Max von Sydow, Star of ‘Seventh Seal’ and ‘Exorcist,’ Dies at 90
Widely hailed as one of the finest actors of his generation, Mr. von Sydow formed a close relationship with the director Ingmar Bergman and became an elder pop culture star.
Max von Sydow in William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist.” The actor was most associated with the films of Ingmar Bergman, a fellow Swede. Credit...Warner Brothers, via Getty Images
By Robert Berkvist
March 9, 2020
Max von Sydow, the tall, blond Swedish actor who cut a striking figure in American movies but was most identified with the signature work of a fellow Swede, the director Ingmar Bergman, died on Sunday. He was 90.
His wife, Catherine von Sydow, confirmed the death in an emailed statement. No cause was given. The Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet said he died in Provence, France.
Widely hailed as one of the finest actors of his generation, Mr. von Sydow became an elder pop culture star in his later years, appearing in a “Star Wars” movie in 2015 as well as in the sixth season of the HBO fantasy-adventure series “Game of Thrones.”He even lent his deep, rich voice to “The Simpsons.”
By then he had become a familiarly austere presence in popular movies like William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist,” Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” and, more recently, Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
But to film lovers the world over he was most enduringly associated with Bergman.
If ever an actor was born to inhabit the World According to Bergman, it was Mr. von Sydow. Angular and lanky at 6-foot-3, possessing a gaunt face and hooded, icy blue eyes, he not only radiated power but also registered a deep sense of Nordic angst, helping to give flesh to Bergman’s often bleak but hopeful and sometimes comic vision of the human condition in classics like “The Seventh Seal” and “The Virgin Spring.”
In “The Seventh Seal” (1958), Mr. von Sydow played Antonius Block, a strapping medieval knight who returns from the Crusades to his plague-ravaged homeland only to encounter the stern, ghostly pale, black-hooded figure of Death, played by Bengt Ekerot. To stave off the inevitable, Block challenges Death to a game of chess, and in the long intervals between moves he searches the countryside for some shred of human goodness.
Mr. von Sydow, right, in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (1957), in which he plays chess against Death (Bengt Ekerot), an unforgettable image in film history. Credit...The Criterion Collection
The two grim figures hunched over a chessboard in a desolate north-country landscape made for an unforgettable cinematic image, which has been both imitated and parodied. But sustained Hollywood stardom eluded Mr. von Sydow, despite his promising introduction to a wide audience in the lead role of George Stevens’s biblical epic “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” released in 1965.
Though that movie turned out to be less than a blockbuster, Mr. von Sydow’s performance as Jesus was good enough to bring a flood of offers his way. Still, he often found himself typecast as a stereotypical bad guy, thanks to his imposing physique, strong features and Scandinavian accent.
“I wish I could have a wider choice of roles in American productions,” he told The New York Times in 1983, “the kind of roles I get in Europe.” Unfortunately, he said, American film producers “only offer you exact copies of roles you successfully performed before.”In ‘Exorcist,’ the Title Role
There were exceptions. In one of his most commercially successful films, “The Exorcist” (1973), an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best seller, Mr. von Sydow played a grimly resolute Jesuit priest summoned in the film’s last scenes to rescue a girl possessed by a demon.
But it was not until his later years that he could range widely in American movies. In “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) he was the possessive lover of the youngest sister, played by Barbara Hershey. In the science-fiction thriller “Minority Report” (2002) he was Tom Cruise’s coolly efficient boss, the director of a police force that benefits from telepathic powers to stop crimes before they are committed.
Mr. von Sydow, second from left, with Barbara Hershey, Daniel Stern and Michael Caine in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” directed by Woody Allen. Credit...Orion Pictures
Mr. von Sydow earned his first Academy Award nomination in 1988 — some 40 years after his movie debut — for his work in “Pelle the Conqueror.” A Danish film directed by Bille August, it told the story of Lasse (Mr. von Sydow), a down-at-heels widowed Swedish laborer who brings his young son, Pelle, to Denmark at the turn of the century in search of a better life, only to encounter still more hard times.
There were other late-career high points, including “Hamsun” (1997), in which Mr. von Sydow submerged himself in the tangled personality of the Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, whose age and ego led him to become a tool of the Nazis during World War II.
By his late 80s, cast in the brief role of the village elder Lor San Tekka in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and as the enigmatic seer Three Eyed Raven in Season Six of “Game of Thrones,” he was having, as the critic Terrence Rafferty wrote in The Atlantic in 2015, “the sort of late career that eminent movie actors tend to have, popping up for a scene or two in commercial stuff that needs a touch of gravity, and receiving, as famous old actors do, the honor of ‘last billing.’”
He was also treated to a fresh round of recognition. “For a significant portion of his six decades onscreen,” Mr. Rafferty wrote, “he has been the greatest actor alive.”
Mr. von Sydow received his second Oscar nomination, as supporting actor, in 2011 for his performance in the otherwise critically savaged “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” in which he played the mute companion of a boy whose father had died in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. (In a wry handwritten note to the Academy expressing his gratitude, he wrote, “I don’t know what to say.”)
Perhaps no role was as emotionally charged for him as the one he played in the French-language film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007): a frail, elderly man whose emotional defenses collapse when he learns that his son’s paralytic stroke is irreversible. The role reminded him of his relationship with his own father and of all the unresolved issues between them, he told The New York Times Magazine in 2008.
“I had great difficulty getting rid of my emotion after making this movie,” he said.
Mr. von Sydow as The Renter in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” (2011), directed by Stephen Daldry. Credit...François Duhamel/Warner Brothers PicturesParents Were Educators
Carl Adolf von Sydow was born on April 10, 1929, in Lund, in southern Sweden. His father was a university professor, his mother a schoolteacher. He attended the Cathedral School in Lund, where he learned English at an early age, and began his acting career in an amateur theater group he founded with friends.
He was said to have adopted the name Max from the star performer in a flea circus he saw while serving in the Swedish Quartermaster Corps.
After his military service, he studied at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, from 1948 to 1951, and made his screen debut in “Only a Mother” (1949), Alf Sjoberg’s drama about a woman raising a brood of children while toiling in virtual serfdom in a class-riven Sweden.
In 1951, while still in Stockholm, Mr. von Sydow married Kerstin Olin, an actress, with whom he had two sons, Clas and Henrik. The marriage ended in divorce after 45 years.
Along with his sons and Catherine von Sydow, he is survived by her sons, Cedric and Yvan, whom he adopted, according to the Expressen newspaper.
Mr. von Sydow began his long association with Bergman in 1955, when Mr. von Sydow moved to the city of Malmo, in southern Sweden, and joined the Malmo Municipal Theater, with which Bergman was associated.
Over the next few years Mr. von Sydow appeared in many Bergman films, becoming an important member of what was essentially the director’s repertory company, whether in lesser roles (in “Wild Strawberries” and “Brink of Life”) or lead ones (in “The Magician,” “Through a Glass Darkly” and “The Virgin Spring”).
In “The Virgin Spring” (1960), he played a wealthy man whose daughter is raped and murdered by two local shepherds. When he discovers the identity of the killers, he methodically plans and executes a bloody revenge.
Some 20 years later, reflecting on how Bergman had shaped his performance as the vengeful father, Mr. von Sydow said: “The rage slowly builds up in him until he finally explodes and kills — it’s a buildup which is long and slow and meticulous. Bergman uses a lot of time and thought to build up an emotion. He milks it. You think the explosion will come, but no, and the tension exhausts you.”
By the early 1960s Mr. von Sydow was getting offers from Hollywood and turning them down, saying he was happy enough with his work in Sweden. Then he was offered the role of Jesus in “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and he went to Hollywood, embarking on an international career.
In 1966, in “Hawaii,” based on the novel by James A. Michener and directed by George Roy Hill, Mr. von Sydow gave a nuanced performance as a young minister who comes to 19th-century Hawaii with his wife (Julie Andrews) to seek converts among the native islanders.
More typically, though, and to his mounting frustration, he played the villain — a neo-Nazi in “The Quiller Memorandum” (1966), a power-hungry Russian in “The Kremlin Letter” (1970), a fedora-wearing hired assassin in “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), the otherworldly emperor Ming the Merciless in the cartoonish “Flash Gordon” (1980), the archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the James Bond film “Never Say Never Again” (1983).
Mr. von Sydow and Liv Ullmann in “The Emigrants” (1971), a drama about Swedish settlers in 19th-century Minnesota. Credit...Warner Bros. Pictures
More challenging roles awaited him back in Sweden, and in the late 1960s he returned there to make another series of films with Bergman and another master Swedish director, Jan Troell. He appeared in Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf” (1968), “Shame” (1968), “The Passion of Anna” (1969) and “The Touch” (1971) and went on to star with Liv Ullmann in “The Emigrants” (1971) and “The New Land” (1972), Mr. Troell’s two-part saga about 19th-century Swedish settlers in the United States.
Mr. von Sydow made his Broadway debut in 1977 as the star of “The Night of the Tribades,” a play by Per Olov Enquist about the Swedish writer August Strindberg. Despite a cast that also included Eileen Atkins and Bibi Andersson (another Bergman mainstay, who died last April), the production ran for less than two weeks.
Broadway theatergoers had another brief encounter with Mr. von Sydow in 1981, when he starred with Anne Bancroft in “Duet for One,” Tom Kempinski’s drama about the cellist Jacqueline du Pre, whose career was cut short by multiple sclerosis. Mr. von Sydow played the kindly therapist who tries to help her through her depression.
That play, too, had only a short run, but there were better things to come for Mr. von Sydow, almost all of them on film.
In another role with psychological depth, in “The Flight of the Eagle” (1983), directed by Mr. Troell, he was the leader of an ill-fated party of explorers who try to fly over the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon. Writing in The Times, Vincent Canby described the movie, an Academy Award nominee for best foreign-language film, as “so good that it makes one want to know more.”
Mr. von Sydow receiving the honorary Donostia Award at the San Sebastian’s International Film Festival in Spain in 2006. Credit...Pablo Sanchez/ReutersSweden Grew Distant
For all his connection to the land of his birth and of Bergman, Sweden became distant to Mr. von Sydow. In the 1980s, though he had a summer house on an island in the Baltic Sea, he lived in Rome. His sons attended American universities.
“I have nowhere really to call home,” he told The Times. “I feel I have lost my Swedish roots. It’s funny because I’ve been working in so many places that now I feel at home in many locations. But Sweden is the only place I feel less and less at home.”
Mr. von Sydow remained among a select group of actors to have formed symbiotic relationships with directors, in which one helps the other achieve a high level of artistry. He found kindred spirits in two filmmakers. One was Mr. Troell, who directed him in seven films and wanted him to take the lead in “The Last Sentence,” his acclaimed 2012 film. He declined, Mr. Troell said, because at 85 Mr. von Sydow felt “he was too old.” (The role went to Jesper Christensen, 19 years his junior.)
The other, of course, was Bergman. Mr. von Sydow recalled his last conversation with the director, who died in Sweden in 2007
at 89: “He said, ‘Max, you have been the first and the best Stradivarius that I have ever had in my hands.’”Alex Marshall and Christina Anderson contributed reporting.https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/09/movies/max-von-sydow-dead.htm