Max von Sydow, The Exorcist, Seventh Seal, and Game of Thrones star, dies at 90
Actor Max von Sydow has died at the age of 90.
His agent told the Associated Press Monday that von Sydow, who was born in Sweden but became a French citizen in 2002, died on Sunday.
The actor’s remarkably long career stretched back to the late '40s and featured appearances in a number of classic films including Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, the same director’s Oscar-winning 1960 movie The Virgin Spring, William Friedkin’s infamous 1973 shocker The Exorcist, and 1986’s Woody Allen-directed Hannah and Her Sisters. He was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in 1989’s Pelle the Conqueror and secured a Best Supporting Actor nomination for 2011’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.
Born Carol Adolf von Sydow in Lund, Sweden, the actor studied at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, during which time he appeared in his debut film, the 1949 Swedish drama, Only a Mother. But Sydow made his name with his performance as a 14th-century knight who challenges Death to a game of chess in The Seventh Seal. Widely regarded as one of the great works of cinema, the image of von Sydow’s knight facing off against Bengt Ekerot’s Grim Reaper would become an iconic image, famous enough to be parodied decades later in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
The actor turned down the opportunity to play the titular villain in the first James Bond movie Dr. No, instead opting to make his Hollywood debut portraying Jesus Christ in George Stevens’ 1965 religious epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told. That film proved a huge box office bomb, but von Sydow scored subsequent Hollywood roles in 1966’s Hawaii, the same year’s The Quiller Memorandum, and John Huston’s 1970 film The Kremlin Letter as well as continuing to work with Bergman on such films as 1969’s The Passion of Anna and 1971’s The Touch, which found him costarring with Elliott Gould.
Not long after The Touch, von Sydow was cast in The Exorcist, an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s horror novel, and one of the most successful films of all-time. Brilliantly directed by Friedkin, the movie also benefitted from chillingly straight-faced performances by its cast of Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, and von Sydow, who was utterly believable as the aged Father Merrin, despite still being in his mid- ‘40s when the film was made. “When I got the offer, I didn't know anything about it,” von Sydow told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. “Somebody gave me the book to read and said, ‘They want you to play a priest.’ I read the book, and I thought, of course, it was for the young priest. So I said, ‘That's a good part.’ And they said, 'No, no no. They want you for the exorcist!’ I still don't really know why.”
While his unforgettable appearance in The Exorcist effectively curtailed the chances of von Sydow becoming a Hollywood leading man it helped open other doors. Throughout his career, the actor continued to appear in serious-minded dramatic fare, including Pelle the Conqueror and Julian Schnabel’s 2007 film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. But his otherworldly looks, deep, distinctively-accented voice, and acting reputation resulted in him being recruited to help lend an air of class to an array of big budget sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies. These included 1980’s Flash Gordon, 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, 1993’s Needful Things, 2002’s Steven Spielberg-directed Minority Report, and Martin Scorsese’s 2010 terror tale Shutter Island.
More recently, Sydow was cast as Lor San Tekka in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and as Three-Eyed Raven on HBO’s Game of Thrones. His performance in the latter would proved memorable for both viewers and his fellow cast members alike. “There are certain lines that you think are almost fillers, lines you don’t think are imperative to any kind of storytelling, like, ‘He’s over there,’” von Sydow’s Game of Thrones costar Isaac Hempstead-Wright told EW in 2016. “But when Max von Sydow says it, it sounds like it’s the most important news you’ve ever heard.”