s] head to get a surprise out of them. He’s not very respectful to actors. He’s afraid of them. He doesn’t understand the process.”
It didn’t help that Miller’s stage training didn’t prepare him for the decidedly different process of filmmaking.
“I had never acted in a movie before,” he stated. “It was quite different. On stage, we have to project. In the movies you read your lines like you’re talking on the phone. That’s the only real discipline I gave myself.”
“I love rehearsals. [But in film,] you don’t get rehearsal. They want to catch spontaneity. They love spontaneity. A lot of time spontaneity can be dreadful. Being a theater person, I like rehearsal because you can discover things. I’ll tell you this, if you get a guy who is great in the movies and get him on stage with you, they’re out of the building. They don’t have the concentration and the stamina to go the two hours, nor the technique. Let’s face it, in any good movie the most movie acting will be a long shot, two minutes than cut. And you’ll do that scene maybe fifteen, sixteen times. Most actors in movies, in the wide shots and the long shots will just be [waves hand dismissively]. Once the close ups start coming, then you start to see their acting and their talent.
“I insisted that we rehearsed the night before. Lee J Cobb liked the rehearsal because he’s a stage guy. Ellen Burnstyn liked the rehearsal because she was a stage girl. We’d go grab a beer after the day’s shoot and then go rehearse for about an hour.”
It was out of one these rehearsal sessions that Miller found a way to help refine his character’s climactic scene.
“What they wanted me to do was walk over to the window, say this very lyrical prayer, and then jump out the window,” Miller recalled. “I went in and said ‘The devil is already in him’ and they said ‘Well, how are you going to show that?’ Well, he’s lost any idea that this is a human being. To him that little girl is the devil. That’s the way he sees it. And so I said ‘I’ll show you what I want to do.’ We go in and she starts to laugh, so I went over and I rip the place to pieces and said ‘That’s what he’s really feeling.’ Otherwise me walking to window and saying ‘Oh save my soul’ and all that kind of stuff is melodramatic.”
Released on December 26, 1973, The Exorcist would become a sensation, scaring viewers around the world and would go on to become the decade’s fifth highest grossing film. Such revenues insured that it would spawn two sequels and a recently released prequel as well as numerous imitators. Even though Miller’s character died at the end of The Exorcist, that certainly didn’t stop him from appearing in one of its sequels.
“I did [Part] 3,” Miller recalled. “I didn’t see the second one, the Richard Burton one. Blatty and Friedkin weren’t involved with that. They had sold the sequel rights. They didn’t care. Part 3 wasn’t a bad film, but they weren’t going to be able to top the first one.”
“It is weird to go make a classic film right out of the box,” mused Miller on the success of his first Hollywood venture. Even though Miller went on to appear in numerous other film and television productions, including the college football drama Rudy (1993) and directing a film adaptation of his play That Championship Season shot on location in his adopted hometown of Scranton, it’s his first role that Miller is best remembered for. Although the past three decades have elevated The Exorcist to the status of a classic horror film, Miller felt that the film transcends its genre categorization. “I think The Exorcist in someway is not a genre horror film. It’s something else. It’s more of a philosophical horror film.”
A portion of this interview was previously published in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader on October 13, 2000.