Max von Sydow turned 90 this month, which is a milestone for most people, but age has always seemed incidental to the actor. When he played the elderly, frail Father Merrin in “The Exorcist,” von Sydow was 44 — meaning he was the same age Bradley Cooper is today.
In the 1950s, von Sydow had his big breakthrough in a trio of Ingmar Bergman films — “The Seventh Seal,” “Wild Strawberries” and “The Magician” — while still in his 20s, but with the wisdom and sadness of the world in his eyes. Von Sydow has appeared in such fan favorites as “Game of Thrones,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Rush Hour 3” and David Lynch’s “Dune.” But to most, he’s synonymous with his 11 films for Bergman, and “The Exorcist.” In A.D. Murphy’s enthusiastic Variety review of the latter on Dec. 24, 1973, he said of von Sydow, “His performance is one of controlled dedication.” That also sums up the actor’s career.
Von Sydow studied at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, and first worked with Bergman on stage. Over the decades, the actor appeared in a wide range of stage roles, including “The Wild Duck,” “The Rose Tattoo,” Strindberg’s “Master Olof” and “The Tempest.”
On film, he worked with numerous great directors, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, Woody Allen, John Huston, Ridley Scott, Stephen Daldry, Jan Troell, Bille August and, of course, William Friedkin.
His roles ranged from Jesus in George Stevens’ lofty and big-budgeted “The Greatest Story Ever Told” to the irreverent, low-budget Canadian comedy “Strange Brew,” starring and directed by Rick Moranis & Dave Thomas.
In “Exorcist,” the excellent makeup by Dick Smith certainly helped the ageing process. But the character’s power (despite limited screen time) is due to the actor’s mixture of vulnerability, gravitas and intelligence. Veteran critic Terrence Rafferty in a 2015 Atlantic article called him “The greatest actor alive” and there’s plenty of evidence to back that up.
In one of the ironies of film awards, he’s been nominated for only two Oscars: as lead actor for “Pelle the Conqueror” (1989) and supporting actor in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” (2012).
Almost as surprising: He hasn’t yet received a Governors Award for his body of work.