Linda Blair was just 14 years old when she was cast to play Regan MacNeil in "The Exorcist," a teenager who becomes possessed by the devil after playing with a Ouija board. Her shrieks were hair-raising. Her 180 degree head turn ... well, head-turning. Blair's shocking, full-body performance rendered her a horror movie legend.
Now, 50 years after "The Exorcist's" 1973 release, she sits in front of the camera, beaming, with one of her rescue dogs licking her face.
Frightening is the last word one would use to describe Linda Blair.
“As everybody knows, I have been acting for my entire life. But I’ve always said I want to be a doctor to the animals,” Blair says. “When you are working continuously, it’s difficult sometimes to pursue things that you really are so passionate about.”
Without ever formally announcing her retirement, Blair's animal advocacy took the front seat in recent years. She started the Linda Blair Worldheart Foundation in 2003 to provide proper care for companion animals and “keep the large (charity) groups honest,” she tells TODAY.com.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 inspired Blair to open her own rescue center in California. While working with larger animal-centric organizations, she saw, firsthand, the devastation caused by a blend of environmental disaster and lack of resources.
"That’s what really changed my life," Blair says. Today, Blair and her team rescue, care for and help companion animals find "forever homes."
But Blair’s public image hasn’t always been so cheery. Blair says that being associated with a famous role — one known for bodily contortions and curses — at a young age was difficult.
“Everyone felt like I was the devil. People were unnerved by me. They were confused by me,” she says. “I’m on the record saying don’t ever do that again to another child. It was child abuse.”
"The Exorcist" reboot, announced in 2020, had the potential to send its two young stars into a similarly distressing situation. In "The Exorcist: Believer," two friends (Olivia O'Neill and Lidya Jewett) venture into the woods and come out changed — not for the better.
Blair was summoned to the set to make sure history didn't repeat itself, and that the 15 and 16-year-old girls felt protected on set and after.
“When they approached me about the movie, they asked me for the support and what could they do to make sure and ensure to meet my wishes and to take care of the girls,” Blair says.
Acting as the young actors' advocate, Blair ensured they were taken care of and provided with whatever services they needed, whether psychological or religious.
After filming wrapped, Jewett shared her appreciation through an Instagram post with Blair, writing "my lovely older sister @thereallindablair, for life."
Essentially, once seen as the devil by the public, she now took on the role of guardian angel.
But was she ready to return to acting? Far into production, Blair was asked if she would consider a cameo in the movie. She said she had to think about it, given the day-to-day demands of running her foundation. Ultimately, she decided to go for it for her fans.
Soon, she reunited with co-star Ellen Burstyn, who played Regan's mother, Chris MacNeil, in the original movie. Now, the mother and daughter became estranged because Chris publicly shared the story of Regan's exorcism.
Sure, it had been about five decades — but the two actors snapped right back into their on-screen mother-daughter relationship, no prep work required.
“Ellen and I chose to keep it just really honest, and we didn’t do any rehearsals. We knew what we were doing, and they just said roll sound, roll camera and there we walked on,” she says.
And then Blair was back to work, fighting against the evil.
While she has a complicated relationship with her time on set, something she learned from "The Exorcist" still guides her. Blair remembers what she and William Peter Glatty, the author of “The Exorcist,” wanted to share while touring the film: “The most important message that I tried to get across is that good and evil is always on the planet. Good must succeed evil,” she says.
This message still plays an important role in her life, as Linda expresses her hope to make a difference, emphasizing the importance of kindness and empathy.
And so, for all “The Exorcist” fans out there wondering what Linda Blair is like 50 years later, we'll leave you with this: The power of compassion compels her.