Thesp won Oscar for role as defense attorney in 'Judgment at Nuremberg'
Austrian-born actor and director Maximilian Schell, a fugitive from Adolf Hitler who became a Hollywood favorite and won an Oscar for his role as a defense attorney in “Judgment at Nuremberg,” ha died. He was 83.
Schell’s agent, Patricia Baumbauer, said Saturday he died overnight at a hospital in Innsbruck following a “sudden and serious illness,” the Austria Press Agency reported.
It was only his second Hollywood role, as defense attorney Hans Rolfe in Stanley Kramer’s classic “Judgment at Nuremberg,” that earned him wide international acclaim. Schell’s impassioned but unsuccessful defense of four Nazi judges on trial for sentencing innocent victims to death won him the 1961 Academy Award for best actor. Schell had first played Rolfe in a 1959 episode of the television program “Playhouse 90.”
He snared two additional Oscar nominations for “The Man in the Glass Booth” in 1975 and “Julia” in 1977.
Schell was part of an acting family that also included his late sister Maria, his mother Margarethe and two other siblings, Karl and Editha Nordberg.
Schell was born in Vienna. His poet and playwright father, Hermann Ferdinand Schell, was on the Nazi blacklist, so the family fled to Zurich to escape the Anschluss. Schell became a naturalized Swiss citizen and made his stage debut as a child in a production of Schiller’s “Wilhelm Tell.”
Schell attended the U. of Zurich and the U. of Munich, studying philosophy and art history. But he was also active in dramatics, and after finishing his education, he worked in various parts of Europe.
His professional career began in earnest in 1953 at the Komodie of Basel. Over the next few years he appeared in “Manorhouse,” by Thomas Wolfe, and “The Tower,” by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. In 1957 he appeared in in the Berlin Theater’s “Philotas” as well as “Leonce.” The following year he made his Broadway debut in Ira Levin’s “Interlock” with Celeste Holm. He was described as “little short of brilliant” by Walter Kerr in the Herald Tribune.
Schell was also a highly successful concert pianist and conductor, performing with such luminaries as Claudio Abbado and Leonard Bernstein, and with orchestras in Berlin and Vienna.
He appeared in several German films in the 1950s such as “Children, Mothers and a General,” “Ripening Youth,” “The Twentieth of July,” “The Girl From Flanders,” “The Marriage of Dr. Danwitz,” “The Last Ones Shall Be First” and “A Wonderful Summer.” Schell made his Hollywood film debut in Edward Dmytyrk’s “The Young Lions” with Marlon Brando in 1958. He learned his lines phonetically.
Schell also worked in television, appearing with Joan Fontaine in the “Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse” episode “Perilous” in 1959 and in a three-hour TV production of his legendary “Hamlet,” filmed in Munich. He won Emmy nominations for “Child of Our Time” on “Playhouse 90” in 1959 and the original TV production of “Judgment at Nuremberg.”
Despite competition from his co-star Spencer Tracy, Schell won an Oscar for his role as the defense lawyer in the bigscreen version of “Judgment at Nuremberg” in 1961.
He followed that success with films such as the adaptation of Peter Shaffer play “Five Finger Exercise,” “The Reluctant Saint” and Vittorio De Sica’s adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “The Condemned of Altona.”
Of the films that followed, including “Counterpoint,” “The Desperate Ones” and “The Deadly Affair,” only Jules Dassin’s “Topkapi” was up to his talents. He then starred in the big-budget disaster pic “Krakatoa: East of Java,” “Pope Joan” and “The Odessa File.” He also produced and starred in a film version of Franz Kafka’s “The Castle.”
Another WWII story, Arthur Hiller’s “The Man in the Glass Booth,” brought him a second Oscar nomination as best actor in 1975, though the film was little seen. In 1977, he competed with Jason Robards for the supporting actor in “Julia,” but Robards walked off with the trophy.
In 1969 he directed the aptly titled “First Love” and in 1973 “The Pedestrian,’ which was nominated for best foreign film. He went on to star in and produce “Tales From the Vienna Woods” in 1979 and later directed “End of the Game” based on Duerrenmatt’s “The Judge and His Hangman.”
Later films include “St. Ives,” “Assassination in Sarajevo,” “A Bridge Too Far,” “The Black Hole” and “The Freshman” (which reunited him with Brando) in 1990.
His 1984 Oscar-nominated documentary “Marlene” offered a curious interview of the legendary actress shot in her Paris apartment. One heard Schell’s and Dietrich’s voices but never saw the great actress.
Still, combined with photos and clips, the project made for a compelling story. In 2002 Schell wrote and directed a documentary about his actress sister called “My Sister Maria,” in which he portrayed her declining years battling poor mental health and insolvency.
The actor drew Emmy nominations in 1992 and 1993 for his roles in NBC telepic “Miss Rose White” and for playing Lenin in the HBO telepic “Stalin,” and he had a recurring role on CBS series “Wiseguy.” U.S. TV work also included “The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years” and “Joan of Arc.”
Schell turned in a powerful performance in James Gray’s “Little Odessa” (1994) and starred in Henry Jaglom’s “Festival in Cannes.”
He also did a lot of work just for the money, including a high-profile role in 1998 asteroid disaster pic “Deep Impact” plus “Vampires” and horror pic “The Eighteenth Angel.”
Schell toplined pubcaster ZDF series “Der Fuerst und das Maedchen” (The Prince and the Girl), which ran for three seasons between 2003 and 2007. The lavish primetime soap, reminiscent of “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” revolved around Prince Thorwald (Schell) and his efforts to secure the future of his business empire and keep it from falling into the hands of his diabolical sister, played by Daniela Ziegler.
In the late 2000s, Schell had roles in “The Brothers Bloom,” Spanish thriller “Floreas negras” and Czech ghost story “Darkness.”
In later years, Schell continued to work consistently on the European stage, appearing in Arthur Miller’s“Resurrection Blues,” directed by Robert Altman, at London’s Old Vic in 2006. Earlier, in 2000, he appeared on Broadway in an adaptation of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” this time playing the lead judge in the trial.
Maria Schell died in 2005, and sister Editha Nordberg (aka Immy Schell) died in 1992.
Maximilian Schell was married to Natalya Andreychenko from 1985-2005. Survivors include their daughter, Nastassja Schell.
(Carmel Dagan, Ed Meza and the Associated Press contributed to this report.)