July 11, 1977 12:00 PM

We’re victims of audience expectation based on the first Exorcist, and the sin I committed was not giving them what they wanted in terms of horror. There’s this wild beast out there, which is the audience, and I just didn’t throw enough Christians to it.” That anyway was director John Boorman’s rationalization for the debacle of his sequel to the third-biggest-grossing movie in history. In its first week Exorcist II: The Heretic left movie fans laughing or pelting the screen with popcorn. In panic, Boorman was experimenting with various reedited versions, presumably throwing to that beast of a public more outtakes of outrages against Hollywood’s most bedeviled Christian martyr: Linda Blair.

At age 12, in the original Exorcist, the Devil had her regurgitating in Technicolor and profaning herself with a crucifix. Then, in a sickening rush, came three of the highest-rated (and most shocking) TV movies ever: Linda starred as a girls’ detention-home inmate gang-raped by a broomstick; as a teenage dipsomaniac; and as a terrorized Hearst-like kidnap victim. By comparison, she said of her re-possession in Exorcist II: “I was fairly normal for a change.”

But where was Linda when The Heretic hit the fans or vice versa? She was competing on the equestrian circuit under the pseudonym Martha McDonald. The fake name was not because she felt in any way apologetic about her credits but to keep from being recognized and besieged by crowds who might break her concentration. A serious, national-class horsewoman who has toiled in showbiz to support her riding habit, Blair long ago decided she would award herself a 12-month sabbatical in 1977. “I’ve worked for 12 years and deserve it,” she says, and at 18, this is the last season she is eligible for the junior ranks.

In her other extracurricular interest, Linda sort of lost her junior status at 15 with her first heavy boyfriend, Australian singer Rick Springfield. (“I still love him very much except we just grew out of each other.”) Several romances later, including Glenn Hughes of Deep Purple and maybe a couple members of the randy Black Oak Arkansas band, her incumbent is an aspiring Connecticut rocker, Ted Hartlett, 19. Why the fixation with musicians? “They’re sensitive, and though their heads might be all messed up, they are more screwed on than other people.” Linda’s thoroughly modern mother approves and has even set aside one of the family’s five bedrooms for the young lovers in their sprawling Westport, Conn. house. “Mom says nothing stands in the way of love,” exults Blair. Her relationship with Ted is “a beautiful thing, even with Mom hanging around. We share the same bed as natural as cake and icing.” Similarly, when she’s hitting the horse shows, Ted shares the black-satin-sheeted double bunk in her 33-ft., 7-mpg customized Apollo camper.

“I’ve never known what dating was,” Linda marvels, “because everything has always fallen into place quite naturally. There’s no stopping to think what the world will say. I want to get married and have two or three kids,” she adds, “but after I’m 25.” Already, though, she and Ted act every bit the suburban couple, bowling, playing miniature golf or just “stopping off at the bar with the gang.” As for their road trips, she giggles, “I love to watch people’s expressions as they see this tiny kid go riding by in that monster.” Ted swears by her driving and leaves the hairy maneuvers to his 5’2″ lady. Once parked, he climbs up on the roof to cook on their hibachi. “It’s very rare that we’re separated,” coos Ted. “I think the only time I find something else to do is when she’s writing her checks to pay bills.”

Though she might earn up to $1 million from Exorcist II alone, Linda the breadwinner is remarkably unspoiled. She often rises as early as 4 a.m. to braid her horses’ manes and tails before a show. “Once in a blue moon,” she notes, “I’ll braid for a friend and still charge the going rate of $10 for a mane and $5 for a tail. I’m not a stingy person by any means, but horses are unbelievably expensive.” (She figures her three cost $10,000 a year each.) Even while shooting Exorcist II, Linda had her horses shipped out to California and did all her own grooming and feeding. “I kept an 80-pound bag of feed in my Mercedes because they were underweight from the trip,” she recalls. “I’d ride them after work, then jog for 30 minutes before watching Mary Hartman and collapsing.” Then she’d be back up at 6 to walk her dogs. Blair is a tough kid. When she decided to have her ears double-pierced, she swigged a beer, held ice cubes to her lobes while a girlfriend jabbed away with a sewing needle.

Linda’s sense of discipline is a tribute to her upbringing and perhaps surprising for a kid born to affluence. (“I sometimes feel bad about how much I make as a teenager,” she says, “but we do get ripped off by the government. Jeez, someday I’ve got to do something about that.”) Her father, James, an executive headhunter, relocated the family (there are two older siblings, Debbie, now 22, and Jim, 21) from St. Louis to their pricey Connecticut environs hard by Paul Newman and Bette Davis. Her mom got Linda into modeling at 5, “because she was extremely extraverted.” She did Sears, Roebuck catalogues and TV spots for Welch’s Grape Jelly. Then, after only two minor film roles, came The Exorcist—and an Oscar nomination. As she looks back on what’s happened, Linda observes, “I’m not at all like the roles I’ve played onscreen, but I have absolutely no regrets about the parts I’ve been given. It’s hard to create parts for actresses in my age range.”

When she contemplates ending her retirement after the national riding championships at Madison Square Garden this fall, there’s the possibility of her first clean-cut ail-American role: a remake of Lassie Come Home. “I’m really into acting and want to work,” Linda has now discovered. But whatever happens, moving to Hollywood is anathema. “I don’t want a plastic life,” she says. “There’s no falseness or garbage here in Connecticut. I’ve got my dogs, my good guy and a beautiful life—it’s really me.”

Yet Richard Burton, who, like Blair, went down with the ship in Exorcist II and is inevitably wiser about other people’s careers than his own, observes: “She’s bright and bubbling, and I think she’s got a long one ahead of her.” Burton, cast as a Vatican exorcist, swallowed second billing to Blair and muses, “I thought I’d be a father and take her under my wing, but instead she taught me about life. If she were another kind of horse racer, I’d certainly lay down a few quid on her. Linda’s a sure bet.”

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