Monday , 6 February 2023

Exorcist star, Max von Sydow, dies at 90

The power of Christ compels you!

One of our greatest actors, whose career spanned over seven decades, and who starred in what is widely considered by many to be the greatest horror film of all-time, Max von Sydow, has sadly died at the age of 90. From his earliest films in his native Sweden with legendary filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman, to working with many of the most acclaimed directors in some of Hollywood’s biggest films, von Sydow had a resume for the ages, bringing class and integrity to everything he appeared in. For us horror fans, he will always be remembered for his iconic portrayal of Father Merrin in the classic depiction of demonic possession in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). The film broke box office records and still stands today as one of the most terrifying horror films of all-time.

Max was born in 1929 as Carl Adolf von Sydow in Lund, Sweden. He studied at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm and began working in film before moving to Malmo where he met the man who would become his mentor, director Ingmar Bergman. First working together on stage, they would collaborate on film nine times, most notably in The Seventh Seal (1957), where Max’ knight character memorably played a game of chess with none other than Death himself, and The Virgin Spring (1960), a medieval tale of rape and revenge where von Sydow plays the anguished, avenging father. The film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and would later be remade as the notorious exploitation horror shocker by Wes Craven, The Last House on the Left (1973). Eschewing offers to come to Hollywood, including one to play the very first Bond villain in Dr. No, von Sydow finally relented to take on the role of the most famous human to ever walk the face of the Earth.

In 1965, von Sydow starred as mankind’s lord and savior, Jesus Christ, in the epic film and aptly titled, The Greatest Story Ever Told. Directed by George Stevens, it featured an all-star cast, including Charlton Heston, Claude Rains, Dorothy McGuire and Telly Savalas. But it was von Sydow who was the chosen one to play the iconic role of the messiah. To say this was a daunting task would be an understatement, but von Sydow was able to give the Son of God the quiet strength and dignity the Man deserved. While not a box office success by any means, the film did receive five Academy Award nominations and would fare much better on television, where it would often be shown during the Easter holiday in two parts due to its lengthy running time. Von Sydow would continue his partnership with Bergman in Sweden while also working in America for legendary directors, George Roy Hill in Hawaii (1966) and John Huston in The Kremlin Letter (1970).  But it was in 1973 that von Sydow would be compelled to tackle another religious role in what would become a horror classic.

The Exorcist, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty and directed by William Friedkin, hot off his Academy Award-winning triumph with The French Connection (1971), was steeped in controversy matched only by its box office success. Von Sydow was offered the title role as Father Merrin. In his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, Friedkin states that when he was shown a photograph of  the lean, gaunt archaeologist who Blatty based his priest on, it immediately conjured up the image of von Sydow, who, when sent the script in Sweden, immediately replied that he’d be pleased to do battle with the Devil. Though he first appears at the very beginning of the movie, Father Merrin doesn’t return until much later on, where he makes one of the most iconic entrances in all of film, arriving in front of the MacNeil house where all hell is about to break loose, carrying his large leather bag and bathed in the misty light of a streetlamp before Regan’s mother opens the door to his world-weary visage. While Father Karras (played by Jason Miller) wavers in his faith and fortitude, von Sydow’s Father Merrin remains stoic and steadfast in his commitment to the Church and his determination to rid this young girl of her demonic possession.

Audaciously released the day after Christmas in 1973, The Exorcist become a box office phenomenon, with audiences lining up around the block to witness things they couldn’t imagine in their worse nightmares. That the film managed to avoid an X rating was a miracle in itself, when one considers the obscenities and atrocities emanating from this little girl. Though he was only 43 at the time of filming, von Sydow was made to look three decades older by legendary makeup artist Dick Smith. The film ended up being nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including the first Best Picture nod for a horror film, and won two, for Best Adapted Screenplay by Blatty, and Best Sound Mixing. It remains today as the pinnacle of modern horror.

In 1975, von Sydow would play an assassin in Sydney Pollack’s political thriller, Three Days of the Condor, starring Robert Redford, before moving onto a series of genre roles throughout the 80’s, beginning with that of Ming the Merciless in the film version of the comic and serial favorite, Flash Gordon (1980). Von Sydow’s image as the evil emperor was so striking that it received prominent place over that of Flash himself in the film’s marketing and posters. He added another powerful leader to his resume with King Osric in the Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring, Conan the Barbarian (1982), and he finally got to play a Bond villain after all in Sean Connery’s return to the spy franchise in 1983’s Never Say Never Again, as perennial Bond nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofield. And who could forget his comedic turn that same year as Brewmeister Smith in the Canadian caper, Strange Brew, eh? Von Sydow had a key role as psychic researcher, Dr. Novotny in the underrated sci-fi horror film, Dreamscape (1984) and portrayed another doctor in David Lynch’s epic Dune (1984). More work with other acclaimed directors would follow – Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), by Woody Allen, Awakenings (1990), from Penny Marshall, and Until the End of the World (1991), by Wim Wenders. In 1989, von Sydow receieved his first Academy Award nomination, as Best Actor for the film, Pelle the Conqueror, as an immigrant father. The film was another of von Sydow’s to win Best Foreign Language Film. Other notable roles to come were that of Leland Gaunt in the Stephen King adaptation, Needful Things (1993), Judge Fargo in Judge Dredd (1996), Zeus in Hercules (1997), and The Tracker in What Dreams May Come (1998).

Game of Thrones Season 6 – Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Three-Eyed Raven (Max von Sydow) ©2016 HBO, photo by Macall B Polay

Befitting his status as an renowned and respected actor, the greatest directors of our times continued to cast him in various films – Dario Argento in Sleepless (2001), Steven Spielberg in Minority Report (2002), Martin Scorcese in Shutter Island (2010) and Ridley Scott in Robin Hood (2010). One of his most emotionally taxing roles came in 2007’s French-language film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, where he played a wheelchair-bound father to a paralyzed son. In 2012, von Sydow would receive his second Academy Award nomination, at the age of 82, for Best Supporting Actor, as the mute ‘renter’ in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011). In 2015, Max had a brief, but important role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. His Lor San Tekka character possesses the vital information that sets the new trilogy in motion, and the film became the biggest grossing in history. In 2016, von Sydow  graced another important franchise, that of the small screen, yet no lesser in size or scope, HBO’s Game of Thrones. His crucial role in three episodes of season six as the Three-Eyed Raven further cemented his legacy in the fantasy genre, as well as garnering him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series (he had previously been Emmy nominated for the TV movie, Red King, White Knight (1989)). While von Sydow’s resume as it currently stands is as rich and varied as one could possibly be, a posthumous starring role is still to come, in the WWII drama, Echoes of the Past.

On the personal side, Max von Sydow was married twice, first to Swedish actress, Christina Olin, in 1951, with whom he had two sons before divorcing many years later, and to French filmmaker, Catherine Brelet, from 1997 on, with whom he had two more sons. Max von Sydow died on March 8th at his home in Provence, France, the country where he had become a citizen since 2002. Many in the film industry were quick to praise von Sydow for his accomplished work over the years. New Jersey’s Kevin Smith said he “has finally laid down his King in the eternal chess match.”  Edgar Wright proclaimed, “he changed the face of international film with Bergman, played Christ, fought the devil, pressed the HOT HAIL button & was Oscar nominated for a silent performance. A god.” 

— written by Brian de Castro