From Radio to Video: The Life of Mercedes McCambridge

Beginning in the 1930s, Mercedes McCambridge starred in many classic American radio shows before transitioning to film in the 1950s. The talented actress worked on stage, screen, and stereo, receiving nominations and awards across mediums. Despite her professional success, McCambridge endured innumerable personal hardships.

Mercedes McCambridge / Mercedes McCambridge / John Markle / Mercedes McCambridge.
Source: Getty Images

Few actresses have gone through as many struggles as Mercedes. From her ferocious feud with Joan Crawford to being blamed for the tragic murder-suicide of her only son, McCambridge survived it all and lived to tell the tale. But the real question is, how did Mercedes McCambridge create the voice of the demon in The Exorcist?

Little White Lies

Carlotta Mercedes was born on March 16th, 1916, in Joliet, Illinois. Her parents were John Patrick McCambridge and Marie Mahaffey, who came from middle-class, Irish farming families. Unfortunately, their families didn’t help them financially, and according to Mercedes, “there were times when [they] were very poor.”

Mercedes McCambridge in a publicity shot.
Photo by De Carvalho Collection/Getty Images

After she became famous, Mercedes told little white lies about her background. Because of her exotic-sounding name, she often claimed to have Spanish ancestors, even though she was Irish. Mercedes also lied about her birthday, saying she was born on St. Patrick’s Day, 1918, making her seem younger and more interesting.

Unusually Histrionic Behavior

From her early childhood, everyone who knew Mercedes believed that her destiny was to be an actress. Mercedes was prone to “unusually histrionic behavior,” something she inherited from her parents and grandparents, who were known for their “animated arguments, sweepingly dramatic exits and entrances, extreme brooding,” and more.

Mercedes McCambridge poses backstage, holding an award.
Photo by Jack Albin/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The McCambridge family drama wasn’t all bad, as elaborated in Ron Lackmann’s biography of the actress; they were also admired for their tendency to break out into “frequent outbursts of song” and their “abundance of boisterous laughter.” John and Marie McCambridge loved the attention and raised Mercedes to enter the spotlight someday.

Proud as Peacocks

Mercedes was nicknamed Mercy as a child, and soon her parents stopped calling her by Carlotta, her first name. They were an intelligent and good-looking family and described as well dressed and “proud as peacocks.” When she was just a toddler, her father received an inheritance.

A portrait of Mercedes McCambridge.
Photo by Film Favorites/Getty Images

With the help of their newfound fortune, the McCambridges moved to South Chicago, where Mercedes and her brother John spent their childhood. Mercedes shared in her autobiography that she liked to lie from a young age and became so good at it that people usually believed her lies more readily than her honesty.

A Catholic Upbringing

The McCambridge family were devout Irish Catholics, and Mercedes was sent to a strict Catholic school as a child. Her teachers disliked her for her lying and dramatics from the start. Mercedes recalled being forced to write with her right hand, despite being lefthanded, and whenever she used her left hand, she would be smacked.

A studio portrait of McCambridge.
Photo by Getty Images

As a young woman, Mercy attended Loyola University and then Mundelein College, both Catholic colleges based in Chicago. She majored in English and Theater. When she was only nineteen and still in college, Mercy was scouted by NBC while performing in the Mundelein Verse-Speaking Choir.

Her Radio Debut

Mercedes’s radio debut was on the live midnight horror show, Lights Out in 1936. On the radio, she played many different characters, sometimes as many as three or four, in the same program. In one episode of Lights Out in 1938, McCambridge acted alongside Boris Karloff, who played a vampire.

A picture of Mercedes greeting the new year.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

She played the role of his victim to the envy of every radio actress in Chicago. Mercedes’s first love was radio: “For me, nothing in films, or theater, or certainly TV has ever touched the magical kaleidoscope of radio.”

The Radio Star

So, Mercedes, the talented ham, forged a successful career as a radio star. Radio was its own world, one where looks didn’t matter; only the strong and capable voices of the performers and the “wonder of sound” were important.

A portrait of Mercedes holding a radio microphone.
Source: Pinterest

According to her, “you could be anything in front of that microphone, and that is what was expected of you.” It was in 1939 that Mercedes met her first husband, William Fifield. She saw the dark, handsome, twenty-three-year-old man at a drug store and married him two weeks later.

A Bad Housewife

They were the same age; she was a radio star, and he was an announcer at CBS, and to her mother’s dismay, a Protestant. Mercedes performed in every radio show in Chicago in those days but often said her most challenging role was at home.

An older Mercedes poses with her grandchildren.
Source: YouTube

She was a very bad housewife and had to perform very hard to succeed at being one. She couldn’t cook or clean and preferred to act. The young couple dreamed of revolutionizing American theater, with him writing plays and her acting in them.

Their Dreams Forgotten

Mercedes and William traveled around Mexico together before moving to Hollywood, where she was cast in the radio show I Love a Mystery. In December 1941, their son John Lawrence Fifield was born. After that, they moved to New York, where their dreams of the theater were forgotten.

A portrait of Mercedes in her old age.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Instead of plays, William began writing a book of stories while McCambridge continued her blooming radio career. Mercedes starred as Judy’s friend on A Date with Judy and had roles in hundreds of other shows, including Bulldog Drummond and Studio One.

Abie’s Irish Rose

Mercedes’s next primetime show was Abie’s Irish Rose, in which she was the star. But her stardom was on the radio, so it wasn’t glamorous. Mercedes, Bill, and John lived in the Bronx, which was dangerous at night when she would return from work alone on the subway.

A photo of Mercedes during the radio show.
Source: YouTube

In the mid-’40s, William went off to war, and Mercedes moved with her son, dog, and maid “to a fancy sublet on East 57th Street.” In 1944, McCambridge finally got her chance to act on the stage as she’d always wanted.

Hope for the Best

Mercedes’s theater debut was in the play Hope for the Best, in which she played the lead. However, a day after the show opened in Washington, she was fired, despite getting rave reviews for her opening night performance.

A portrait of Mercedes.
Source: Pinterest

The reason she was given was “it was inconceivable that [the main character] would fall in love with someone who looks like you.” Mercedes was heartbroken and later wrote, “I thought I was gorgeous. Until then.” But she didn’t back down and soon got another chance, this time on Broadway.

A Place of Our Own

In 1945, Mercedes debuted on Broadway in A Place of Our Own. The show flopped and closed after just a few nights. Her next chance at a Broadway role was ruined when the play’s author made unwanted advances towards her, and she rejected him.

A portrait of Merces McCambridge.
Source: Pinterest

When her husband Bill returned from the war, their son John was five years old. Bill felt like a stranger to Mercedes, and their marriage quickly fell apart, ending in divorce. So, the up-and-coming actress moved to London with her son in search of success.

The World’s Greatest Living Radio Actress

However, Mercedes didn’t find success in England or Ireland and moved back to New York soon after to continue her promising radio career. That was when she joined Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater radio show. Welles was awed by McCambridge and called her “the world’s greatest living radio actress.”

Mercedes stands behind a microphone.
Source: Pinterest

Working with him was therapeutic for Mercedes. She needed rousing and was happy to be told she had something “special” after being rejected on the stage. Mercedes believed that Welles made her better than she thought she was.

The Young and Fair

In 1948, Mercedes was cast to act on Broadway again in The Young and Fair. However, just a week after the play opened, McCambridge’s friend Elspeth Eric convinced Mercedes to go with her to an audition at Columbia Pictures. In the hall, waiting to audition, Mercedes got annoyed.

A portrait of Mercedes.
Source: Pinterest

When she was finally called in, they got her name wrong. That was the last straw. Mercedes gave them an angry speech scolding their bad manners, saying she didn’t want to be in their film anyway. That was how she got hired.

All the King’s Men

Columbia Pictures loved her passion and cast her to play Sadie Burke in All the King’s Men on the spot. Sadie was the supporting role, a journalist who causes the rise and fall of a mean, cutthroat politician, played by Hollywood star Broderick Crawford.

Mercedes in All the King's Men.
Source: Copyright: Columbia Pictures

Mercedes McCambridge won the 1949 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her first performance in a film. Not only that, but she also won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and the New Star of the Year award. She was officially a Hollywood star!

Her Second Husband

Around the same time that she moved to Hollywood and won an Oscar, Mercedes also met her second husband. He was a Canadian orchestra leader, actor, producer, and director named Fletcher Markle. They tied the knot in 1950, after meeting in the late ’40s on the set of Orson Welles’s radio show.

A portrait of Fletcher Markle and Mercedes.
Source: Pinterest

Fletcher and Mercedes moved to Hollywood together, and he went on to produce, write and direct films while she pursued her career on the screen and the radio. Markle adopted Mercedes’s son John, who took the surname Markle.

No Leading Lady Looks

Shockingly, despite her fantastic performance in All the King’s Men and her Oscar win, Columbia Pictures didn’t offer Mercedes a long-term contract. Instead, she was cast in B movies throughout 1951, which was quite a letdown after her glorious start in Hollywood.

A photo of All the King's Men' Oscar winners.
Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

Her following three films were Inside Straight, The Scarf, and Lightning Strikes Twice, all of which suffered from the same problem: the studios didn’t know how to use McCambridge. Her presence was charismatic, dominant, and strong, but she lacked the looks of a leading lady.

The Title Role

On the other hand, on the radio, she did get a leading role. From 1951 until 1952, McCambridge had her own radio show named Defense Attorney, in which she played the title role. The show was so successful that it almost gained a TV remake; however, the pilot wasn’t picked up.

A still of Mercedes during an interview.
Source: YouTube

Mercedes received an honorary membership in the Los Angeles Women’s Bar Association for her dramatic efforts on the show. She acted in many other radio shows during the ’50s, including Murder at Midnight and Family Skeleton.

Tension on the Set

McCambridge next appeared in the 1954 Western Johnny Guitar. She plays the role of Emma Small, opposite Joan Crawford as Vienna. Crawford wanted Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck to play Emma, but the studio couldn’t afford either, and they recruited Mercedes instead.

Mercedes on the set of Johnny Guitar.
Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives/Getty Images

The movie may be regarded as a cult classic, but neither actress enjoyed filming it. The tension on the set of Johnny Guitar was unbearable. In the film, their characters are bitter rivals, and the relationship between Mercedes and Joan in real life wasn’t far off.

Feud With Joan Crawford

The film’s director, Nicholas Ray, thought at first that the actresses’ dislike for each other was “heaven sent” because it made their on-screen conflict more believable. But soon, things got out of hand. McCambridge hated Crawford because she knew that Joan had dated her husband, Fletcher.

Joan Crawford and Mercedes pose for the press.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Mercedes was angered by this and constantly needled Joan about it. Furthermore, McCambridge couldn’t stand that Crawford and Ray were having an affair while shooting the film. Crawford, meanwhile, became jealous of the “special attention” she thought Ray was showing McCambridge.

A Rotten-Egg Lady

What made things much worse was that McCambridge was battling alcoholism during that time, while Crawford was, according to Ray, “drinking a lot and she liked to fight.” Once, in a drunken fit, Joan threw Mercedes’s clothing out the window into the street.

An old-age Mercedes sits in a detoxification unit.
Photo by Jacqueline Haynes-Smart/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

In her autobiography, Mercedes didn’t go into much detail about her feud with Joan, but she did call the other actress “a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady.” Joan, on the other hand, said of Mercedes, “I have four children. I do not need a fifth.”

Fabulous Famous Friends

Mercedes got along great with everyone except Joan Crawford. She was close with Rita Hayworth, whom she met through Fletcher when the three of them were in the French Riviera. Mercedes also became close friends with many of her costars, especially on the set on the film Giant, in 1956.

A portrait of Rita Hayworth.
Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

Mercedes was cast to play the part of Luz in Giant, alongside Hollywood’s biggest stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean. She and Dean became close, and Mercedes remained his friend and confidant until the legendary actor’s untimely death.

An Academy Award Nomination

Mercedes was again nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Giant, but sadly, she lost to Dorothy Malone. A year later, she acted in the box office flop A Farewell to Arms before reuniting with her favorite director, Orson Welles, in 1958.

A photo of the Oscar statuette.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

One day, Welles called McCambridge up and asked if she could come out to the set of a film he was shooting by lunchtime. Welles asked her if she could wear “black slacks and a black sweater” and if she owned a leather jacket.

Touch of Evil

Mercedes didn’t have a leather jacket, so Orson gave her one. At first, Orson forgot he’d invited Mercedes to his set, and then he proceeded to cut her hair for a role she didn’t know she was about to play. Orson then spontaneously had her act in his 1958 film Touch of Evil.

Mercedes is in a still from the film.
Source: YouTube

Mercedes was clad in leather with short hair, ready to play a lesbian gang leader. Orson directed her to adopt a heavy Mexican accent and tell the other ‘hoodlums’ to have their way with Janet Leigh’s character.

A Lesbian Icon

For her spontaneous short cameo in Touch of Evil, Mercedes has been hailed as a lesbian icon. Ronald Bergen wrote in The Guardian that no one has a “dykier screen persona” than McCambridge and called her character in Johnny Guitar a “butch b***h.”

Mercedes in a frame from the film.
Source: YouTube

Her new adopted image as a queer icon didn’t stop Mercedes from being cast in other roles. In 1959, McCambridge was recruited to appear in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film version of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer alongside Montgomery Clift, Katharine Hepburn, and Elizabeth Taylor.

Politics and Friendships

Another close friend of Mercedes’s was the politician Adlai Stevenson, who made a bid to run as the Democratic nominee for President in 1956 and 1960. McCambridge was a great supporter of Stevenson’s and publicly endorsed him and helped him in his campaigns.

A portrait of Adlai Stevenson.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

The actress’s other close personal friends included Marlena Dietrich, Billy Rose, and Judy Garland. After starring in The Wizard of Oz, Judy gave Mercedes the blue and white checkered dress she wore as Dorthey Gale. Mercedes kept the dress until her death.

All to Do with Alcohol

When asked about her marriage with Bill Fletcher, Mercedes said that it “had a lot to do with alcohol.” She shared stories of their lavish lifestyle, complete with chartered jets to Europe and glamorous Hollywood parties.

A portrait of Mercedes.
Photo By John Beard/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Unfortunately, while they were together, her alcoholism got out of control, and Mercedes was often hospitalized because of the effects of her heavy drinking. She later shared that she felt their marriage and lifestyle hadn’t actually been genuine. It seemed more like a glamorous unliveable dream that later lost its charm.

We Tried Too Hard

To make their dying marriage work, McCambridge and Markle flew to the South of France and drank all day. Mercedes reflected later that they’d “tried too hard” and “too long.” In 1962, after twelve years together, they finally called it quits.

A picture of Mercedes.
Photo By John Beard/The Denver Post/Getty Images

But after their divorce, instead of getting on the wagon, Mercedes spiraled even more, and one night, in 1963, she swallowed a whole bottle of pills. Mercedes had resolved to end her life and even wrote a goodbye note. But fate intervened, and she woke up in the hospital.

Box Office Bombs

While her life was spiraling, McCambridge’s film career wasn’t going well either. Her drinking began to impact her acting negatively. She starred in Cimarron in 1961 and the following year in Angel Baby, both of which failed. And in 1965, the actress appeared in the flop Run Home Slow.

Mercedes in a still from Angel Baby.
Source: YouTube

So, she turned to theater and TV instead, performing on the stage of The Little Foxes in 1963 and then in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1964. On TV, she guest-starred in many shows including, Rawhide, Bonanza, and Bewitched.

Addiction to Recovery

In 1969, Mercedes started going to Alcoholics Anonymous and finally became sober. Her experience as an alcoholic had been so life-changing that she spent the rest of her days preaching against alcohol consumption and proving that alcoholism is a legitimate disease by sharing her story of addiction to recovery.

A portrait of Mercedes.
Source: Pinterest

In the mid-’70s, McCambridge began volunteering at a non-profit called the Livengrin Foundation in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. Mercedes joined the Board of Directors and later became CEO of the foundation, which ran a rehab treatment center for alcoholics.

Return to the Stage

After getting clean, McCambridge returned first to the stage, touring with the production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In 1972, for her role in The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks, Mercedes was nominated for a Tony Award.

Mercedes in The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks.
Source: Flickr

Her last significant appearance in a film was a voice role. She was chosen for the part because of her talents on the radio. In 1973, William Friedkin asked Mercedes to discuss performing the voice of Pazuzu, the Devil, in his influential horror film, The Exorcist.

The Voice of a Demon

Friedkin was excited to find that Mercedes still sounded exactly as she had on the radio back in the day and immediately hired her. So, the voice of a demon that came from inside Linda Blair’s character, Regan, was, in truth, McCambridge’s voice. How did she do it?

Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
Source: Copyright: Warner Bros.

In order to make the possessive demon sound as terrifying as possible, Mercedes swallowed raw eggs, chain-smoked constantly, and drank whiskey. These tactics helped make her voice sound harsh and aggressive. Furthermore, the director also used an interesting approach.

Bound to Her Chair

Friedkin had McCambridge bound to her chair while the voice of Pazuzu was recorded so that it would sound as if the demon was struggling against restraints. Alas, when the film was first released, Mercedes wasn’t credited for her voice role.

A portrait of Friedkin on the movie set.
Source: Copyright: Warner Bros.

The director later claimed that the actress had requested not to be credited so as not to take away from Linda Blair’s seminal performance. Then, Mercedes changed her mind and complained that she wasn’t mentioned, eventually suing the studio. She won the suit and was added to the credits.

The Only Good Thing in The Exorcist

She later said, “Truman Capote told me I was the only good thing in the Exorcist.” Working to create and record the devilish voice of Pazuzu took Mercedes three weeks. She went through a lot for the role and deserved to get recognition for her hard work.

A photograph of Truman Capote.
Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

In the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s, McCambridge appeared in a total of three films and quietly quit Hollywood. She’d had enough and spent the rest of her career focusing on TV, theater, and radio, where she was more appreciated.

Hollywood Wasn’t Interested

In a 1981 interview, Mercedes said, ”I don’t think the Hollywood community is interested in what I can do.” Instead, she kept to the small screen and acted in Gun Law, Flying High, Charlie’s Angels, and later in Magnum P.I. and Cagney and Lacey.

Mercedes, Tom Selleck, and Andrea Marcovicci in Magnum P.I.
Source: Copyright: NBC

The talented performer continued to shine on stage well into her golden years, appearing in Agnes of God and Night, Mother in the early ’80s. Her last role was at age 76 in 1991, as the grandmother, in the Neil Simon play Lost in Yonkers.

The Quality of Mercy

While she was the director at Livingrin rehab center, Mercedes wrote her autobiography, The Quality of Mercy: An Autobiography. The book details her life and career, from her humble beginnings to her radio career and glamorous marriage to Fletcher Markle.

A photo from the book’s cover.
Source: Pinterest

The memoir was published in 1981. To the surprise of her readers, Mercedes bared her soul and delved deep into her struggles with addiction, her Catholic faith, two miscarriages she suffered, and her suicide attempt. But little did she know, her personal hardships were far from over.

Blaming His Mother

In November of 1987, Mercedes’s only son, John Markle, murdered his wife, Christine, and daughters Amy and Suzanne and then killed himself. Along with the murder-suicide note, John left a letter, blaming his mother for driving him to commit his terrible crimes.

A photo of John Markle.
Source: YouTube

He wrote, “you said… we can work it out, but NO, you refused… You called me a liar, a cheat, a criminal, a bum. You said I have ruined your life.” How had John reached his breaking point? And what had Mercedes done to push him there?

Stephens Inc. Investment Firm

John Markle graduated from UCLA, receiving a Ph.D. in Economics. He then went to work at Salomon Brothers in New York City before moving to Stephens Inc. Investment Firm in 1979. John was a talented trader and was promoted quickly and given more responsibility.

A picture of John Markle’s wife and daughters.
Source: YouTube

Mercedes trusted her son and gave him $604,000 to manage for her. However, in 1987, Stephens Inc. discovered that John had instead opened a secret account in his mother’s name, to which he’d been crediting profitable trades while charging trading losses to the company’s account.

Put on Leave

John was forced to go on leave, and after an investigation uncovered the extent of his fraud, he was fired from Stephens Inc. Mercedes was angry at John for forging her signature and committing fraud. The company also took the money she’d given him.

A photo of Mercedes.
Source: Pinterest

Because of this, she refused to cooperate with the company to help her son repay the money he had stolen. Supposing she had, Stephens Inc. would have agreed to keep his crime from becoming public. Instead, she remained resolute that they owed her money.

Never Around Much

A 5-million-dollar lawsuit was filed against Markle, and McCambridge was implicated in his fraud charges because the account had been opened in her name. However, she was soon cleared of all charges. John’s fraud scandal went public shortly after that, and he shot his family.

An exterior view of Markle’s house.
Source: Pinterest

Mercedes was distraught to lose them and broken-hearted that her son would commit such a heinous crime. He wrote, “You were never around much when I needed you, so now I and my whole family are dead, so you can have the money… Night, Mother.”

Blaming It on Mom

In his murder-suicide note, John blamed everything on Mercedes, suggesting everything she had done throughout their entire relationship had driven him. The letter was twelve pages long and detailed her alcoholism and two failed suicide attempts.

A portrait of Mercedes.
Photo by Denver Post/Getty Images

He called her “manipulative” and “incurably angry” and claimed that things would have been different if she had agreed to Stephens Inc.’s terms. John believed that he could have gotten another job, paid the money back, and moved on. He claimed to have committed fraud to make money for her and finally make her proud.

Not Available for Comment

After the incident, Mercedes’s lawyer told the press that she was “not available for comment.” She never publicly spoke about what happened, neither acknowledging nor dismissing her part in it. After a few years, she returned to the stage for her final role in Neal Simon’s Lost in Yonkers.

Mercedes signs autographs at the film premiere.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

She appears as a fierce matriarchal mother and grandmother, the head of a strange and screwed-up family. McCambridge appeared in over 500 performances of the show, playing her role of Grandma Kurnitz beautifully. She was hailed for her exceptional acting.

Renewing her Faith

After enduring so many traumatic events throughout her life, Mercedes renewed her Catholic faith and found comfort in religion. She considered a nun named Sister Mary Leola Oliver to be her lifelong mentor and guardian angel.

An earlier photo of Mercedes with Sister Mary Leola Oliver.
Source: Pinterest

Sister Mary trained Mercedes to act and sing during her time in college, helping her gain her first job on the radio. Later she helped the struggling woman find God again and overcome her addiction to alcohol. Without her belief in God, Mercedes would have been lost after her son’s murder-suicide.

Loneliness Is Marvelous

Not much is known about the final years of McCambridge’s life. After her retirement, she exited the spotlight for good and retreated to her home in La Jolla, San Diego, California. She didn’t have any family left to comfort her in her old age and died on March 2nd, 2004, of natural causes.

An older Mercedes holds a picture of a younger Mercedes.
Source: Pinterest

In an interview about her autobiography in the ’80s, Mercedes said, “I believe we should learn to appreciate our loneliness.” Hopefully, she succeeded and enjoyed her later years, continuing to think that “loneliness is marvelous.”

Two Stars on the Walk of Fame

Despite her long, hard life, full of tragedy and obstacles, Mercedes McCambridge remained strong and resilient, living to a ripe old age. She will always be remembered for her contributions to the entertainment industry as one of the few actresses who transitioned from radio to film.

A portrait of Mercedes.
Photo by Film Favorites/Getty Images

McCambridge has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; one star is for her work in film and the other for television. But more than anything, Mercedes McCambridge remains an icon of the airwaves, “The world’s greatest… radio actress.”