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Max von Sydow, the legend of Swedish cinema who dueled with Death in a game of chess in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and portrayed the resolute Father Merrin in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, has died. He was 90.
Von Sydow, who starred in 11 films directed by Bergman, typically playing a tormented protagonist, died Sunday at his home in Provence, France.
“It’s with a broken heart and with infinite sadness that we have the extreme pain of announcing the departure of Max Von Sydow on March 8, 2020,” his wife, French documentary filmmaker and producer Catherine von Sydow, said Monday.
The imposing von Sydow received a best actor Oscar nomination — rare for a performance in a non-English-language film — for playing a Swedish father who emigrates to Denmark to build a better life for himself and his son in Pelle the Conqueror (1987). The somber drama, directed by Bille August, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the foreign-language Oscar.
Two decades later, von Sydow worked closely with another young actor and was nominated again, this time for his silent, supporting turn in the Stephen Daldry 9/11 drama Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011).
He was the only male Swedish actor to be nominated for an Academy Award.
One of the most admired actors of his era, von Sydow made his first foray into U.S. movies in a big way, portraying Jesus in the George Stevens epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). His once said that working on that film was like “being in a prison.”
“It was the hardest part I’ve ever had to play in my life,” he said, and that wasn’t because it was his first English-language role. “I couldn’t smoke or drink in public. The most difficult part of playing Christ was that I had to keep up the image around the clock. As soon as the picture finished, I returned home to Sweden and tried to find my old self. It took six months to get back to normal.”
Von Sydow reportedly passed on the opportunity to play the title role of the SPECTRE villain in Dr. No (1962), but he did play the bad guy Blofeld in another James Bond movie, Never Say Never Again (1983).
He also was menacing as the slick assassin in Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975) and as a “pre-crime” boss in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002).
Von Sydow’s estimable body of work also includes Hawaii (1966), the spy thrillers The Quiller Memorandum (1966) and The Kremlin Letter (1970), March or Die (1977), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Dune (1984), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Awakenings (1990), Until the End of the World (1991), Needful Things (1993), Snow Falling on Cedars (1999), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) and Robin Hood (2010).
Although generally associated with his venerable performances in “serious” films, von Sydow periodically ventured into sillier fare, where he enjoyed playing against audience expectations. That included turns as Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon (1980) and as a sinister beer maker in the lowbrow Bob and Doug McKenzie comedy Strange Brew (1983).
More recently, von Sydow played explorer Lor San Tekka in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and the Three-Eyed Raven on HBO’s Game of Thrones — for which he received an Emmy nomination — and filmed Thomas Vinterberg’s Kursk (2018).
He was born Carl Adolf von Sydow on April 10, 1929, in Lund, Sweden. His father was a professor of comparative folklore at the local university, and his mother was a teacher. He began acting in school plays.
After two years in the Swedish military, von Sydow enrolled at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre’s acting school; during his three years there, he helped form a theater group, which also included actress Ingrid Thulin. By the time he graduated in 1951, he had already performed in two films directed by Alf Sjoberg, Only a Mother (1949) and Miss Julie (1951).
Von Sydow’s acting prowess won notice, and he was given a Royal Foundation of Sweden’s Cultural Award in 1954, a grant to young actors of promise. The following year, the gaunt, 6-foot-4 actor joined the municipal theater in Malmo, where he met and first collaborated with Bergman.
Von Sydow won acclaim for playing the 14th century knight Antonius Block and engaging in an existential game of chess with the black-shrouded Death (Bengt Ekerot) in the bleak The Seventh Seal, then teamed with Bergman for another film released in 1957, Wild Strawberries.
As a member of Bergman’s repertory company, the blue-eyed von Sydow also played a charismatic conjurer in The Magician (1958), a raped girl’s revenge-seeking father in The Virgin Spring (1960), a clueless husband who loses his wife to schizophrenia in Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and an artist tormented by the fear he’s lost his talent in The Hour of the Wolf (1968).
His other collaborations with Bergman included Winter Light (1963), Shame (1968) and The Passion of Anna (1969).
Working with the filmmaker, especially at the start of his career, was his “most important experience, no doubt,” von Sydow told Backstage magazine in 2012.
“It was very special, I was very privileged, and I’m very grateful for all the wonderful opportunities he gave me,” he said. “It was also a period of learning, experimenting and developing. He gave young people wonderful opportunities, and he was a great inspiration for everybody. Sometimes he was difficult, of course, and there were some people who had great difficulties working with him, but most of us were very spoiled by him.”
In The Best Intentions (1992), von Sydow played Bergman’s grandfather in the film that August directed and Bergman scripted.
Von Sydow often portrayed characters that were much older than he was. In The Exorcist (1973), he played the 80-year-old Father Merrin (“The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!”) when he was 43.
“Somebody gave me the [William Peter Blatty] book to read and said, ‘They want you to play a priest,'” he said in a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I read the book and I thought, of course, it was for the young priest. So I said, ‘That’s a good part.’ And they said, ‘No, no no. They want you for the exorcist!’ I still don’t really know why.”
Von Sydow underwent three hours in the makeup room each day to look the part. He then got an opportunity to play a younger Father Merrin four years later in John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic.
Another notable role for him was Karl Oskar, a Scandinavian farmer who comes to Minnesota, in the Jan Troell epics The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972). Both also starred Liv Ullmann.
Von Sydow ventured into directing in 1988 with Katinka, a turn-of-the-century drama about a dreamy woman trapped in a loveless marriage. He employed legendary Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who had long captured von Sydow’s most stirring performances, to shoot the film.
Von Sydow was married to actress Christina Olin from 1951-79 and then to Catherine Brelet, who served as his assistant on several films, since 1997. He also is survived by his four sons.
Mike Barnes contributed to this report.
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