Mercedes McCambridge: Voice on Loan from Satan

Given that nowadays one of her best known roles is as the voice of the demon in The Exorcist (1973), it is with perfect logic that we learn that Mercedes McCambridge (1916-2004) started out in old time radio. The fact also speaks to how hard she applied herself in what some might consider a thankless role, doing everything in the book that she knew in order to enhance her voice’s natural depth and huskiness. A smoker, and a recovering alcoholic, there mayn’t have been far to go. Still, the uncanny effect is one of the best things about the movie.

McCambridge worked in radio from the late 1930s through the mid 1950s (and even into the 1970s and ’80s). She was a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre of the Air (hence her presence in some of his films), and was a cast member of the radio series’ Defense Attorney, I Love a Mystery, Guiding Light, and Family Skeleton, played the title character in a radio version of Abie’s Irish Rose, and guested on such shows as A Date with Judy, Bulldog Drummond, and Inner Sanctum. Radio success led to Broadway roles in such plays as A Place of Our Own (1945) with J.C. Nugent and Jeanne Cagney; Woman Bites Dog (1946) with Kirk Douglas, E.G. Marshall, and Taylor Holmes; and The Young and Fair (1948) with Julie Harris.

Bossing some bad hombres in Johnny Guitar

Having grown up on an Illinois farm, McCambridge was frequently cast in butch, tomboyish, rural roles, a fact she bemoaned, having received some classical training (she had once played Lady MacBeth on radio). She memorably played the Edna Ferber stand-in in the screen version of the author’s Giant (1956), and was also cast in the 1960 version of Ferber’s Cimarron, for example. She became very closely associated with westerns. One of her best roles was as the (onscreen and off) antagonist of Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar (1957). She was also on the TV shows Wagon Train, River Boat, Overland Trail, The Dakotas, Rawhide, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The Sacketts.

Ferber was not the only Great American Author whose adaptations McCambridge appeared in: she was also cast in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1949), Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1957), Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer (1959), and the Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1969). Her later Mercury related appearances included a bizarre anonymous turn (at the age of 42) as a female Mexican gang member in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), as well as a part in The Other Side of the Wind (2018) and a memorable Bewitched episode opposite Mercury stalwart Agnes Moorehead.

Later stuff included the crime thriller The Counterfeit Killer (1968), the dames-in-prison film 99 Women (1969), the classic tv movie The President’s Plane is Missing (1973), the aforementioned The Exorcist (1973), The Concorde…Airport ’79, and the horror film Echoes (1982). Her one regular role on a TV series had been a part as a lady reporter on the short-lived newspaper drama Wire Service (1956), but she guested on countless other programs for years.

In 1987, McCambridge was at the heart of an appalling scandal when her son and only child John Markle killed his wife, daughters and himself in their Arkansas home. He’d been caught embezzling from the investment firm he worked for, the proceeds going to a secret account he’d opened for his mother containing over half a million dollars. When he was nabbed, McCambridge refused to participate in his proposed repayment plan, which would have allowed him to make restitution and avoid jail. She claimed that Markle had acted on his own. By his own account, she called him a string of abusive names, even though he’d believed he was acting on her behalf. So he took the harshest revenge possible upon her. (To make matters even weirder: fired on a Friday the 13th, Markle is said to have been wearing a Freddy Kruger mask for at least part of his killing spree).

However much of Markle’s claims were true, the event didn’t reflect very well on McCambridge (I can’t imagine that Hollywood types weren’t quipping that she was the devil after all) and she (now in her early 70s) retired, following one last guest shot on Cagney and Lacey and a stint as a replacement in the original Broadway production of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers (1991).

McCambridge’s second husband, and John’s adopted father, was writer/director/producer Fletcher Markle, whose death in 1991 probably contributed to her retirement after this as well. Fletcher Markle’s credits included contributing to the screenplay of Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and directing the beloved Disney classic The Incredible Journey (1963), a favorite of my kids when they were little. It’s a live action family film in which a trio of adorable stranded pets make a cross country Odyssey to rejoin their family. It might just be the perfect thing to watch if you’re trying to obliterate the horror of McCambridge’s family tragedy from your mind.

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