Actor Max von Sydow was born on April 10th, 1929 in Lund, Sweden and passed away in France, on March 8th, 2020. The acting legend spent 70 of his 90 years in front of the camera, debuting as Nils in the 1949 film, “Only a Mother.”
During his long, illustrious, incredibly prolific career, von Sydow played a variety of roles. One of his most iconic being that of disillusioned knight, “Antonius Block” (who challenges Death to a battle of wits) in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (1957) and as the titular character, “Father Lankester Merrin,” in 1973’s “The Exorcist.” “The Exorcist” is, in my humble opinion, still the greatest horror film ever made…working as both horror and drama.
The late von Sydow also played another famed ‘exorcist,’ better known as Jesus Christ, in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965). The actor’s work spanned many countries and languages around the world.
Von Sydow also sunk his teeth into playing colorful space warlord “Ming the Merciless” in the campy, cult sci-fi flick, “Flash Gordon” (1980) based on the old Alex Raymond comic strip. He was also seen as the spice-eyed “Dr. Liet-Kynes” in David Lynch’s somewhat less-than-successful adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (1984).
Despite his penchant for playing heroic sorts, von Sydow could play the occasional villain as well, playing corrupt project director “Lamar Burgess,” in Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2001), based on the book by iconic sci-fi author Philip K. Dick (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” “Martian Time-Slip”).
With his commanding voice still very much intact, an 86 year-old von Sydow made his (brief) mark in the Star Wars universe as “Lor San Tekka” in “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” (2015). His was the first spoken line of dialogue in the film, as he tells costar Oscar Isaac, “This will begin to make things right”… a meta-moment that gently ribs the critically panned Star Wars prequels.
A year after “The Force Awakens”, von Sydow would take over the role of “Three-Eyed Raven” from Struan Rodger in the HBO TV series “Game Of Thrones.” My wife is a huge fan of the series, though I’ve not yet seen an entire episode of this series (*runs and hides*).
While I’d never met von Sydow during my decades of attending sci-fi/horror conventions, I have met his “Exorcist” costar Linda Blair on a couple of occasions, and she often described von Sydow as a real gentleman, who rarely lost his cool on the sometimes-contentious set of William Friedkin’s landmark horror film. For von Sydow’s own take on things, I highly recommend “The Fear of God: 25 Years of ‘The Exorcist’”(1998) Writer Mark Kermode’s documentary on the production of the 1973 film is a near-definitive making of account of the film’s production. You can find find the doc on the bonus features of the “The Exorcist” blu-ray box set (the version released for the film’s 40th anniversary in 2013).
Whenever I watch “The Exorcist” (usually once or twice around Halloween), I am always amazed at the absolute realism with which von Sydow portrays Merrin’s age. The subtly trembling hands, a bit of a stoop in the posture, the slight shuffling gait of von Sydow’s walk, and even the cadence of his speech (slower, and more deliberate) are completely convincing. I first saw “The Exorcist” at the far-too-young age of 7 (yes, I was deeply traumatized; that’s another story), and at that age, I wholeheartedly accepted von Sydow as an 80-something year-old character. In fact, it still amazes me that von Sydow was a full ten years younger than I am today when he first played Father Lankester Merrin.
The actor would later reprise the role in 1977’s laugh-out-loud failure of a sequel, “Exorcist II: The Heretic”, directed by John Boorman. The sequel showed both the aged Merrin and a younger version of the character performing an aforementioned exorcism in Africa. These flashbacks allowed von Sydow to perform without age makeup, which must’ve been a great relief for him, despite his near-legendary patience on set.
Given the actor’s incredibly diverse career (including roles in comedies like “The Simpsons” and “Rush Hour 3”), we all have our favorites. For me it always comes back to “The Exorcist.” That was the very first role of his that I remember, and 47 years later, I still can’t see any seams in his portrayal of Lankester Merrin… it is arguably the greatest performance by a younger actor playing an elderly one; yes, Dick Smith’s makeup plays a large part in that (von Sydow’s natural aging fell in line with most of Smith’s predictions), but much of it also comes through the performance. That my own sisters assumed he already passed away is an ironic testament to the strength of his performance as the aged Merrin.
While von Sydow’s incredible body of work speaks to his range as a performer, I’m guessing the last role he might’ve imagined for himself was that of horror icon. For “Star Wars” “Flash Gordon” “Minority Report” and “Dune”, he might well be remembered as a sci-fi icon. Perhaps von Sydow is best remembered simply as an actor who would work in any genre. He’s an acting icon.
For his 70 years in front of the camera and the many memorable roles he’s essayed, the ever-dignified Max von Sydow can never be forgotten.