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Mercedes McCambridge, voice in 'Exorcist,' Oscar-winner

LOS ANGELES -- Actress Mercedes McCambridge, called by Orson Welles "the world's greatest living radio actress" and who won an Oscar for the 1949 film "All the King's Men" and decades later provided the raspy voice of the demon-possessed girl in "The Exorcist," died March 2 at an assisted-living facility in San Diego. She was 87.

Ms. McCambridge died from natural causes, said Cathy Ruppert, the assistant to the trustee of her estate.

Ms. McCambridge's strong, radio-trained voice made her an ideal film portrayer of hard-driving women. She received the Academy Award as supporting actress for her screen debut in "All the King's Men," playing the secretary and mistress of populist Southern governor Willie Stark. Broderick Crawford was named best actor for his role as Stark, a close replica of Louisiana's Huey Long, and the drama was honored with a best picture Oscar.

During her film career, Ms. McCambridge 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, Ms. McCambridge called Crawford "a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady."

Because of her great vocal skills, Ms. McCambridge was hired to portray The Demon in William Friedkin's 1973 smash hit "The Exorcist." After weeks of what she called the hardest work she had done for a film, she had been promised prominent mention in the credits.

But when she attended the preview, her name was missing. 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 in the credits.

Despite the celebrity that followed her Academy Award for "All the King's Men," Ms. 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.

Among the later films: "Giant" (1956 -- her second Oscar nomination as supporting actress), "A Farewell to Arms" (1957), "Touch of Evil" (1958 -- with Welles), "Suddenly Last Summer" (1959), "Cimarron" (1960), "99 Women" (1969), "Thieves" (1977), "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. Ms. McCambridge's return to the New York theater proved to be triumphant.

In her later years, Ms. McCambridge also appeared in "Magnum, P.I." and other television series, but her movie work was sparse.

"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."

Ms. McCambridge struggled through much of her life, surviving a long siege of alcoholism, two failed marriages, and a 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 in Joliet, Ill. At some point in life, she began giving her birth date as St. Patrick's Day 1918, Ruppert said.

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 Mundelein College in Chicago, she acted in Chicago radio. She married her first husband, William Fifield, at 23. They eventually wound up in Hollywood, where she resumed her career as a radio actress.

Ms. McCambridge came to New York for the title role in a radio adaptation of the play "Abie's Irish Rose." She found steady radio work with Welles.

From 1950 to 1962, Ms. McCambridge was married to Canadian-born Fletcher Markle, a radio director who became well-known in the United States during the years of live television drama. After being hospitalized several times from heavy drinking, she achieved sobriety through years with Alcoholics Anonymous.

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