Actor Max Von Sydow has left us aged 90. Over a 70 year career on the big screen the much-respected veteran star worked with everyone, from Ingmar Bergman to Steven Spielberg.
Born in the city of Lund in 1929, his parents were eminent ethnologist Carl Wilhelm and teacher Baroness Maria Margareta von Rappe. Inspired by Shakespeare, he set up a theater company as a teenager. Von Sydow’s birth name was Carl Adolf, through his German ancestry. He dropped this in favor of Max, which came from a surprising source.
“I thought I had to find something that people will remember and that sounds more artistic” he said in 2003, quoted by the BBC. “When I was in the army we used to put on a revue, and I had a number with a fictitious flea called Max that could perform all kinds of tricks. This was a great success. After that evening the colonel always called me Max.”
Studying at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, he made his film debut in Only a Mother (1949). It was his frequent collaborations with Ingmar Bergman – 11 in total – that put him on the movie map. But it took a while for the pair to connect. “Von Sydow had already sought out a film role during his first year in Stockholm, upon hearing that Ingmar Bergman was looking for an extra to play the part of a policeman in Prison” writes Bergman’s website. “When von Sydow rang the director and asked if he could play the part, Bergman brushed him aside with a brusque no.”
He went on to play Antonius Block, the knight in Bergman’s 1957 classic The Seventh Seal. That character played chess with the Grim Reaper. Von Sydow had a few brushes with such powerful figures. He portrayed Jesus Christ in 1965 epic The Greatest Story Ever Told. Years later he was the Devil in Stephen King adaptation Needful Things (1993).
The star took on complex roles, such as vengeful asylum inmate Salem in The Night Visitor (1971) and half-animal Harry Haller in Steppenwolf (1974). The previous year saw him facing the forces of evil again in one of his most famous parts – Father Merrin in The Exorcist.
He was a sci-fi and fantasy favorite, via his performance as Ming The Merciless in Flash Gordon (1980). Von Sydow reportedly enjoyed the role as he’d read the comic books as a boy. He also worked with David Lynch on 1984’s Dune and voiced Vigo the Indestructible for Ghostbusters II (1989). In the 21st century, Spielberg cast him opposite Tom Cruise for Minority Report (2003) and he appeared briefly in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens in 2015.
Von Sydow worked with many of the world’s greatest directors, but will be forever linked to Ingmar Bergman. Quoted by Bergman’s site, he remarked: “We were free, he was not yet world-renowned and I was nothing more than a common theatre actor with a few film roles under my belt. We worked hard and enjoyed ourselves. I cannot say exactly what influence he has had on me but it must be significant.”
He received 2 Oscar nods – one for 1987’s Pelle the Conqueror and the other for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011). He won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for Flight of the Eagle and was given the Legion of Honor in 2012, among other awards.
Martin Scorsese issued a statement, saying Von Sydow had “a pride in his art and a dedication to his craft that I’ve encountered in very few people in my life… On the set he was remarkable, and off the set he a complete gentleman”. The pair worked together on 2010’s Shutter Island. Mia Farrow posted on Twitter, “I picture Max in heaven wearing his white linen suit”. She added a behind the scenes snap of Von Sydow with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, another Bergman collaborator.
Edgar Wright writes, “He changed the face of international film with Bergman, played Christ, fought the devil, pressed the HOT HAIL button (as Ming) and was Oscar nominated for a silent performance. A god.” Scott Weinberg commented the actor “seemed old when he was young, and youthful when he was old.”
Max Von Sydow passed away in Provence, France. He became a French citizen in 2002. He leaves behind wife Catherine Brelet and 4 sons. His family announced his death “with a broken heart and infinite sadness”. RIP.