I am a huge fan of the horror genre and one of my all-time favorite films is 1973’s The Exorcist directed by William Fredkin, based on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name (also a personal favorite). Recently, I was tasked with working on updating the WLA’s collections page when I made an amazing discovery: our archives held the collection of a major star of this film.
Mercedes McCambridge, who often felt more comfortable being addressed simply as Mercy, is perhaps the most famous graduate of Mundelein College*. Many students who take classes in the Mundelein skyscraper today do not realize that the building’s auditorium played a crucial role in the education of an Oscar-winning actor. A few years ago, my colleague Nathan recounted the impact of Mundelein College on McCambridge’s career in another post on the WLA blog titled “Acting Up: Mercedes McCambridge and Sister Mary Leola Oliver.” At the WLA, we often speak about McCambridge’s Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, awarded in 1949 for her role as Sadie Burke in All the King’s Men. I have, on several occasions, had reason to hold her Oscar in the course of research and am always amazed by the oddly heavy trophy. It was not until I was rewatching the 1973 horror classic that I realized that I had heard Mercy’s voice before I even knew what the WLA was. This discovery sent me on a journey of researching Mercy’s storied life.
Mercedes McCambridge was born in Joliet, Illinois in 1916 and attended St. Thomas Apostle School which was run by the Dominican Sisters. Mercy began studying at Rosary College, another Dominican-run institution, but transferred to Mundelein College following an examination with Sister Mary Leola Oliver, B.V.M. Sister Mary Leola had a major impact on Mercy, and it was under her tutelage that she got her first contract as a professional performer. After graduating, Mercy went on to make a name for herself as a radio actor before her breakout, and Oscar-winning, performance in All the King’s Men. Over the next twenty years she worked with other stars such as Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Katharine Hepburn, and Orson Welles who called Mercy the greatest living radio actress .
Then in 1969, Mercy was asked to testify before congress in a public address that jeopardized her acting career. In her life, Mercedes had been fighting a personal battle with alcoholism and depression. After seeking help, Mercy was able to look for, and attain, recovery. In the summer of 1969, a friend who was aware of her struggle called Mercy to ask her permission to share her phone number with Harold Hughes. Hughes, a Democrat from Iowa serving in the US senate, had been tasked with chairing the Special Sub-committee on Alcoholism and Narcotics. In her autobiography, Mercy recalled the conversation:
“He said he hoped I didn’t mind if he knew that I was a recovered alcoholic since he was one too. That relaxed the conversation. I respectfully asked what he wanted of me. Senator Hughes wanted of me that I should come to Washington and testify that I am an alcoholic!…[He] told me that he had traversed the country several times trying to enlist recovered alcoholics whose names would be recognizable to the public, alcoholics who were prominent in all walks of life. There were no takers, he said. ”
Mercy decided to testify before Senator Hughes’s subcommittee to raise awareness of alcoholism and make people aware that help was available. In doing so, Mercedes McCambridge became one of the first figures to publicly address their personal struggle with alcoholism. In her address, Mercy said that alcoholism is a physical disease and “[t]herefore, my being alcoholic carries no more stigma, morally, than a diabetic .” She also called for doctors to be trained in best practices for treating alcohol dependence and advocated for treatment rather than arrest. “Nobody need die of this disease. We are eminently salvageable .”
Unfortunately, her public acknowledgment of her disease led to a significant loss of work, such as television appearances, film roles, and product endorsements. Mercy estimated that because of her testimony, she lost one million dollars in revenue . Despite the retaliation of her statement, Mercy focused on her personal fulfillment and became a major advocate for people struggling with alcoholism. Her advocacy work included serving as chair of the National Council on Alcoholism (NCA), serving as chair of the NCA’s Alcoholism Information Week, and serving as president of the Livengrin Foundation, a rehabilitation center in Philadelphia. Mercy also gave regular addresses to fight the stigma associated with alcoholism, particularly the double standard facing women struggling with alcoholism. “Alcoholism in male performers is macho. But the woman alcoholic who is a performer has a rougher row to hoe .”
During this time, Mercy’s acting career largely consisted of small television roles. Then Mercy received another call that would change the direction of her life. William Friedkin was adapting William Peter Blatty’s seminal novel The Exorcist into a feature film. Friedkin had won acclaim for his film The French Connection was struggling to find someone to voice the demon Pazuzu. Linda Blair played Regan MacNeil; a child possessed by the Devil. Blair was well cast in the role but could not achieve the chilling voice of the demon Friedkin wanted. Friedkin was familiar with Mercedes McCambridge’s time as a radio actor and told her “maybe you’re the only person in the world who could do the demon .” Mercy was excited to be a part of the project and approached the role as “100 percent a radio performance .”
Except for her time on Broadway in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Mercy said that The Exorcist was the most difficult role she ever had . Mercy was given a small trailer and subjected herself to grueling conditions to capture the sound she wanted. Her role in the film was kept secret to build mystery and create suspense once the film was released. She was often too exhausted to return home after a recording and was forced to sleep in a motel near the set. A lifelong struggle with bronchitis served Mercy in the role as she used her naturally occurring wheezing to supply the sounds of the demon breathing . In an oral history Mercy recorded for the Mundelein College archival collection, she recalled getting into character using methods taught to her by Sister Mary Leola while she was a student:
“…you mustn’t play a part unless you can fall in love with the character — in other words, become a defense attorney for the character. And I used that philosophy, an admonition of hers, to the degree that even doing The Exorcist film when I was interpreting Lucifer, I found a sense of compassion for Lucifer. I think that Lucifer is the true prodigal son and I believe that he will come back and ask forgiveness of his father. And I believe if his father does not grant that forgiveness, that his father is not my God. So I found a way to … not to justify Lucifer in his headstrong actions but to understand how unhappy he was, is. Sister taught me that … I guess the greatest attribute for anybody, not merely an actor or a writer or a poet or a painter or a musician, but for any breathing thing including dogs and cats and everything else, is compassion. I believe that’s the important thing .”
Though her career never returned to the height it reached in the 1940s and 1950s, Mercedes McCambridge once again became a household name and became a figure in the public eye. She used this new publicity to continue her mission of raising awareness of alcoholism and to advocate for the end of the social stigma surrounding the subject. In 1984, Mundelein College recognized Mercy with an honorary doctorate for her “distinguished career in the performing arts, her public service in the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction and her embodiment of the spirit of the liberal arts tradition .” The conferral of this honor was voted unanimously by the BVMs at Mundelein.
The first time I came across Mercy’s Oscar, I thought it was merely a cool object in our collection. A neat award given for a performance in a film I had heard of but never seen. Little did I know that that award, or her Golden Globes, was only the beginning of Mercy’s story. Today, Mercedes McCambridge is remembered for her role as the voice of the Devil, yet even this is only scratching the surface of her amazing, and often tragic, story. Mercedes McCambridge dedicated much of her life to serving others and changing the way we approach alcoholism. In the end, it is her advocacy and personal strength of character, more than the roles that she played, that serve as her true legacy.
* Mundelein College, founded and operated by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM), provided education to women from 1930 until 1991, when it affiliated with Loyola University Chicago.
Chris is a graduate assistant at the WLA and is in their second year in the Public History MA program at Loyola. Chris’ focus is on Queer history in America and Germany in the pre-Stonewall era. Chris is currently a graduate assistant at the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago, IL. In their free time, Chris is a baker, drag queen, and dog parent. For more information about this post, contact email@example.com.
 Hans Knight, “I Understand the Devil…I Know Why He Cries,” Discover, January 29, 1978, 10.
 Mercedes McCambridge, The Quality of Mercy, (New York: Times Books,1981), 153.
 “’This is a Matter of Life or Death’,” Chicago Today, October 12, 1969, 4-6.”
 Mercedes McCambridge, The Quality of Mercy, (New York: Times Books,1981), 155-158.
 Jack Smyth, “Actress Aids Alcoholics,” The Sunday Bulletin, March 20, 1977, 1.
 Mercedes McCambridge, The Quality of Mercy, (New York: Times Books,1981), 152.’ Hans Knight, “I Understand the Devil…I Know Why He Cries,” Discover, January 29, 1978, 8-12.
 Hans Knight, “I Understand the Devil…I Know Why He Cries,” Discover, January 29, 1978, 11.
 Mercedes McCambridge, The Quality of Mercy, (New York: Times Books,1981), 89.
 Mercedes McCambridge, The Quality of Mercy, (New York: Times Books,1981), 89.
 Mercedes McCambridge, The Quality of Mercy, (New York: Times Books,1981), 94.
 “Mercedes McCambridge, Solo Interview, 1998,” 1998.
 Mundelein College, “Commencement Program- 1984,” Mercedes McCambridge Collection, Women and Leadership Archives, 1984.
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