LOS ANGELES (AP) – Mercedes McCambridge, who won an Oscar for her screen debut in 1949 and later provided the raspy voice of the demon-possessed girl in “The Exorcist,” has died. She was 85.

McCambridge died from natural causes on March 2, the Rev. Joe Carroll, a friend and the founder of a San Diego charity for the homeless, said Tuesday. She had lived in the La Jolla area of San Diego since the 1980s.

McCambridge’s strong, radio-trained voice made her an ideal film portrayer of hard-driving women. She received the Academy Award as supporting actress in 1949’s “All the King’s Men,” playing a reporter who was the nemesis of the 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, 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, McCambridge called Crawford “a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady.”

Because of her great vocal skills, 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,” 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 Academy nomination as supporting actress), “A Farewell to Arms” (1957), “Touch of Evil” (1958 – with her radio cohort Orson 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 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, 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.”

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 to Irish parents on March 17, 1918, on the family farm at Joliet, Ill.

After graduation from Mundelein College in Chicago, she 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.”

McCambridge returned to New York for the title role in a radio adaptation of the play “Abie’s Irish Rose.” She later found steady work in the radio dramas of Welles, who called her “the world’s greatest living radio actress.”

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.

AP-ES-03-17-04 1629EST

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