Max von Sydow, whose death Sunday at age 90 was confirmed by Variety, did all of these things in a singular career that spanned the European arthouse to Hollywood blockbusters. Lanky and chisel-faced, he was the kind of actor who grabbed your attention immediately and held it. And his deep, resonant voice — so memorable as he’s mansplaining culture and history to Barbara Hershey in “Hannah and Her Sisters” — seemed like it really could have been capable of sending demons back to hell.
He was born April 10, 1929 in Lund, Sweden, and began his career as an actor in several films by Alf Sjöberg, an early collaborator of Ingmar Bergman, before moving to Malmö and working with Bergman himself — first on stage at the Municipal Theatre, which Bergman ran, and then in a series of films beginning with an absolute milestone in European arthouse history.
How astonishing that when von Sydow starred in “The Seventh Seal” as the knight Antonius Block in 1957 he was only 27 years old? He seemed far older than his years. No young man could have a face that thin-lipped and angular. But von Sydow seemed “old” the way that you always imagine a Biblical prophet to be old. He was as solid and sure-footed as any sage, and exactly who you’d want to have face down the personification of Death itself onscreen. The image of him playing chess with black hooded Death against a rocky shore has to be one of the defining images of the early European arthouse. “The Seventh Seal” was like nothing viewers had ever seen before: a fantasy movie with profound existential musings in every scene.
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A long collaboration with Bergman followed: it’s von Sydow who plays the suicidal parishioner in “Winter Light,” finds himself in horror movie trappings in “Hour of the Wolf,” and navigates World War Three with Liv Ullmann in “Shame.”
In 1965, von Sydow made the jump to Hollywood playing a blue-eyed Jesus in George Stevens’ “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” The film is a catastrophe, but his career didn’t even hit a bump. The next year he starred opposite Julie Andrews in “Hawaii,” the kind of Oscar bait that’s now totally forgotten.
But when Hollywood success arrived, it arrived: he played the title role as Father Merrin in “The Exorcist” and stared down a demon that had taken over a young child’s body. Von Sydow was the kind of actor with such substance that you’d think he could stare down hell itself. The movie was a phenomenal blockbuster and cemented von Sydow’s iconic status. So many other roles would present themselves — he appeared in over 100 titles — including appearances for Woody Allen, as the villain in Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” and in Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
But it would be “The Seventh Seal” and “The Exorcist,” for which he would always best be known. When you have an implacable supernatural entity staring you down, Max von Sydow is who you want to call.
In 2015, he appeared as the galactic explorer Lor San Tekka in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The first line spoken onscreen by Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is directed at von Sydow: “Look how old you’ve become.”
Von Sydow always seemed old, which made him seem like he’d live forever. But of course, in his performances he always will.