Remembering Actor Max Von Sydow, From Bergman To 'Game Of Thrones'

Mar 9, 2020
Originally published on March 9, 2020 8:45 am

Actor Max von Sydow, whose career stretched across seven decades, died Sunday at the age of 90. The imposing Swedish star played the title character in The Exorcist and more than 100 other roles.

In his 20s, near the start of his career, von Sydow played chess with Death — and lost. Director Ingmar Bergman had cast the then-unknown actor as a medieval knight in The Seventh Seal (1957), which is set in a land ravaged by the plague. The knight tries to delay the inevitable by challenging Death to a game of chess. The agreement is that his soul won't be claimed for as long as he can keep the game going.

In real life, von Sydow kept the game going for decades, through a plethora of onscreen lives. Ten other Bergman features cemented his stature on the art house circuit, and dozens of roles helped make him into an international star. Two of those films also helped make his career in English: The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), in which he played Jesus, and Hawaii (1966), in which he played a prim and proper missionary who is all but undone by Julie Andrews before he even embarks on his journey.

Though tall and handsome, von Sydow wasn't often viewed by directors as a leading man, and especially not as a romantic lead. His deep voice and stern aspect often led to his being cast in more severe roles. In his mid-40s, for instance, he played Father Merrin, the frail, elderly title character in The Exorcist (1973).

Von Sydow played Jesus in 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told.
AP

As von Sydow aged, his craggy face and steely gaze made him much in demand as a flat-out bad guy. He was a fedora-wearing assassin in Three Days of the Condor (1975), Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon (1980), a Bond villain in Never Say Never Again (1983) and a murderous bureaucrat in Minority Report (2002). Even Woody Allen cast him as a spoiler of sorts: In Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), he played a reclusive intellectual who sneers at a world with which he refuses to engage.

Hawaii (1966) starred von Sydow and Julie Andrews as 19th-century American missionaries who travel to the islands to convert their inhabitants.
AP

But von Sydow also excelled in playing the diametric opposite of those dyspeptic souls: rugged farmers and working men overcoming hardship in such epic dramas as The Emigrants (1971) and Pelle the Conqueror (1987), which won him his first Oscar nomination.

Von Sydow was fluent in Swedish, Danish, English, Italian and French. That last one was spoken by one of his most rending characters: a helpless, wheelchair-bound father who discovers he has much in common with his paralyzed son in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). And for all von Sydow's facility with language, he earned his other Oscar nomination for a character in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) who doesn't speak a word.

Von Sydow played the Three-Eyed Raven on HBO's Game of Thrones.
Macall B. Polay / Courtesy of HBO

The imagination of Hollywood producers being less than boundless, acting's elder statesmen tend to be given mostly bit parts at the end of their careers, and von Sydow — who played old before his time — was no exception. But he invariably made his onscreen minutes count, whether guiding young star-warriors in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) or stepping in as the Three-Eyed Raven to guide young Bran Stark in HBO's Game of Thrones.

Editor Nina Gregory, producer Andrew Limbong and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Max von Sydow has died. The Swedish actor was in "The Exorcist," and his career stretched across decades, from the early films of Ingmar Bergman to "Star Wars" and even "Game Of Thrones." Critic Bob Mondello has this appreciation.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: At 28, near the start of his career, Max von Sydow played chess with Death and lost. Director Ingmar Bergman had cast the then-unknown actor as a medieval knight in "The Seventh Seal." In a land ravaged by the plague, the night is trying to delay the inevitable by challenging Death to a game of chess. And as they sit down at the board...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SEVENTH SEAL")

MAX VON SYDOW: (As Antonius Block, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: "You got black," says von Sydow, to which death replies...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SEVENTH SEAL")

BENGT EKEROT: (As Death, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: "...Appropriate." The agreement is that his soul won't be claimed for as long as he can keep the game going. In real life, von Sydow kept the game going for decades, through dozens of onscreen lives, in fact. There were 10 other Bergman features that cemented his stature on the art house circuit and dozens of roles he created as an international star, starting with the two breakthroughs that made his career in English - Jesus in "The Greatest Story Ever Told..."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD")

VON SYDOW: (As Jesus) I am the resurrection and the life.

MONDELLO: ...And a year later, the prim and proper missionary in James Michener's "Hawaii," who is all but undone by Julie Andrews before he even embarks on his journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAWAII")

VON SYDOW: (As Reverend Abner Hale) You wouldn't think of going to Hawaii with a man like me - would you?

JULIE ANDREWS: (As Jerusha Bromley Hale) Not if he wasn't my husband.

VON SYDOW: (As Reverend Abner Hale) Oh, goodness. I certainly didn't mean to imply that.

MONDELLO: Though tall and handsome, von Sydow was not often viewed by directors as a leading man, especially as a romantic lead. His deep voice and stern aspect often led to his being cast in more severe roles. When barely in his mid-40s, for instance, he played the frail, elderly title character in "The Exorcist."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EXORCIST")

VON SYDOW: (As Father Lankester Merrin) I cast you out, unclean spirit. Be gone.

MONDELLO: As von Sydow aged, his craggy face and steely gaze made him much in demand as a flat-out bad guy. He was a fedora-wearing assassin in "Three Days Of The Condor," Ming the Merciless in "Flash Gordon." He was a Bond villain in "Never Say Never Again" and a murderous bureaucrat in "Minority Report." Even Woody Allen cast him as a spoiler of sorts. In "Hannah And Her Sisters," he plays the reclusive intellectual who sneers at a world with which he refuses to engage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HANNAH AND HER SISTERS")

VON SYDOW: (As Frederick) It's been ages since I sat in front of the TV just changing channels to find something; you see, the whole culture - Nazis, deodorant salesmen, wrestlers, beauty contests, the talk show. Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling?

MONDELLO: But von Sydow also excelled in playing the diametric opposite of those dyspeptic souls - rugged farmers and working men overcoming hardship in such epic dramas as "The Emigrant" (ph) and the film that won him his first Oscar nomination, "Pelle The Conquer."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PELLE THE CONQUEROR")

VON SYDOW: (As Lassefar Karlsson, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: Von Sydow was fluent not just in Swedish, Danish and English but also in Italian and French, the language spoken by one of his most rending characters, a helpless wheelchair-bound father in "The Diving Bell And The Butterfly" who discovers he has much in common with his paralyzed son.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY")

VON SYDOW: (As Papinou, speaking French).

MONDELLO: And for all his facility with language, the actor earned his other Oscar nomination in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" for a mute character who doesn't speak at all. The imagination of Hollywood producers being less than boundless, acting's elder statesmen tend to be given mostly bit parts at the end of their careers, and von Sydow, who played old before his time, was no exception. But he invariably made his minutes onscreen count, whether guiding young star warriors in "The Force Awakens" or stepping in as the Three-Eyed Raven to protect young Bran Stark in "Game Of Thrones."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")

VON SYDOW: (As Three-Eyed Raven) It is time to go.

ISAAC HEMPSTEAD WRIGHT: (As Bran Stark) Please - a little longer.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

VON SYDOW: (As Three-Eyed Raven) It is beautiful beneath the sea, but if you stay too long, you'll drown.

MONDELLO: Max von Sydow, finding resonant ways to cheat death from his earliest moments onscreen until now.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.