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Is The Exorcist's Father Karras the original Hot Priest?
In 2019, Andrew Scott went from Sherlock's Jim Moriarty as his most recognizable role to the eponymous Hot Priest. Scott's character in the Emmy Award-winning Fleabag is simply referred to as "The Priest," but viewers later changed it to this more descriptive moniker. He isn't the only attractive clergyman on TV right now; men of the cloth are having a scorching moment. The newest addition is Mike Colter as David Acosta on the new CBS series Evil, a former journalist embracing a new career as a priest-in-training. He's not a regular student, rather working as an assessor investigating potential supernatural phenomena — including demonic possession.
The Exorcist connotations leap out from this description alone, which brings us to the definitive on-screen depiction of this particular spiritual vocation. Max von Sydow gets the hero shot as Father Merrin arriving at the MacNeil Georgetown home, but it is Jason Miller as Jesuit psychiatrist Father Damien Karras who ultimately saves the day (after Merrin dies trying) in a moment of self-sacrifice. It is all very honorable, which only adds to the allure of his character, but it also got us to wondering: is Father Karras the original Hot Priest?
When Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge hosted Saturday Night Live in October, she got to the heart of why Andrew Scott's performance caused such a "horn-storm." Outside of the obvious thirst-inducing charm and his very handsome face, Waller-Bridge and Scott realized he did something that men often neglect: "We boiled it down and realized he was doing this one thing: listening. Really, really listening. Try it, guys."
By the time Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) talks to Father Karras about the potential demon residing in her daughter Regan (Linda Blair), she needs more than just a sympathetic ear, as the many men in various medical and psychiatric professions have failed to deliver results. Listening to her concerns is one factor, but so is taking decisive action in this unique scenario.
Karras isn't just a priest, however; he's also a psychiatrist, a double threat combining spirituality with intellect. His academic background includes writing a paper on witchcraft from a psychiatric perspective, which feels very contemporary for a man of the church. He is skeptical enough to question the validity of Regan's condition, but he isn't against entertaining the spiritual possibility of this prognosis. He doesn't dismiss Chris' concerns out-of-hand just because it is unlikely to be an actual demonic possession
Before her daughter's condition hits a crisis point, both Karras and Chris have viewed each other with curiosity from afar. Chris is shooting a movie on the university campus, and a protest scene creates a heady atmosphere that Karras views with intrigue and amusement. The audience witnesses a rare moment of laughter from him before we see him heading on his way. He has a warm smile, which won't be getting much of a workout over the subsequent two hours. Out of context, this scene could be the start of a romantic comedy or tragic love story. After all, this is the ultimate forbidden relationship.
Later when Chris walks home, she sees Father Karras talking with a colleague. It is impossible to make out what they are saying, but the conversation looks fraught, which only heightens Chris' interest in the matter. At a party she is hosting, Chris asks her priest friend about the identity of the priest who is "really intense-looking" and the work he does. Intense is the perfect descriptor for Father Karras' constant furrowed brow and haunted expression.
Falling somewhere between the rugged Johnny Cash and Peter Falk — think early episodes of Columbo — Jason Miller is not what you would call traditionally handsome. His thick head of black hair and brooding eyes are piercing in a way that is both enticing and disarming. He has the expression of someone who has seen darkness and relies on the medicinal properties of alcohol. The lines on his face suggest he is far likelier to put the health of others before his own. He drinks hard, but he also likes to pound the track and hit the boxing gym. Get yourself a priest who can do both.
Exercise is an outlet for his fragile psyche and guilt. His crisis of faith at the start of the film only deepens after the death of his mother. He believes he failed and abandoned her after he couldn't afford better healthcare. Emotional baggage can be a thirst-killer, but there are bigger obstacles than his mother issues when Chris MacNeil comes calling. Regan isn't the only one lost in a spiritual wilderness, and soon he will be risking it all for her.
First appearances say a lot and perhaps the reason why Karras is such a Hot Priest is because he doesn't look like a man married to the church. He is often out of uniform and has a penchant for grey Georgetown University sweats and Converse sneakers. It is a universally sexy look that plays into this non-priestly aesthetic.
Lt. Kinderman (Lee Cobb) waits for Karras to finish his laps before asking his expert opinion. When Karras asks how Kinderman knew he was the priest he was looking for, the lieutenant explains he was told to look out for the person with the appearance of a boxer, attempting flattery by suggesting that Karras resembles actors John Barrymore and Sal Mineo. Karras is impervious to these complements, deflecting the detective's bid to get him to name some suspects for the crimes of desecrating the church and killing Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran). Karras isn't going to break patient/doctor confidentiality nor the sanctity of confession, no matter how many free movie tickets or threats Kinderman makes. He is a man of integrity, which is also pretty hot.
His relaxed appearance surprises Chris when they officially meet for the first time as she had been expecting the intense guy dressed all in black. This version in Georgetown University apparel doesn't match the image she registered from her previous observations. This separation from his priestly role via his wardrobe only elevates the thirst, as it becomes less about the collar and more about this guy in knitwear and athletic attire. But Chris has no time for such fantasies, as her daughter has turned into a literal monster.
Even after Regan pukes all over his sweater, Karras doesn't abandon Chris, which is a lot more than her ex-husband. It is frustrating that it takes a man to swoop in and save the day — filling the gap left by Regan's actual father — but it cannot be denied that Karras provides much-needed comfort and spiritual advice when Chris' world crumbles around her. Even when she screams in his face, he is patient and empathetic. Sure, it is part of his job description, but he doesn't let his skepticism get in the way of helping.
After a heavy day with Regan, Karras loosens his collar and gladly takes a drink. He looks world-weary but not beaten by this unique challenge. He asks where Regan's father is, but without the judgment that weaves its way throughout this movie. There is no desire to assign blame or lecture Chris for what the Catholic Church would deem to be a sin.
Ultimately, Father Karras makes the biggest sacrifice to save Regan's soul. It is a valiant and tragic moment to protect this child — not only because Karras' face goes all demon-like (ruining those rugged good looks). He does return for The Exorcist III, but at the end of the first movie, Karras has died in the line of duty.
A romance between Father Karras and Chris was never going to happen, but there is no harm in imagining an alternate universe in which these characters enjoy a meet-cute on campus — the academic falling in love with a movie star sounds like a movie Richard Curtis would make today. Instead of being possessed by a demon, Regan is angry that her mom is dating again. Unfortunately, The Exorcist we know is, at least in part, the tragic story of a complicated man who was good at his job because he had doubts and listened. What could be more attractive than that?