Oscar Winner McCambridge Dies

Oscar-winning actress Mercedes McCambridge, who honed her vocal skills in radio with Orson Welles and provided the raspy voice of the demon-possessed girl in "The Exorcist," has died. She was 87.

McCambridge died from natural causes on March 2, Cathy Ruppert, the assistant to the trustee of McCambridge's estate, said from San Diego on Wednesday. Ruppert said McCambridge died at an assisted-living facility in the La Jolla area.

McCambridge's strong voice made her an ideal film portrayer of hard-driving women. She won her Oscar as best supporting actress for her screen debut, the 1949 film "All the King's Men." She played the secretary and mistress of populist Southern governor Willie Stark, a close replica of Louisiana's Huey Long.

The film also garnered the best picture Oscar, as well as the best actor Oscar for Broderick Crawford as Stark.

When she worked with Welles on radio dramas early in her career, he called her "the world's greatest living radio actress." Because of her great vocal skills, McCambridge was hired to be the voice of The Demon in William Friedkin's 1973 smash hit "The Exorcist." She called the role the hardest work she had ever done for a film.

But when she attended the preview, her name was missing from the credits. As she left the theater in tears, Friedkin tried to explain that there had been no time to insert her credit. The Screen Actors Guild intervened and forced her inclusion.

Despite the celebrity that followed her Academy Award for "All the King's Men," McCambridge's film career did not flourish. Because she did not fit the glamour girl image that was prevalent in postwar films, her movie work was sporadic.

She acquired a reputation as a strong-willed, outspoken woman on and off the screen. When she was hired to play the enemy of Joan Crawford in a 1954 Western, "Johnny Guitar," the pair feuded on the set. In her memoir, McCambridge called Crawford "a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady."

Among McCambridge's later films: "Giant" (1956 - her second Academy nomination as supporting actress), "A Farewell to Arms" (1957), "Touch of Evil" (1958 - with Welles), "Suddenly Last Summer" (1959), "Cimarron" (1960), "99 Women" (1969), and "The Concorde - Airport '79" (1979).

In the early 1990s, Neil Simon called with an offer to play the grandmother in "Lost in Yonkers" on Broadway and on the road. McCambridge's return to the New York theater proved triumphant, and she performed the play 560 times.

In her later years, McCambridge also appeared in "Magnum, P.I." and other television series.

"I don't think the Hollywood community is interested in what I can do," she said in a 1981 interview. "That's all right. I've never looked for a job in my life, and I'm not going to start now. I have plenty to keep me busy."

McCambridge battled through much of her life, surviving a long siege of alcoholism, two failed marriages and series of tragedies involving her only child, John Lawrence Fifield. The son, who later took the last name of his mother's second husband, Markle, killed his wife and children and himself in 1987.

Charlotte Mercedes Agnes McCambridge was born on March 16, 1916, in Joliet, Ill., Ruppert said. At some point in life, she began giving her birth date as St. Patrick's Day 1918.

In explaining the discrepancy, Ruppert laughed and said: "She's an actress. ... She was a little bit Irish. And she decided she wanted to be two years younger."

After graduation from college in Chicago, McCambridge acted in Chicago radio, which then produced several network soap operas and nighttime shows. She married her first husband, William Fifield, at 23.

They eventually wound up in Hollywood, where she resumed her career as a radio actress. Her vocal versatility brought her jobs on shows ranging from "I Love a Mystery" to "Red Ryder."

In New York, McCambridge got the title role in a radio adaptation of the play "Abie's Irish Rose."

From 1950 to 1962, McCambridge was married to Canadian-born Fletcher Markle, a radio director who became well-known in the U.S. during the years of live television drama. During the marriage and afterward, she was sometimes hospitalized after episodes of heavy drinking. After years with Alcoholics Anonymous, she achieved sobriety.

By Bob Thomas