October 3rd, 1972
Billy Friedkin told me over morning coffee that he wanted to add a masturbation scene to The Exorcist and what did I think about it. I said it might affect our chances of getting a PG rating and the studio would be against it, but if he thought it was necessary I’d back him thinking that a bit of controversy would get the press interested and we’d get plenty of free publicity.
He said he wanted the character of Regan to masturbate with a lit 12 inch black candle but I told him the insurance would never cover it. Not only would it be a potential fire hazard but solid wax is a bitch to get out of pubic hair.
He said fine and how about a King Cobra instead? I told him I liked the idea and we’d get no grief from the society for the humane treatment of animals because they only give a shit if you start shooting dogs or blowing up horses. I made a couple of calls and managed to procure one from a place called ‘The House of Venom’ based in the San Fernando Valley.
It was delivered to the set the next day and Friedkin said he wasn’t going to tell Linda Blair so he could catch her natural initial reaction on camera. As soon as Billy shouted action and the handler released the Cobra onto the bed, I knew we’d made a terrible mistake. We’d been assured the snake was placid but the God damn thing started hissing and spitting and Linda was petrified . I told Billy to stop rolling so we could get it back in the bag but he wouldn’t listen and kept on filming.
I didn’t know what the hell to do so I grabbed a fire extinguisher, pointed it at the snake and hit it with a jet of water but this seemed to piss the mean sonofabitch off and he reared up in front of Linda’s face ready to strike. I remember thinking we were going to have a big fat lawsuit on our hands if our 13 year old lead was killed by a King cobra doing a masturbation scene but before I could start mentally writing my resignation speech. Max Von Sydow appeared from nowhere, grabbed hold of the snake and bit it in half with a single savage bite.
Friedkin yelled cut and for a second I thought that Syndow had been in on it and this had been the plan all along. That notion was quickly dispelled when Max began chasing Billy around the room flailing the severed torso of the Cobra at him screaming “I wouldn’t take this s*it from Bergman and I’m not taking it from you Friedkin!
It took a while to calm Sydow down but when I thanked him later over drinks for saving the day, he said it was no big thing and that growing up in Sweden he’d bitten many animals in half in order to defend himself. Billy was on cloud nine saying it was the best footage he’d ever shot and if that didn’t get him the Oscar, nothing would. I didn’t care I just wanted to get back to my hotel room and wash a couple of Valium down with a large scotch and fine cigar.
It had been one hell of shoot and I made a promise to myself there and then that I would never mix children and potentially lethal reptiles again. I never did keep that promise, but that’s another story for another day.