Mercedes McCambridge

Actress

1916-2004

The title of Mercedes McCambridge's 1981 autobiography was A Quality of Mercy, but she'd wanted to call it "Life Is a Bitch." While still attending Illinois' Mundelein College, she began her radio career in Chicago, where she forged a strong and lasting professional relationship with Lights Out creator Arch Oboler. Together with such radio heavyweights as Orson Welles and Carlton E. Morse, Oboler felt that McCambridge was one of the finest actresses on the airwaves, and accordingly wrote several scripts specifically tailored to her unique talents. After working on Broadway, she entered films in 1949, winning an Academy Award for her debut appearance as Sadie Burke, Broderick Crawford's sexually frustrated campaign manager, in All the King's Men. She was equally impressive as the implicitly lesbian villainess Emma Small in Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954) -- in which her offscreen tiltings with star Joan Crawford threatened to erupt into physical violence at any moment -- and as the earthy Luz in George Stevens' Giant (1955), which earned her a second Oscar nomination. Two of her most frighteningly intense performances were unbilled: the "butch" motorcycle mama who pumps drugs into Janet Leigh's system in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958) and the profanity-spewing voice of the demon in William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), for which she belatedly received screen credit after an acrimonious legal battle. An ongoing struggle with alcohol brought her career to a halt in the 1960s, but by the early '70s she'd recovered sufficiently to embark upon a lengthy lecture tour. Further misfortune came her way in 1987 when John Markle, her son from her marriage to writer/director Fletcher Markle, killed his wife and children before shooting himself. Alas, Mercedes McCambridge was not seen in public since this devastating personal tragedy; her last film appearance had been in 1983's Echoes, which featured such screen veterans as Ruth Roman, Gale Sondergaard, and Mike Kellin.

Filmography Awards