Today is the 94th birthday of the actor and director Max von Sydow. I am a huge fan of longevity and stories of people doing something for their entire lives. He spent nearly 70 years in the film industry making some of the most notable films of the 20th century. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Max von Sydow
DATE OF BIRTH: 10 April 1929
PLACE OF BIRTH: Lund, Sweden
DATE OF DEATH: 8 March 2020
PLACE OF DEATH: Provence, France
Cannes Film Festival Festival Trophy 2004
Venice Film Festival Best Actor Flight of the Eagle 1982
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Career Achievement 2017
Guldbagge Awards Best Actor Pelle the Conqueror 1987
Guldbagge Awards Best Director Katinka 1988
Guldbagge Awards Best Actor Hamsun 1996
BEST KNOWN FOR: Max von Sydow was a Swedish actor. He had a 70-year career in European and American cinema, television and theatre, appearing in more than 150 films and several television series in multiple languages.
Carl Adolf von Sydow was born on 10 April 1929 in Lund, Sweden. His father, Carl Wilhelm von Sydow, was an ethnologist and professor of folkloristics at the University of Lund. His mother, Baroness Maria Margareta von Rappe, was a schoolteacher. Von Sydow was of part German ancestry. An ancestor of his father’s, David Sydow, emigrated from Pomerania to the Kalmar region in 1724. His mother was also of part Pomeranian descent. Von Sydow was brought up as a Lutheran but became an agnostic in the 1970s.
Von Sydow attended Lund Cathedral School, where he learned English at an early age. Originally expected to pursue a career in law, he became interested in acting after seeing a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream during a class trip to Malmö, which prompted him to found an amateur theatrical group along with his friends back at school. Von Sydow served for two years in the Swedish military with the Army Quartermaster Corps, where he adopted the name “Max” from the star performer of a flea circus he saw. After completing his service, von Sydow studied at the Royal Dramatic Theatre (Dramaten) in Stockholm, where he trained between 1948 and 1951. During his time at the Dramaten, he helped start a theatre group, of which actress Ingrid Thulin was a member. He made his stage debut in a small part in the Goethe play Egmont, which he considered “almost a disaster”, but received good reviews for his performance.
While at the Dramaten, von Sydow made his screen debuts in Alf Sjöberg’s films Only a Mother (Bara en mor, 1949) and Miss Julie (Fröken Julie, 1951). In 1951, von Sydow joined the Norrköping-Linköping Municipal Theatre, appearing in nine plays including Peer Gynt. In 1953, he moved on to the City Theatre in Hälsingborg, playing eleven parts in a two-year stint, including Prospero in The Tempest and the titular role of the Pirandello play Henry IV. Von Sydow’s theatrical work won him critical recognition, and in 1954 he received the Royal Foundation of Sweden’s Cultural Award, a grant to young, promising actors.
In 1955, von Sydow moved to Malmö and joined the Malmö City Theatre, whose chief director at the time was Ingmar Bergman. Von Sydow had previously sought to play a small part in Bergman’s Prison (Fängelse, 1949), but the director rejected the proposition. Bergman and von Sydow’s first film was The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957), in which von Sydow portrayed Antonius Block, a disillusioned 14th-century knight returning from the Crusades to a plague-stricken Sweden. The scene of his character playing a game of chess with Death has come to be regarded as an iconic moment in cinema. Von Sydow went on to appear in a total of 11 Bergman films. In The Magician (Ansiktet, 1958), von Sydow starred as Vogler, a 19th-century traveling illusionist who remains silent for most of the film. In The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1960), he played a medieval landowner who plots vengeance on the men who raped and murdered his daughter. In Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel, 1961), he portrayed the husband of a schizophrenic woman, played by Harriet Andersson. During this period, he also had roles in films including Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957), Brink of Life (Nära livet, 1958) and Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963). Films starring von Sydow were submitted by Sweden for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in five out of six years between 1957 and 1962. Under Bergman, von Sydow also continued his stage career, playing Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Peer in Peer Gynt, Alceste in The Misanthrope and Faust in Urfaust. In his company were Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson and Gunnel Lindblom, all frequent collaborators of Bergman on screen.
Despite his rising profile, von Sydow limited his work exclusively to Sweden early in his career, constantly turning down offers to work outside the country. He was first approached at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival to act in American films, but refused the proposition, saying that he was “content in Sweden” and “had no intention of starting an international career”. He also turned down the opportunity to play the titular role for Dr. No (1962) and Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1965). In 1965, von Sydow finally took up on George Stevens’s offer and made his international debut, playing Christ in the epic The Greatest Story Ever Told. He accepted the part against the advice of Bergman, spent six months at the University of California, Los Angeles preparing for the role and adopted a Mid-Atlantic accent. The film introduced von Sydow to a wider audience, but ultimately performed below expectations at the box office. He went on to play a crop-dusting pilot in The Reward (1965) and a missionary in Hawaii (1966). For his performance in Hawaii, von Sydow received his first Golden Globe nomination. To his own frustration, however, von Sydow would become frequently cast in villanous roles, such as a neo-Nazi aristocrat in The Quiller Memorandum (1966), a Russian colonel in The Kremlin Letter (1970), a meticulous and elegant international assassin in Three Days of the Condor (1975), Emperor Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon (1980) and James Bond’s archnemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Never Say Never Again (1983).
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, von Sydow was often paired with Liv Ullmann in Bergman films. In 1968’s Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen), von Sydow played an artist living on an isolated island with his pregnant wife, played by Ullmann. In the same year, the two appeared in the drama Shame (Skammen), about a couple (both former musicians) living on a farm on an island during a war. Von Sydow and Ullmann returned for the 1969 Bergman film The Passion of Anna (En passion). In 1971 and 1972, von Sydow again starred alongside Ullmann in the Jan Troell epic duology, The Emigrants (Utvandrarna) The New Land (Nybyggarna), the story of a Swedish peasant family that emigrates to America in the mid-19th century.
In 1971, von Sydow starred in The Touch, Bergman’s first English-language film, playing a doctor whose wife is having an affair. In 1973, von Sydow appeared in one of his most commercially successful films, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). He played Father Lankester Merrin, the film’s titular Jesuit priest, which earned him his second Golden Globe nomination. He reprised the role in the film’s sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). In 1977, von Sydow made his Broadway debut alongside Eileen Atkins and Bibi Andersson in Per Olov Enquist’s The Night of the Tribades, a play about the writer August Strindberg. In 1981, he starred with Anne Bancroft in the Tom Kempinski play Duet for One about the cellist Jacqueline du Pré. Von Sydow made his British stage debut at The Old Vic in 1988 as Prospero in The Tempest, a role he first played in Sweden three decades ago.
In the 1980s, in addition to Flash Gordon and Never Say Never Again, von Sydow also appeared in John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1982), Jan Troell’s Flight of the Eagle (1982), David Lynch’s Dune (1984) and Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). In 1985, von Sydow was a member of the jury at the 35th Berlin International Film Festival. In the 1987 Bille August film Pelle the Conqueror, von Sydow portrayed an impoverished Swedish labourer who brought his son to Denmark to try and build a better life for themselves. The role won him international acclaim and is often considered one of the best roles in his career. For his performance, von Sydow received a Best Actor nomination at the 61st Academy Awards; the film won Best Foreign Language Film as Denmark’s official Oscar entry. In 1988, von Sydow made his only directorial foray with Katinka, a film based on the Herman Bang novel, Ved Vejen. The film won the Guldbagge Awards for Best Film and Best Director, but was not widely seen outside Sweden. In 1989, von Sydow appeared in the television film Red King, White Knight, for which he received his first Primetime Emmy Award nomination.
Von Sydow and Bergman did not work together for an extended period. A part in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982) was specifically written for von Sydow, but his agent demanded too large a salary. Von Sydow came to regret missing out on the role. The two did eventually reunite in 1991 with The Best Intentions, directed by Bille August with a script from Bergman. In 1996, von Sydow made his final appearance in a Bergman film, Private Confessions, directed by Liv Ullmann and written by Bergman. In 1997, von Sydow played Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian novelist and Nazi sympathizer Knut Hamsun in the biopic Hamsun. Throughout the rest of the 1990s, von Sydow also appeared in films such as Father (1990), Awakenings (1990), Until the End of the World (1991), Needful Things (1993), Judge Dredd (1995), and Snow Falling on Cedars (1999). For his performance in Father, von Sydow won the Australian Film Institute Best Actor Award.
In 2002, von Sydow acted in one of his biggest commercial successes, playing the PreCrime director opposite Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg’s science fiction thriller Minority Report. In 2004, von Sydow appeared in a television adaptation of the Ring of the Nibelung saga. The show set ratings records and was later released in the United States as Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King. In 2007, he starred in the box-office hit Rush Hour 3, and played the father of the protagonist in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel’s adaptation of the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby. In 2009, von Sydow appeared in the drama series The Tudors.
In 2010, von Sydow played a sinister German doctor in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, and Robin Hood’s blind stepfather Sir Walter Loxley in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. He received his second Academy Award nomination for his performance as a mute elderly renter in Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011), based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer.
In April 2013, von Sydow was honored at the Turner Classic Movie (TCM) Festival in Hollywood, with screenings of two of his classic films, Three Days of the Condor and The Seventh Seal.
Von Sydow provided the voice of an art forger in a March 2014 episode of The Simpsons. In 2015, he played the explorer Lor San Tekka in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In 2016, he joined the HBO series Game of Thrones as the Three-eyed Raven. For his performance, von Sydow received his second Primetime Emmy Award nomination.
In addition to his film and television work, von Sydow also made forays into video games. He voiced Esbern, a mentor of the protagonist in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011), and narrated the game’s debut trailer. He also lent his voice to the 2009 game Ghostbusters: The Video Game and reprised his role as Lor San Tekka in Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2016).
In 2017, von Sydow joined the cast of Thomas Vinterberg’s film Kursk, based on the true story of the submarine accident. His final film role was set to be the Nicholas Dimitropoulos war drama Echoes of the Past.
Von Sydow married actress Christina Inga Britta Olin in 1951. They had two sons, Clas and Henrik, who appeared with him in the film Hawaii. The couple divorced in 1979. Von Sydow later married French documentarian Catherine Brelet in 1997, and adopted Brelet’s two adult sons, Cédric and Yvan, from her previous marriage.
Von Sydow relocated to Paris following his marriage to Brelet. In 2002, he became a citizen of France, at which time he had to relinquish his Swedish citizenship.
Von Sydow was reported to be either an agnostic or an atheist. In 2012, he told Charlie Rose in an interview that Ingmar Bergman had told him he would contact him after death to show him that there was a life after death. When Rose asked von Sydow if he had heard from Bergman, he replied that he had, but chose not to elaborate further on the exact meaning of this statement. In the same interview, he described himself as a doubter in his youth, but stated this doubt was gone, and indicated he came to agree with Bergman’s belief in the afterlife.
Von Sydow died on 8 March 2020, aged 90, at his home in Provence, France; no cause was given. He was survived by his wife and his four sons.
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
The Command (6-Sep-2018)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (14-Dec-2015)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (25-Dec-2011) as The Renter
Robin Hood (12-May-2010) as Sir Walter Loxley
Shutter Island (13-Feb-2010) as Dr. Naehring
Solomon Kane (16-Sep-2009)
Emotional Arithmetic (15-Sep-2007) as Jakob Bronski
Rush Hour 3 (9-Aug-2007)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (22-May-2007) as Papinou
The Final Inquiry (13-Dec-2006)
Ring of the Nibelungs (19-Nov-2004)
Minority Report (17-Jun-2002) as Director Lamar Burgess
Intacto (6-Nov-2001) as Sam
Light Keeps Me Company (5-Feb-2000) as Himself
Snow Falling on Cedars (12-Sep-1999) as Nels Gudmundsson
What Dreams May Come (28-Sep-1998) as The Tracker
Hostile Waters (26-Jul-1997)
Private Confessions (25-Dec-1996)
Judge Dredd (30-Jun-1995) as Judge Fargo
Citizen X (25-Feb-1995)
Needful Things (27-Aug-1993)
The Silent Touch (30-Sep-1992)
The Best Intentions (3-Jul-1992)
The Ox (22-Nov-1991)
Until the End of the World (12-Sep-1991)
Europa (12-May-1991) as Narrator [VOICE]
A Kiss Before Dying (26-Apr-1991) as Thor Carlsson
Awakenings (20-Dec-1990) as Dr. Peter Ingham
The Bachelor (30-Mar-1990)
Red King, White Knight (25-Nov-1989)
Pelle the Conqueror (25-Dec-1987)
Duet for One (25-Dec-1986)
Wolf at the Door (5-Sep-1986)
Hannah and Her Sisters (7-Feb-1986) as Frederick
The Second Victory (1986)
Code Name: Emerald (27-Sep-1985)
Christopher Columbus (7-Mar-1985)
Dune (14-Dec-1984) as Dr. Kynes
George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey (25-Sep-1984) as Himself
Dreamscape (15-Aug-1984) as Paul Novotny
Samson and Delilah (1-Apr-1984)
The Ice Pirates (16-Mar-1984)
Never Say Never Again (7-Oct-1983) as Blofeld
Strange Brew (19-Aug-1983) as Brewmeister Smith
Target Eagle (10-Sep-1982)
The Flight of the Eagle (26-Aug-1982)
Conan the Barbarian (14-May-1982) as King Osric
She Dances Alone (19-Sep-1981) as Himself [VOICE]
Flash Gordon (5-Dec-1980) as The Emperor Ming
Death Watch (Feb-1980)
Brass Target (9-Mar-1979)
March or Die (5-Aug-1977) as François Marneau
Exorcist II: The Heretic (17-Jun-1977) as Fr. Merrin
Voyage of the Damned (22-Dec-1976)
The Desert of the Tartars (29-Oct-1976)
Cadaveri eccellenti (12-Feb-1976)
The Ultimate Warrior (2-Oct-1975)
Three Days of the Condor (24-Sep-1975) as Joubert
Steppenwolf (18-Dec-1974) as Harry Haller
The Exorcist (26-Dec-1973) as Fr. Merrin
The New Land (26-Feb-1972)
The Apple War (18-Dec-1971)
The Touch (14-Jul-1971) as Andreas Vergerus
The Emigrants (8-Mar-1971)
The Night Visitor (10-Feb-1971)
The Kremlin Letter (1-Feb-1970)
The Passion of Anna (10-Nov-1969)
Hour of the Wolf (19-Feb-1968) as Johan Borg
The Quiller Memorandum (15-Dec-1966)
The Reward (15-Sep-1965)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (15-Feb-1965) as Jesus
Winter Light (11-Dec-1962) as Jonas Persson
Through a Glass Darkly (16-Oct-1961)
The Virgin Spring (8-Feb-1960) as Töre
The Magician (26-Sep-1958)
Brink of Life (31-Mar-1958) as Harry Andersson
Wild Strawberries (26-Dec-1957) as Åkerman
The Seventh Seal (16-Feb-1957) as Antonius Block
Miss Julie (6-Apr-1951)