Max von Sydow, the Oscar-nominated actor best known for playing chess with Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and battling a demon in The Exorcist, died Sunday. He was 90.
His wife, Catherine Brelet, announced the news without citing a cause of death in Paris Match. “It is with a broken heart and with infinite sadness that we have the extreme pain of announcing the departure of Max von Sydow on 8 March 2020,” she said, according to The Guardian.
The Swedish actor became a breakout star in the late Fifties and early Sixties through a succession of Bergman films, including Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, and Through a Glass Darkly. He frequently played men in existential pain, grappling with their own existence. He later found Hollywood success by playing the title role of Father Merrin in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, for which he wore heavy makeup to appear older.
Von Sydow was nominated for an Oscar in 1987, for his portrayal of a Swedish emigrant fighting for a better life for his son in Pelle the Conquereor, and again in 2012, for playing a man suffering PTSD in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. He was also nominated for multiple Emmys, for playing the three-eyed raven on Game of Thrones and for the 1989 miniseries Red King, White Night.
Known for his versatility, von Sydow also appeared in Footloose, Flash Gordon, Conan the Barbarian, Strange Brew, and Dune, among others. He memorably played the partner of Barbara Hershey’s character in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters and the deceitful Lamar Burgess, a director of a futuristic police force, in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. Von Sydow kept a busy schedule of projects up to his death, and is slated to appear in filmmaker Nicholas Dimitropoulos’ upcoming Echoes of the Past.
Von Sydow was born Carl Adolf von Sydow in Lund, Sweden, on April 10th, 1929. His mother, Baroness Maria Margareta, was a teacher, and his father, Carl Wilhelm von Sydow, was a professor of comparative folklore. Young Carl studied at the Royal Dramatic Theater School in Stockholm.
Although he made his film debut using the name Max (picked because it was the name of the star of a flea circus he’d seen while in the army, according to The New York Times) in the 1949 picture Only a Mother, directed by Alf Sjöberg, he would appear in only a handful of movies — including Sjöberg’s adaptation of Miss Julie — before his breakout role in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. In that film, he played Antonius Block, a pensive knight returning home from the Crusades who challenges Death to a game of chess. The film has since become one of both Bergman and von Sydow’s most celebrated works. They continued working together throughout the Sixties, a decade during which von Sydow alternated between film and theater.
“Ingmar has these special characters who are reincarnated from film to film,” von Sydow told Life in 1971. “There is the very sensitive, very emotional person who cannot bear his own feelings. He is usually destroyed by the second type of character, the one who is emotionally inhibited by his intellect, who never has had any real emotional experience and longs to be almost the victim of an emotional explosion just in order to feel something.”
Von Sydow was married twice. He met his first wife, Christina Olin, while in theater school; the couple, who had two sons, divorced in 1979. He married Brelet in 1997 and, according to The Guardian, subsequently became a citizen of her native France.
The actor made his Hollywood debut playing Jesus Christ in the 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told. He learned English for the role and told Life in 1965, “The hardest thing was to say all the well-known lines — The Lord’s Prayer, the Sermon on the Mount — as if they had never been said before.”
Within a decade, he was the star of the blockbuster The Exorcist. Although his character got relatively little screen time in the horror film, it was von Sydow’s ability to play a priest who could display confidence in the face of a demon that brought the film together. He was 44 at the time the movie came out, but makeup effects made him look older, adding weight to the role. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for the performance but did not win. In 1988, von Sydow directed his only film, Katinka, a love story about a married woman falling in love with another man.
“In a theater, the part is mine and I can control it as I want to,” von Sydow said of his craft in the 1965 Life interview, around the time of The Greatest Story Ever Told. “In the movies, I don’t have direct contact and not always continuity, and I am fighting technical machinery. But what the movies do is give me an opportunity to go places. Now, I’m not only a Swede but an American, not just a man of my time but I’ve been living 2,000 years ago — and not just in a new country, America, but in the Holy Land, too.”