A veteran of over a hundred films, Max von Sydow was a cinema icon in his own right. A two-time Oscar nominee who played parts, both big and small, in some of the most iconic pictures and television shows released during his sixty year career. Sydow may not necessarily be a household name for some but almost everyone familiar with the big and small screen has seen this Swedish-French actor at work maybe without even realizing it. Sadly, Sydow passed away on Monday, March 9 at the age of 90 leaving behind an extensive legacy and legion of fans who appreciate his contributions to the art of cinema and television. So today I take a moment to remember an actor and an icon by recapping the highlights of six-decades of acting that helped make him a fan favorite. This is In Memoriam: Max von Sydow.
Born Carl Adolf von Sydow in Sweden in April 10, 1929, von Sydow was brought up by parents who specialized in anthropology, folklore and education. His was raised as a Lutheran but eventually adopted agnostic and atheism as his religious identities over the years. His early years at the Lund Cathedral School led him to be bilingual, educating him in the English language. It was during this time that he discovered a fascination for acting after viewing a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Later he and several of his friends founded a theatrical group that served as the first steps toward a success acting career. After serving two years in the Army Quatermaster Corps von Sydow adopted the name “Max” as his stage name taking the moniker from the lead performer in a flea circus. Von Syndow eventually joined the Royal Dramatic Theatre officially beginning his career as an actor in 1948 once again starting a theater group and making his stage debut in a performance of “Egmont”.
His screen debut came in 1949 in Alf Sjöberg’s “Only a Mother” followed two years later in another of Sjöberg’s films “Miss Julie”. Von Sydow continued to appear on stage as part of several plays and theater groups during the 50s where he won critical praise including earning the Royal Foundation of Sweden’s Cultural Award in 1954. In 1957 von Sydow would form a relationship that would become a defining partnership in his career. That year he starred in “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries” both directed by Ingmar Bergman. “The Seventh Seal” also produced one of von Syndow’s most iconic roles and moments as he played Antonius Block who plays a game of chess with Death that has been considered one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. The next year, 1958, von Sydow starred in three more Bergman films, “Brink of Life”, “Rabies” and “The Magician”, and would go on to be featured in a total of eleven movies by the director during his career. The two also worked together on-stage productions as well.
During his early career von Sydow kept his work mostly based in Sweden turning down several opportunities to appear in American films including passing on roles in “Dr. No” and “The Sound of Music”. However, von Sydow finally broke and agreed to expand his horizons in the mid-60s with his first international role as Jesus Christ in 1965’s “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. Von Sydow’s profile expanded to a larger audience as a result despite the film falling below expectations eventually leading to his first Golden Globe nomination for 1966’s “Hawaii”.
While von Sydow established himself as a true acting talent and popular performer well before the 70s, it was during that decade that another iconic role and one of the most well-known performances of his career hit the big screen. His lone 1973 film “The Exorcist” went on to become one of the most controversial and iconic horror movies of all time with von Sydow playing Father Lankester Merrin, a role that would earn him his second and last Golden Globe nomination. He would reprise the role in the 1977 sequel. Throughout the 70s and 80s von Sydow remained busy appearing in at least one film, either foreign or international, every year but during this time the actor found himself disappointed by what he perceived as typecasting as villains including famous roles in films like “Flash Gordon” and “Never Say Never Again” where he played Ming and Blofeld respectively. His foreign film credits saw him star in Billie August’s “Pelle the Conqueror” which earned von Sydow his first of two Academy Award nominations in 1989. The 80s also included some of von Sydow’s more well-known films including “Conan the Barbarian”, “Dune”, “Hannah and Her Sisters” and a voiceover performance in the divisive “Ghostbusters II”.
Once again von Sydow saw a full decade of new projects in the 90s appearing in at least one production, television or film, every year over the course of the decade. Von Sydow acted in his final collaborations with Bergman during this time, “The Best Intentions” and “Private Confession” both of which Bergman wrote but did not direct. He also appeared in the biopic “Hamsun” as well as numerous other features. He also provided the Swedish dub voice over as for Zeus the Disney film “Hercules”, his only film credit in 1997. The early 2000s saw von Sydow appear in some of the most commercially successful films of his career, 2002’s “Minority Report” as well as the comedy sequel “Rush Hour 3”. The year 2010 saw one of the biggest years in terms of mainstream films for von Sydow as three big-budget adaptations, “Shutter Island”, “Robin Hood” and “The Wolfman”, all featured the actor although von Sydow was uncredited for his cameo in the latter monster flick. In 2011 von Sydow starred in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” earning him his second and final Oscar nomination. He also added the “Star Wars” franchise to his resume with an appearance in 2015’s “The Force Awakens” introducing him to a whole new audience. This was complimented by an appearance on the popular television show “Game of Thrones” the following year. Von Sydow continued to work in film through 2018 with his final release prior to his death being “Kursk”. His final film performance will be featured in the yet-to-be-released “Echoes of the Past”.
Away from the screen von Sydow married married actress Christina Inga Britta in 1951 fathering two sons. The couple divorced in 1979. In 1997 von Sydow married again, this time to documentarian Catherine Brelet, and adopted her two children from a previous marriage. Von Sydow carried citizenship in Sweden until 2002 when he officially became a citizen of France where he lived until his death. While he considered himself an agnostic and atheist von Sydow did concede a belief in the afterlife after having allegedly being contacted by Ingmar Bergman after his passing. Although he was nominated for numerous awards during his career he only ever received three notable film honors: a Best Actor award at the 1982 Venice Film Festival for “Flight of the Eagle”, a Festival Trophy at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and a Career Achievement honor from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association in 2017.
Max von Sydow was nothing short of a talented and accomplished actor and while he might not have the hardware to show it his many iconic film roles and appearances in fan favorite films and franchises cemented his place in cinema history as one of the greats. Whether it’s his fantastic performance in “The Exorcist”, his iconic chess match with death, his small appearances in “Star Wars” and “Game of Thrones” or any other of his over 100 film credits Max von Sydow lived a career many could only dream of and earned the undying respect of both critics and moviegoers alike every step of the way. Thanks for the memories Max, may you rest in peace…