In 1973 a film hit theatres that would forever change the way we felt about lying in bed at night in the dark. Beds shook, walls scratched, and all of a sudden the thought would set in that we were not safe anywhere. Not even in our own homes. The film was The Exorcist. So much has been written about this classic it’s hard to know where to start. It’s been covered and covered to death. However, rarely has anyone heard from one of the film’s stars – Eileen Dietz. Don’t know the name? Well, I bet you know the face. The face that inspired fear and epitomized evil. The Face of Death.
Uncle Creepy: Eileen Dietz – my god! I really don’t know whether to yell at you for scaring the shit out of me the majority of my life or admire you. I think I’m going to do a little bit of both.
UC: For anyone not familiar with your name, I’m sure every horror fan out there knows what your face looks like in makeup. The Exorcist is a landmark film, and I believe a lot of the scarier things in the movie had to do with the parts you were in. What’s it like to be a part of that? To leave such a mark on the genre?
ED: It’s actually a very strange feeling because we shot the film so long ago. I was just a little kid! It seems like I was a little kid – I was older than Linda Blair. Of course, when we shot it, we didn’t know it was going to become a classic. I think it’s just fun being a part of something that’s so amazing.
UC: Now, were you originally up for the role Linda got?
ED: Oh, no, I was much too old for that. I was 18, and Linda was 12. It was a little girl, so I was never up for that. The casting notice went out for somebody who was about her size.
UC: Tell us a little bit about how you got the job.
ED: I was doing a play. It was the first Joyce Carol Oates play ever written. An agent came to see it and really loved my work and submitted me for The Exorcist. They were looking for someone about her size who was physical and strong. So I went down and met the casting director, and she asked me to go home and read the book. I went home and read the book and then I came back and she asked me to do an improvisation for her on the floor of her office. Which I did. I played both parts.
UC: Oh, god! What did you do?
ED: Oh, I don’t know how this transpired, because this is what I did for the screen test too – I’ll let you know when I get to the screen test part.
ED: I came back there twice to see her, I believe, and then she asked me if I would meet Billy Friedkin and Linda, so I went to a hotel for that. Linda was there with her mother, Billy Friedkin, and Dick Smith, the makeup artist. So, we all met and talked. And then I did a screen test. People often like to call me a “double,” but I wasn’t a double and I wasn’t a stunt girl and I wasn’t all kinds of things they like to call me. I was a principal actress in the film.
UC: I think that distinction definitely has to be made too. I believe you still receive residuals from the film, right?
ED: Right, right. I’ve been getting residuals since 1973.
UC: Stunt doubles do not get residuals.
ED: That’s right. Photo doubles and stunt doubles do not get residuals, so it’s a delineation between being a double and being a principal actor in the show. Because I didn’t do extra work. Being a double is an extra. I didn’t do extra work then; I don’t do extra work now. So then I went and did a screen test, and again I played both parts. We tested the special effects at the same time that they were testing me. This is how it went – are you ready?
UC: I’m waiting with bated breath! I have a Bible in my hand, and I’m sitting beside a tiny nightlight.
In her best scary voice: You sow. You pig. You sow. You’re mine.
In a little girl voice: Oh, Mommy, Mommy, please. Please, Mommy. Get him away from me.
Scary again: You sow. You pig. I’ve got you.
And that’s how it went. At one point the crew brought down this really big crucifix, which was their idea of a joke. They had a bed there, and I just kind of wrestled around in the bed playing both parts. It went back and forth and back and forth. Previous to that, I’d gone home and needed to prepare for this thing. I went to the library and took out all kinds of pictures of animals – demonic animals – because I didn’t know how else to prepare for it. I turned off the lights and lit candles and did all kinds of really creepy things to get that feeling of demonic possession. And it worked!
UC: It certainly did! As far as the Face of Death character, that’s something that’s completely separate from the way the character of Regan looked.
ED: That was totally mine.
UC: Where did that idea come from? How did that even come about?
ED: You know, I keep meaning to ask Dick Smith about that. I hadn’t seen him for years and years, and I ran into him. I was doing a horror convention in California, and he was staying at a hotel next door. Then I saw him again when he did a makeup convention just two months ago. I have to ask him that because I really don’t know. It was the last day of the shoot, and I don’t know if it was just an idea at the end or something that somebody thought of. I don’t know.
UC: That’s really interesting because the visage – that face – is probably the only thing about The Exorcist that actually scared me, even as a child.
UC: I’m very jaded.
ED: Did it work for you in “the version you’ve never seen” when they used the Face of Death about two or three times?
UC: Yeah. The more, the better. That face really spooks it up for me. Just seeing it gives me goose bumps even now.
ED: Well, let me read this letter to you then because you can really relate to it. This is from Video Watchdogs. It just came out now. It says, “I have been an avid reader since Issue #1. My wife says it’s the only magazine I read cover to cover in one sitting. She’s probably right. I can’t tell you how many videos and DVDs I’ve purchased because of your in-depth reviews. I remember reading your issue pertaining to The Exorcist and the subliminal messages and images it contained. It actually changed my view of the film. I wasn’t a big fan of it, and it blew my mind when I would watch the film frame by frame at the right moments according to your article. It has become an annual ritual, watching the film this way as my wife and I show it to unsuspecting guests who have seen it many times before and watch the look on their faces as I freeze-frame the picture at the right moments and scare the crap out of them. Many other films since then have used the same technique but never quite to the same effect.”
Isn’t that interesting? I’m speaking to you about it now, and I just got that in the mail about three days ago.
UC: It shows you what kind of impact just the imagery of that movie had.
ED: People have actually come up to me at conventions and said the same thing that you have said.
UC: You want to hear something funny? I have a t-shirt with your face on it. One night I was wearing it, and all the lights in my house were off except for one small kitchen light. That face caught and reflected perfectly in the mirror, and I jumped out of my skin!
UC: I don’t know if anyone had that desired effect in mind when they were making the t-shirt, but wow, was it effective!
ED: I always tell people they should put that picture in their medicine cabinet. Then, when they have guests over who are sneaking looks in there, they’ll hear a scream.
UC: That’s a great idea!
It could just be my mind playing tricks on me, but I’ve seen a couple of frames of the film where it looked like while you were in that type of makeup, you were actually saying something. Did you have any lines, or were you just kind of moving your mouth and contorting your face?
ED: That was just contorting my face and looking evil. Actually, there’s a very funny story about that. We kept thinking The Exorcist was going to end. We kept shooting and shooting and shooting. They kept giving us wrap dates that came and went. I was asked to do a commercial for a bank, and it was set to film on a particular day. Wrap day kept happening, and the film was still shooting. I suddenly realized that we were filming on the day I had said I would do the commercial. So I called them, and they said, “You have to do the commercial, or we’re going to report you to SAG.” I went to the production manager and said, “What am I going to do?” They said I had to keep shooting since they hadn’t wrapped yet. I had a commitment. So, it was decided that if I could get to New Jersey in the afternoon, then I could shoot the commercial as well. They were shooting two spots and would save the afternoon for me. So everybody on the set knew that, and that’s the day we shot that Face of Death sequence. I think I was thinking about going to New Jersey.
UC: That’s a helluva bank commercial!
UC: You don’t look like you’re ready to give away a toaster.
UC: Did you have any idea when you were in that makeup for the Face of Death – some people refer to it as Captain Howdy as well – how effective that scene would be? Did you look at yourself in the mirror and go, “Wow, I look pretty friggin’ scary!”?
UC: It all just bled together, huh?
ED: Yeah. It was . . . yeah. I don’t know what to say about it. Like I said, I’m going to have to ask Dick Smith if he remembers more about that whole sequence.
UC: If you could update us after you talk with him, that would be great.
ED: I would be glad to.
UC: Do you have any pictures of yourself getting into the makeup?
ED: I have one. Actually, it’s not really getting into the makeup. It’s just a shot of me in the makeup that nobody has. It belongs to me; it doesn’t belong to Warner Brothers. In fact, somebody told me I should register it.
UC: You probably should.
Now, you were in a lot of The Exorcist. For those that may not realize it or never really noticed, what scenes were you in?
ED: Well, what happened is . . . most of the possession scenes were intercut. So, they would show a lot of what I did, and then they’d flash onto Linda’s face. To answer your question, the slapping scene when Ellen Burstyn and the doctor come running into the room and slap her and she goes across the room. Some of the levitation scenes and the – as we put it – abuse of the cross sequence. The vomiting scene was all mine. She was never put in the makeup. They made the vomiting apparatus just for me.
UC: Interesting way of putting that scene. “Abuse of the cross!”
ED: Sometimes you’re talking to children, and you don’t want to use the “M” word.
UC: How did they even begin to tell you what you were supposed to do in that scene? Just for curiosity’s sake.
ED: I was originally hired to only do that scene because they felt Linda was too young to do it. I ended up staying on the film for six months. I was originally only signed to work for six weeks. At the time I thought I was making a fortune! It was a lot of money – we’re talking 1972. Jesus!
UC: It seems like ages ago.
ED: It seems like ages ago when I shot it, but every time they re-release it, it seems new.
UC: How did you feel about the re-release when it got put back into theatres? Did you go see it?
ED: What actually happened with me is that I did a lot of work after The Exorcist. And I just put it away. I didn’t do any shows, and I didn’t do any conferences. It was all Linda and Ellen, and it really had nothing to do with my life until it was re-released. You know, I felt like I was talking about Sunset Boulevard or something. It was like, “I’m ready for my close-up.” I went on and did General Hospital for a couple of years, and I did Helter Skelter, and I did Planet of the Apes, the television show. Blah, blah, blah. So it never really became a part of my life until it was re-released. Since then it’s just been really exciting. So, yes! I love the fact that it was re-released. And I love the fact that it went to DVD.
UC: How did you feel about Exorcist II? Was that you as Regan in that film?
ED: Actually, what they did – and it was very weird – was cast two other people to play the demon in that film. And they fired both of them and ended up buying my film from The Exorcist to put it in The Heretic.
UC: Really? Because that was the only good part of the film.
UC: Which death scene?
ED: At the end. When Max von Sydow is dead on the floor. So I did all of that until they flash on her face and you see that she’s no longer the demon. That’s why it looks like doubling work. There are a couple of real quick flashes in the movie that you can see my face.
UC: What’s your fondest memory from the set of making The Exorcist?
UC: Did you go see the re-release in the theatre?
ED: No. Actually, I saw The Exorcist when it came out, and I didn’t see it again for 20 years. We have a very big projector in our house, so I got the cassette and watched it. Then I watched the DVD. I invited some friends over, and we had an Exorcist party.
UC: Were you surprised to see more of yourself in the newer version?
ED: Yes! But there’s a fun thing that I noticed too. I suppose you’re going to ask me if any strange things happened on the set.
UC: That was definitely going to be one of my next questions.
ED: The strangest thing that ever happened to me, and this is a true story . . . I guess you know that they had air conditioners that were ceiling to floor?
UC: Yeah, to get the illusion of cold breath coming out of their mouths.
ED: It wasn’t an illusion; it was the truth!
UC: It was pretty cold, huh?
ED: It was freeeeeeezing! And everybody else, Billy Friedkin and the DP Owen Roizma and the whole crew, they all had wetsuits on. So they weren’t as cold. But Linda and I had nightgowns on, and it was absolutely freezing. This one day I just said, “Oh, dear god, I can’t do this today. It’s so cold.” And the sprinkler system went off and flooded the set. So they had to turn off the air conditioners, open the doors to this huge soundstage, and dry off everything. Then, when we shot later that afternoon, there was no vapor. So, if you watch the film reeeeeally closely, you will see – I don’t remember how many frames it is – a really small section where nobody has any vapor coming out of their mouths.
ED: Yeah. Isn’t that a neat little story?
UC: That always makes me laugh when I see older films now because of how people are smoking everywhere.
ED: I know. In The Exorcist people are smoking cigarettes in the hospital ward. By the way, I still think that’s one of the scariest parts in the movie. When she’s going through all those tests and that medical stuff they put her through. It just makes you cringe.
UC: Because it rings all too true. That’s a realistic kind of horror.
ED: Well, my theory about what makes people scared or sad or happy when they are watching a movie is because they identify with the film. One of the reasons The Exorcist is so scary is because people either felt that they could be possessed or they had a kid or a daughter that could be possessed. It’s if you can identify with what’s going on. I think some of the horror films today are so out there that you just can’t identify with them. It’s so ridiculously impossible.
UC: Well, The Exorcist preyed upon your psychological fears. That really worked for the film.
ED: Next to The Exorcist, Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds that I read as a kid and Hitchcock made into a movie is the scariest book I ever read. But The Exorcist is definitely the scariest.
UC: I didn’t even know there was a book of The Birds.
ED: Yes, it’s a short story. The story is that the characters are sitting in their house and hear the sound of the birds’ wings and their feet walking on the roof. Ooooooo, it gives me the creeps even now!
UC: For my girl friend, that’s her scariest movie ever.
ED: I think that, along with The Exorcist, probably The Birds and Jaws are the scariest movies ever made.
UC: Yeah. Jaws really does it.
ED: Most definitely it does. When I wasn’t living in Manhattan, we went out to Montauk in East Hampton, and it was the same kind of beach as in Jaws.
UC: Speaking of your family, how did your parents feel about your role in The Exorcist?
ED: Well, unfortunately, my parents are not with us anymore, and I really didn’t spend a lot of time with them at that time. So, I don’t really know.
UC: They never spoke to you about it?
ED: My mother was really, really proud of me when I was on General Hospital because she could tell her friends about it. I think they just ignored The Exorcist.
UC: They didn’t want to tell their friends, “My daughter is one of the demon children in The Exorcist”?
ED: Exactly! And then everybody would go, “We told you Eileen was up to no good!”
UC: I was the black sheep of my family also.
ED: Oh, cool!
UC: That’s why we get along!
ED: Did you ever see Sisters, which by the way is an incredibly scary film?
UC: Yeah. With Margot Kidder.
ED: Right. And it was directed by Brian De Palma. That was a very weird film. You know, they made some really brilliant horror films back in the 60’s and 70’s. Starting with Night of the Living Dead, which absolutely scared the bejesus out of me. I remember watching it. I used to go to horror films all the time, so I guess there is some kind of connection there or something.
UC: Would you consider yourself a horror fan?
ED: Yes, of old horror films. Can you imagine if The Exorcist had been done with computer graphics?
UC: Well, I guess we’re gonna see that in August. What are your feelings on the new prequel?
ED: I want to see Paul Schrader’s version.
UC: You were in that one, right?
ED: Yes, and we don’t know if I’m in Renny Harlin’s version or not. It’s in the trailer. It’s really quick, but a couple of friends of mine called and said they saw it there.
UC: The new issue of Fangoria has stories about both versions of the film, and you’re prominent featured on the cover actually.
ED: No kidding! I’ll go buy it today.
UC: There’s an even larger picture of you inside of it.
ED: You saw the trailer? It starts with Linda’s or Max von Sydow’s voice.
UC: Right, and then it goes backwards.
ED: He says, “Is there something inside of you?” And she says, “Yes.” And it comes to her eyes I think, and then there’s an immediate flash of Captain Howdy.
UC: Maybe I blinked.
ED: It’s possible; it really is that quick. So, I don’t know. I hope it’s in there because it’s fun to say that I’m in it. I actually went to a movie theatre and said, “This is a very odd request, but can I just go in and see a trailer please?” They took my keys and let me in. I saw it and then left.
UC: So you did see yourself in it?
UC: So then it’s definitely there. How do you feel about the sequels? What did you think of II and III?
ED: The same as everybody else.
UC: That’s probably one of my favorite films.
ED: There you go. I have some friends who did a musical called Red River, and the woman who wrote the musical’s daughter played the daughter with George C. Scott. I think she said she’s still acting or wanting to act. But I don’t know what she’s doing, and we lost touch with each other.
UC: I really hope they do show some of you in the prequel because in my opinion what was really missing from Part II and Part III, even though I enjoyed it, was the flashes of the face. That’s just what I associate with The Exorcist. Whenever I think of The Exorcist, I think of your face way before I think of anything else in the movie.
ED: Actually, I’d like to rent Exorcist III because I really thought that it had a lot of good stuff in it.
UC: Don’t even bother renting it. Just go to Wal-Mart; they have it in the bargain bin for like $4.99.
ED: I just found Carrie in the bargain bin. Speaking of Carrie, I think Angela Bettis is great. Have you seen May?
UC: I loved May. I love Angela Bettis. I think she’s awesome.
ED: A friend of mind was the art director on it. May is so amazingly done. But with Carrie, why do they keep remaking good films? Why don’t they remake bad ones?
UC: Exactly! I’m just thankful that there hasn’t been an Exorcist remake. Although, I hate to say it, remakes have been really profitable. If the prequel is a success, we might just get one. I personally couldn’t imagine a whole CGI inspired version of The Exorcist.
ED: You know what I think is going to happen? This is just a thought . . . but I think because of everything that’s been on the Internet about Paul Schrader’s version, there’s going to be a clamor to release his. I know they’re going to release it on DVD, and I think there’s going to be a clamor to have it released theatrically.
UC: I think that’d be great. You can’t have enough horror – that’s how I feel.
ED: What I read on the Internet is that someone had this idea that they would release both films on the same DVD. That would be an amazing seller. I think everybody would buy that.
UC: I’ve heard the same thing.
ED: I’d buy it!
UC: I’d buy it in a heartbeat too! Do you have any advice for someone starting out in the business?
ED: Have you ever heard of a book called And God Winked? It’s all about how things in your life so easily could have not happened. It’s less religious than the title makes it sound. I lecture to a lot of actors – mainly because of General Hospital. When I was on the show, it was the top show in the country and everybody was watching. It was like being on a nighttime show. I tell actors all the time, “You don’t get that many chances in life. If you have an audition, you better be up for it. You better be ready and know what you’re doing.”
UC: Do you find that you get more accolades from General Hospital or The Exorcist?
ED: It depends on who you’re talking to. I went to The Greek Theatre to see Cher do a show, and we went to the VIP party afterwards. Sally Field was there. I had to go up and tell her how wonderful I think she is. I walked up to her, and as I got there, she said, “Oh, my god! It’s Sarah. I used to watch you on General Hospital all the time!” I never got a chance to say anything to her. That was one of the highlights of my life. And I played a character in a mental institution, so I never strayed far from my roots.
UC: How does that make you feel when a fan walks up to you and they’re just really excited to see you?
ED: I love it. I absolutely totally love it. I think the reason I love it so much is that in my own way I made their day. I allowed something to happen in their lives that they are going to remember. I did a Happy Days, and I met a fireman who just couldn’t believe he actually met somebody that had been on Happy Days. It was the same kind of feeling that I did something – not because of who I am but because of what I do – that really made a difference in people’s lives.
UC: You touch people. As absurd as it sounds, the image of the Face of Death in The Exorcist and the other parts that you played in it really made an impression on people.
ED: Actually, as far as The Exorcist is concerned, it worried me a little bit when the movie first came out because I’ve always been an extremely spiritual person myself. I was making people faint in the aisles and not be able to sleep. And then I just thought, “They’ll handle it.”
UC: But you had to have given yourself a pat on the back and thought, “Job well done!”
ED: Absolutely. And I truly felt that way when they bought my film for The Heretic.
UC: You know, you’re not even credited for The Heretic.
ED: I’m not even credited for The Exorcist.
UC: How does that make you feel?
UC: I’m so glad that I found out you’re doing the convention scene. You really deserve the recognition because you made that film damned scary. You did a lot.
ED: Well, thank you. When I agreed to do the film, like I told you, I was only supposed to work on it for six weeks. They felt that it would be much scarier if everybody thought that Linda did all that work by herself. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and then when I was working more and more and I realized what I was doing, I thought that maybe it wasn’t so fair. But it’s hard to change your mind . . . to just walk out on a contract. Plus, nobody knew it was going to be “The” Exorcist you know. It was just a horror film. And billing is always at the discretion of the producer. You sign that in every contract. Now Mercedes McCambridge sued them for credit, and she won.
UC: It’s an amazing story. And you’re actually in really good company because Karloff was never billed as Frankenstein’s Monster.
ED: He wasn’t? I never knew that.
UC: When it said “The Monster” in the credits, it was just a question mark.
ED: I wish I had thought of them giving me a credit as something else. If they didn’t want to do it as that, at least I’d have my name on the credits someplace.
UC: Or “thanks.”
ED: Yeah, a thank you. Because it’s always fun to watch your name flash up on the screen like that.
UC: I can tell you that there’s a lot of love out there for you and what you did. You have a website, right? Can people keep track of your appearances on there?
ED: Yes. Right now I think it only has Flashback Weekend on there. But I’m also going to be at HorrorFind in Phoenix over Halloween weekend, and there are a couple of others that aren’t completely confirmed yet.
UC: Until I spoke with your agent, I wasn’t even aware that you had a website.
ED: It should be on Google. I’ll have to check it. There are like three pages of “Eileen Dietz” on Google. It’s amazing.
UC: How does that make you feel?
ED: I feel immortal.
UC: Well, in a lot of ways you are.
ED: The first time I felt immortal is when I did a play with Tony Perkins in New York.
UC: You got to work with Tony Perkins? What was that like?
ED: It was hysterical.
UC: I have never been more green with envy in my entire life!
ED: He was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
UC: He’s a GOD!
ED: He was in Equus, and my mom was in town. I dropped him a note at the box office and told him that my mother would love to see the play. This was two or three years after I did Steambath with him. He left us two tickets for the second row. And I saw him right before he died. I ran into him at the Beverly Center, a big shopping mall out here. Working with him was fun. He directed the show, but he always wanted to do the lead and nobody would give it to him. He started the show out with Dick Shawn. Then they fired him and hired Rip Torn. They didn’t like Rip, so they fired him. This was all on “play or pay” contracts, which means they had to pay them anyway. Then Tony had to come out to California to do a film, so they hired Chuck Grodin. Now we were in previews, and they had someone else direct else while Tony was away. He came back, fired Chuck Grodin, fired Jacques Levy, put the direction back in that he had done, and then put himself in the lead. When we finally opened after previewing for eight weeks, we kept making all this money because they were so sure it was going to go to Broadway. We all signed Broadway contracts rather than off-Broadway contracts. I think we closed three or four months after we opened, but that’s my Tony Perkins story.
UC: What’s next for you?
ED: I’ve had a really good year. I’ve done three features, a short film, a television show for Lifetime, and an interview for E! True Hollywood Story.
UC: Tell us a little bit about the interview.
ED: The funny thing is that they always want pictures of you, but they only wanted pictures from ’72. So that was fun – going through all my old pictures.
UC: The basis of the interview was The Exorcist?
ED: It was about all four films, so the only thing I talked about besides The Exorcist was the fact that I had done a lot of work before I shot it so people wouldn’t think I had just come from nowhere to be a double in the film. And I said that I’d done a lot of work afterwards as well so people would know that The Exorcist hasn’t been the “be all, end all” thing in my life. Because that wouldn’t be good.
UC: So we’re going to be seeing a lot more Eileen Dietz then?
ED: I believe that is definitely true. Keep your eyes open!
UC: Well, thanks to you I’ve been keeping my eyes open every night when I go to sleep!
ED: And the funny thing is I’m such a nice person.
Nice indeed! That still doesn’t change the fact that every once in a while I’ll catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye, and whether that face is there or not, it haunts me nonetheless.
*turns on night light*