Earlier this year, we lost  William Peter Blatty,  creator of THE EXORCIST,  generally regarded  as the greatest-ever horror novel and movie and the inspiration for countless other writers. William Peter Blatty [hereinafter ‘Bill’] – can you believe it – his forte was comedy? Not simply comic, zany! As a Georgetown undergraduate, Bill masqueraded as a priest  in furtherance of a mascot-nap caper leading to the removal of the Navy Goat and the Villanova Wildcat! [Both returned unharmed after an appropriate interval.] After graduation, he worked for the United States Information Agency in Beirut and, not letting on that he spoke Arabic, heard frank reactions to Americans.  A book of his experiences became Which Way to Mecca, Jack.  Back in the US, while working at various jobs in Southern California, he posed as a Saudi prince, an impersonation that had Leo Durocher explaining baseball to him. In that guise, he appearedas a contestant on the Groucho Marx show You Bet Your Life. Here’s the hilarious video. Blatty’s  spoof exposed, he wrote a series of comic novels including  John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!  and began a collaboration with director Blake Edwards including writing A Shot in the Dark,the second Pink Panther film. Finally, he turned to an idea that had been with him since reading in college of an exorcism performed in Maryland.  So came the novel The Exorcist, a stark departure from comedy. Fate? The Exorcist was far from a best seller; it was selling poorly and bookstores were returning copies to the publisher. Then, the inexplicable occurred. He received a call from his agent saying, if he could get there in 10 minutes,  he could be on the Dick Cavett show.  He got there and learned that not one but three things happened that changed his life:  Cavett had one guest who canceled, and another guest who did not show, and Cavett had not read the book. Bill was introduced as the Exorcist author and Cavett said: Tell me what it is it all about.  Bill started talking and 41 minutes later the country started buying The Exorcist.
Ronald Reagan’s words come to mind:I was raised to believe that God has a plan for everyone and that seemingly random twists of fate are all a part of His plan. Book and film‘the greatest-ever horror novel and movie’? Horror was not his goal. The print edition of the National Review [February 6] briefly noted:Because he wrote The Exorcist – both the 1971 novel and the screenplay for the 1973 movie – William Peter Blatty gained a reputation as an author of horror fiction. He is better understood as a Catholic writer who used the tools of the horror genre to advance the tenets of his faith. The film became a sensation, in large measure for its sensationalism: its portrayal of a girl’s demonic possession made it one of the most shocking and influential movies of its time. Beneath the flamboyance, however, was a simple message about the wickedness of despair and the power of belief. Readers of the novel tended to get the point, though… lost on enough moviegoers that [he] worked to restore deleted scenes in later releases.  ‘I don’t want them to think the devil won.’  To that end, he also issued a 40th anniversary edition:First time around I never had the time (meaning the funds) to do a second draft, and this, finally, is it. With forty years to think about it, a few little changes were inevitable – plus one new character in a totally new very spooky scene. This is the version I would like to be remembered for .  It was essential to him that people understand the antidote to despair is God’s love:That God exists and the universe itself will have a happy ending. a Catholic writer –  so described in the February National Review notice.  Bill was one of 5 children of Mary and Peter Blatty. They were raised by their mother after the father left the family. His mother, deeply religious, supported the family, peddling homemade quince jelly in the streets of Manhattan. He lived at 28 different addresses:We never lived at the same address in New York for longer than two or three months at a time… Eviction was the order of the day.She was apparently a force of nature, lovingly memorialized in I’ll Tell Them I Remember You. Bill won scholarships to Jesuit schools, Brooklyn Prep and Georgetown University. He was devoted to Georgetown and the Jesuits, establishing scholarships. But to his sorrow and that of all alums of our eras, we became disaffected when, in the late 1980s, the Jesuits went south on RC and embraced PC. Before that, however, Bill had become the ultimate GU Hoops fan and struck up a friendship with coach John Thompson. In those days, the media was hostile to the coach for so called Hoya Paranoia and what they perceived as hostility to the press. Sports Illustrated noted:  …, Thompson himself was taking magnum-force aim at published criticism, describing it as ‘fiction’ …He explained he wasn’t some ‘helluva nut,’ that he was proud of America’s armed services and that he even actually liked some members of the media, invoking the name of … a certain writer. ‘Yeah, as a matter of fact, the whole team had dinner at a writer’s house out here in Malibu,’ said Thompson. ‘Blatty. …Bill Blatty. Yeah, he’s a writer.‘ If you like terror. It figures. [Emphasis added.]
Bill loved it.      The media had cast Georgetown’s Hoyas as the ‘villains’ of college basketball. Nice guy Patrick Ewing, GU’s All American center, was typically described as ‘menacing’ and, to be fair, he was that on the court. With characteristic humor, Bill ran with that and cast Patrick as the Angel of Death in an Exorcist sequel.  
As Bill was a Georgetown grad from GU’s Golden Era, questions were raised as to his Catholicism.
Had he not married multiple times and had children by three different women?   Today’s catch phrase is It’s complicated. But it really isn’t. Catholicism is about redemption and reconciliation. His fourth and final marriage to the former Julie Witbrodt was in accordance with Catholic Church law. Julie, his wife of more than 30 years and mother of Peter and Paul,  welcomed  prior wives and children into their home. In addition to Peter [who  died tragically in 2006 at 19 from a rare heart disorder] and Paul, Bill had 2 sons [Mike and Billy] and 3 daughters [Chris, Mary Jo and Jennifer.] The six surviving children were present at his funeral comforting Julie and one another.Well worth reading: Finding Peter: A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life After Death
 In 80 plus  years,  I have not had many ‘Best Friends’. I am privileged to state Bill was one for more than 40 of those years. I had met Bill from time to time in California but what brought us together was a contentious lawsuit filed against him by his agent seeking millions in damages. It was a non-jury case, bifurcated to try first a defense Bill’s lawyers thought would end the case in Bill’s favor.  The trial went sideways with the judge not only rejecting the defense but calling Bill “immoral” for raising it. His close friend and Georgetown classmate Dick Gordon was a lawyer and a dean at Georgetown Law Center. Dick urged the law firm to bring a motion to remove the judge as prejudiced based on his remarks. It did so and the second part of the trial was delayed. The motion had to be heard by a judge other than one in the Los Angeles County Court.  The lawyers also realized that they would be necessary witnesses when the trial resumed and so new representation was needed. At Dick Gordon’s suggestion, Bill asked me to handle the case.   Fortunately, there were some weeks delay before the challenge motion was heard in Orange County. Fortunate because I needed to read and learn what had happened in the client-agent relationship and that meant reviewing a mass of records including many years of financial transactions as well as boxes of court filings and volumes of depositions. Bill and I were in daily contact deciding what would be required as evidence when the trial resumed. We received word that the challenge had been denied and the second part of the trial commenced.On Halloween, we walked into court to face an angry judge who told me to put our accountant on the stand to testify to damages and that the case would be over in  a few days! Whoa, the fight was on! And it was a fight. Rather than a few days, the case went 2 months. Eventually, and painfully, the judge was brought around to see that the agent’s dealings, to put it mildly,  were not in accord with fiduciary standards.  To put it more bluntly, the agent was shown to be a liar. A settlement was reached, one substantially less than offered earlier when the hostility of the judge had things going bad in the courtroom. At that point, we did not want to settle but the case would come down to a question of credibility and the trial judge is seldom overruled on that issue. Given his earlier position, we decided it would not be  prudent to rely on how the judge would rule were the case to go to verdict.  On New Year’s Eve, the papers were signed ending the litigation. Over a period of 4 months, Bill and I were in each other’s company for literally hundreds of hours.That kind of proximity could have resulted in animosity.  For us, it cemented a friendship. Fun times I ask your forbearance for my indulgence in a few more memories. A year or so after the trial, Bonnie and I were married in Minneapolis. I was staying at a hotel with a bar called The Great Northern Spirit.  A day before the wedding, I was delighted to find a note in my box stating the Great Arab Spirit was in The Great Northern Spirit.  The next night at the rehearsal dinner, Bill told a story about the trial. He said he was sitting in the courtroom with other spectators. Lawyers were in the judge’s chambers behind a closed door but everyone could hear the judge yelling in anger. Bill said a little old lady sitting near him turned and said:Aren’t you glad that isn’t your lawyer the judge is yelling at?He replied gravely:  Madam, that is my lawyer the judge is yelling at. Then he turned to Bonnie:So, Bonnie, be glad he is only your husband and not your lawyer! While I suspect the veracity of the little old lady details, the anecdote did convey a truthful picture of how the trial was going at one point.   And the punchline advice to Bonnie brought down the house. [BTW, after the wedding, Bill caught the garter and three years later married Julie.] Back in Malibu, Bonnie and I hosted a dinner in our condo attended by Bonnie’s Mom and Dad, Bill and 2 others.  Our dining area faced East with shuttered windows.  During the dinner, Bill was telling a Blatty type story, that one of his sons remembered the event of his birth.  With his olive skin tone contrasting with his bright blue eye, Bill’s presence was commanding. Add to that his mellifluous baritone and his words captivated. Taking on the son’s persona,  he said:Daddy, Daddy the lights – the bright lights… Just then a gust of Santa Ana winds hit, the shutters blew open with a bang, the chandelier began swaying and the candles on the table blew out. Without missing  a beat, Bill looked at everyone around the table: They do accuse of me of overdoing the special effects. Fast forward to 2011, Bill and Julie had long since moved to Bethesda and I had business that would take Bonnie and me to DC. It occurred to me that two of my Best Friends had never met.  Although they both  were Georgetown grads, they were not in school at the same time – Bill and Nino Scalia – each an iconic internationally known figure.  Bonnie and I hosted a dinner to bring together Bill and Julie and Nino and Maureen. I told Bill and Nino I wanted the film rights, figuring the meeting would be memorable, one way or the other. They hit it off wonderfully and, for the next five years, the couples had frequent visits until  Nino’s tragic death in February, 2016. Bill followed him 11 months later.  Random twists of fate and inevitability Bill could weave this better than I. But after Bill’s funeral, I put together disparate events that seemed to lead to the inevitability of our litigation connection.  I chronicle them below. In 1953, Nino and I attended a comic mystery skit at Georgetown put on by 2 recent graduates of the dramatic society – their names, Bill Blatty and Dick Gordon, meant nothing to us at the time. Later in the 50s, Bill interviewed prospective students for GU, two of whom were Bill Gargaro and Tony Hope, both then at Loyola HS in Los Angeles.  In 1960, I began a graduate program at Georgetown Law Center involving representation of indigents in criminal cases. One of the professors with whom I worked was Dick Gordon. Dick owned a house on Capitol Hill and I later rented a room from him. When I moved to California in 1966, I met two Georgetown grads who were at the college after I had graduated. They were wonderful to me, helping to adjust to the move and to the SoCal life style. They made that limited Best Friends list. Their names?  Bill Gargaro and Tony Hope. As noted, I had met Bill from time to time in California at GU events.  In the 70s, Bill built a beach house 2 doors down from my condo. I ran into him there. Not long after came the trial and the unexpected withdrawal of his lawyers. Enter Dick Gordon and my involvement. Has Bill’s psyche captured me or is the theme from The Twilight Zone appropriate here? Those are a lot of coincidences. But Bill could make the improbable seem likely.
Ave Atque Vale “Remarkable” does not do him justice. People speak of his intellect and overlook a fact: Bill was one of the most generous people I have ever met.  Intellect – Hell, yes, brilliant, off-the-wall; one never knew what next would come from his mind; the improbable, the impossible – he made them all come to life;  eclectic taste and persistent curiosity.  Determined to spread the message:That God exists and the universe itself will have a happy ending.  William Peter Blatty – one of a kind!  Until we meet again, we will miss you, Bill.  

I know in my heart that man is good…That what is right will always always eventually triumph…And that there’s purpose and worth to each and every life….I was raised to believe that God has a plan for everyone and that seemingly random twists of fate are all a part of His plan….… And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.

– Ronald Reagan

Dick Coleman

Richard M. Coleman served as National Co-Chair, Lawyers for Reagan-Bush ’84 and really does miss RR. A graduate of Georgetown University and Harvard Law School, Dick is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, and a past president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association and of the National Caucus of Metropolitan Bar Leaders. A professor on the faculty of Pepperdine University’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution for 17 years, he received Pepperdine’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He has hosted TV forums on legal and financial topics and written and spoken extensively on political issues.

© Richard M. Coleman 2018