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Max Von Sydow Biography


Home > Actors > V > Von Sydow, Max > Biography


Birth Name: Max Von Sydow
Born: 04/10/1929
Birth Place: Sweden


Born on April 10, 1929 in Lund, Sweden, von Sydow was raised by his father, Carl, a professor of Scandinavian and Irish folklore at the Royal University, and his mother, Greta, a school teacher. With no theatre in the area, von Sydow absorbed novels in his youth. But when he was 14, a modern theatre was built in nearby Malmo. The young lad was immediately taken by its magic, leading to him and his friends forming their own company where they performed all the classics. Though his parents wanted him to study law, von Sydow went ahead with acting when he attended the Royal Dramatic Theatre - or as it was known in Sweden, Dramaten - where he studied the craft from 1948-1951. After graduating, he began honing his skills in repertory theatre all around Sweden in a variety of roles. Along the way, he made the acquaintance of someone who would later propel him to stardom, director Ingmar Bergman, who was the chief director of the municipal theater in Malmo. Bergman directed von Sydow in numerous productions, including "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Faust."

While von Sydow had already been in several features, including "Fröken Julie" (1950) and "Ingen Mans Kvinna" (1953), he attracted international attention in Bergman's existential drama "The Seventh Seal" (1957), playing a 14th century knight who challenges Death (Bengt Ekerot) to a game of chess in exchange for his life, which leads to an examination of whether or not God exists. The cornerstone of Bergman's repertory group of performers, von Sydow went on to make numerous films with the director. He had a small role in "Wild Strawberries" (1957), which he followed by playing the title character in "The Magician" (1958). Von Sydow was the mysterious Mr. Volger, a traveling magician whose supernatural performance attract the unwanted attentions of a town's local authorities, leading to a surreal encounter that confronts the enigma of life and death itself. He continued working exclusively with Bergman, appearing in "Brink of Life" (1958) and starring in "The Virgin Spring" (1960), a drama in which he played a distraught father who avenges the murder of his daughter (Birgitta Pettersson) at the hands of three goatherds.

Following two more films with Bergman - "Through a Glass Darkly" (1961) and "Winter Light" (1963) - von Sydow made his debut in the United States playing Jesus in George Stevens' "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965). Though it fared poorly at the box office, the film opened the door for von Sydow to perform in more American films. Seizing upon his long, somber face and imposing physicality, Hollywood initially typecast him in stern and unsympathetic roles, casting him as a knuckle-cracking Nazi in "The Quiller Memorandum" (1966), a stiff-necked minister in "Hawaii" (1966) and a Russian strongman in "The Kremlin Letter" (1970) - none of which set the box office aflame. Returning to working in his native Sweden, he forged another lasting association when he teamed up with director Jan Troell in "Here Is Your Life" (1966) and made his American television debut as Otto Frank in an adaptation of "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1967). He next rejoined his collaboration with Bergman for another memorable series of films, including "Hour of the Wolf" (1968), the director's only gothic horror film in which von Sydow played a painter who is haunted by demons while spending a summer in seclusion with his pregnant wife (Liv Ullmann).

The trio of von Sydow, Ullmann and Bergman reunited for "Shame" (1968), a compelling drama about two musicians who escape to an island from their unnamed country which is embroiled in civil war, only to run into trouble when a plane of soldiers crashes on the island, leading to betrayal and misery. After "Made in Sweden" (1969), von Sydow joined forces with Ullmann and Bergman once again for "The Passion of Anna" (1970), playing a reclusive ex-convict who has a stormy affair with a woman grieving over the deaths of her husband and son. In "The Touch" (1971), he was a seemingly happy husband whose wife (Bibi Andersson) has a clandestine affair with a mysterious intruder (Elliott Gould), while next starring again opposite Ullmann in Jan Troell's "The Emigrants" (1971), a historical drama that depicted a Swedish family emigrating to Minnesota in the 19th century in search of more fertile soil. The film's sequel, "The New Land" (1972), picked up where its predecessor left off and focused on the family losing all they had gained in the New World.

Von Sydow finally earned his due in America when he used his imposing presence to his advantage in William Friedkin's "The Exorcist" (1973), playing the immortal Father Merrin, who is brought in by another priest (Jason Miller) to exorcise the Devil from a little girl (Linda Blair). Von Sydow delivered an iconic performance that transcended generations and lived on in cinematic history, thanks to his famous line "The power of Christ compels you" as he tried to drive the devil out of the child. With his newfound recognition, von Sydow began landing Hollywood roles with greater frequency, while remaining wedded to the films of his native land. He played Alsatian hit-man Joubert in Sydney Pollack's "Three Days of the Condor" (1975), appeared in the preposterous sequel "Exorcist II: The Heretic" (1977), even though his character was killed in the first installment, and playfully chewed the scenery as Ming the Merciless in "Flash Gordon" (1980), even though the film itself was long remembered for being campy to a fault. In "Victory" (1981), he was the commander of a German prisoner of war camp who puts together a team of Allied soldiers (Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and Pelé) to play an exhibition game against the Nazis without realizing the prisoners are planning their escape.

Finding more work within the American studio system, von Sydow had numerous co-starring roles, including as King Osrik in "Conan the Barbarian" (1982) and as the arch-villain Blofeld in Sean Connery's return to the James Bond franchise, "Never Say Never Again" (1983). That same year, he played an evil owner of Elsinore Brewery who plots to take over the world by controlling beer drinkers with a secret additive, only to run into problems courtesy of hosers Bob and Doug McKenzie (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas). After giving some heft to the otherwise flimsy psychological thriller "Dreamscape" (1984), von Sydow made a few appearances on the small screen, playing the Philistine governor in "Samson and Delilah" (ABC, 1984) and King John of Portugal in the two-part miniseries "Christopher Columbus" (CBS, 1985). Following a turn as the Apostle Peter in the Italian-made "Quo Vadis" (1985), he delivered a stellar supporting turn as Barbara Hershey's artist-lover in Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986).

In a personal and creative triumph, von Sydow delivered one of his finest onscreen roles, playing a humble old Swedish widower struggling for survival alongside his son as immigrants to Denmark in Bille August's "Pelle the Conqueror" (1988), the Oscar-winning Best Foreign Film that earned him the first Academy Award nomination of his long career. Stepping behind the camera for the first time, von Sydow made an unspectacular directing debut with "Katinka" (1988), adapted from Herman Bang's novel Along the Road". In a return to his beginnings on the stage, he delivered a performance as Prospero in a London production of "The Tempest" (1988). Back on the small screen, he appeared in several made-for-television movies, including "Red King, White Knight" (HBO, 1989) and "Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes" (NBC, 1990), in which he played Father Siemes, who helps survivors after the 1945 nuclear bombing. In the turkey, "A Kiss Before Dying" (1991), he played a wealthy businessman whose daughter becomes the victim of murder at the hands of an ingratiating schemer (Matt Dillon).

Following a trip to the sci-fi realms of Wim Wenders' cyberpunk noir "Until the End of the World" (1991), von Sydow renewed his association with Bergman, playing the heroine's father in August's "The Best Intentions" (1992), which he preceded by playing a priest who urges a farmer who kills his estate owner's ox to feed his family for the winter in "The Ox" (1992), directed by Bergman's long-time cinematographer Sven Nykvist. He next played a devilish antiques store owner in a big screen adaptation of Stephen King's "Needful Things" (1993), after which he played Judge Fargo in the blockbuster Sylvester Stallone vehicle "Judge Dredd" (1995). On the small screen once again, he appeared in the based-on real-life serial killer drama "Citizen X" (HBO, 1995), followed by a turn as an aging priest and mentor to a woman (Pernilla August) who admits infidelity to her husband (Samuel Fröler) in "Private Confessions" (1996), written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by actress Liv Ullmann. He next played Norwegian hero and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Knut Hamsun who sided with the Nazis in "Hamsun" (1996).

After a supporting role in the Rutger Hauer thriller "Hostile Waters" (HBO, 1997), he was a wise guide who leads a distraught man (Robin Williams) across the River Styx after his death in the Technicolor fantasy "What Dreams May Come" (1998). He followed this role by playing the defense attorney for a Japanese-American man (Rick Yune) on trial for the murder of his close friend (Eric Thal) in "Snow Falling on Cedars," which he followed by a portrayal of the biblical King David in the two-part miniseries "Solomon" (PAX TV, 2000). Maintaining a steady presence on the screen, von Sydow was a wizened old druid in the aptly named historical epic "Druids" (2001), a casino owner who loses everything in "Intacto" (2002) and the corrupt director of the futuristic pre-crime unit in Steven Spielberg's compelling actioner, "Minority Report" (2002). Going back in time a couple thousand years, he co-starred as a pagan king in the German-made sword-and-sorcery epic "Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King" (2004).

Following the low-key "Autumn Hearts: A New Beginning" (2007), von Sydow was a French ambassador who becomes the victim of a car bombing in the action comedy sequel "Rush Hour 3" (2007). Von Sydow next played the father of a 16th century Puritan (James Purefoy) who travels the world vanquishing evil in "Solomon Kane" (2009), while joining the cast of "The Tudors" (Showtime, 2007-2010) for the third season, playing the fierce and moral Cardinal von Waldburg, who becomes a potent critic and adversary to King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). After supporting roles as a physician at an institution for the criminally insane in Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" (2010) and Sir Walter Loxley in Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood" (2010), von Sydow starred opposite Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (2011). He played a man who accompanies a 10-year-old boy (Thomas Horn) on a quest to find a lock box in New York City after the boy's father died on 9/11. Von Sydow's wordless performance earned widespread critical praise, as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.