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Max von Sydow
Carl Adolf “Max” von Sydow (pron.: /vɒn ˈsiːdoʊ/; Swedish: [fɔn ˈsyːdɔv]; born 10 April 1929) is a Swedish actor, who holds dual Swedish and French citizenship. He has starred in many films and had supporting roles in dozens more. He has performed in films filmed in many languages, including Swedish, Norwegian, English, Italian, German, Danish, French, and Spanish. Von Sydow received the Royal Foundation of Sweden’s Cultural Award in 1954, the Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 2005 and the Légion d’honneur in 2010.
Some of his most memorable film roles include knight Antonius Block in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (the first of his eleven films with Bergman, and the film that includes the iconic scenes in which he plays chess with Death), Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told, Oktober in The Quiller Memorandum, Father Merrin in The Exorcist, Karl Oskar in The Emigrants, Joubert the assassin in Three Days of the Condor, Ming the Merciless in the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, the villain Blofeld in Never Say Never Again, Frederick in Hannah and Her Sisters, Brewmeister Smith in Strange Brew and Lassefar in Pelle the Conqueror, for which he received his first Academy Award nomination. In 2012, he was nominated a second time, for his supporting role in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Born Carl Adolf von Sydow, to a wealthy family, in Lund, Skåne, his father, Carl Wilhelm von Sydow, was an ethnologist and professor of Irish, Scandinavian, and comparative folklore at the University of Lund. His mother, Baroness Maria Margareta “Greta” (née Rappe), was a schoolteacher. Von Sydow was raised as a Lutheran and later became an agnostic.
He attended the Cathedral School of Lund, and learned German and English starting at the age of nine. At school, he and some friends founded an amateur theatre company. He completed National Service before studying at the Royal Dramatic Theatre (“Dramaten”) in Stockholm, where he trained between 1948 and 1951 with the likes of Lars Ekborg, Margaretha Krook and Ingrid Thulin. During his time at Dramaten, he made his screen debut in Alf Sjöberg’s films Only a Mother (Bara en mor, 1949), and Miss Julie (Fröken Julie, 1951), a screen version of Strindberg’s scathing drama.
von Sydow plays chess with Death in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.”
In 1955, he moved to Malmö, where he met his mentor, Ingmar Bergman. His first work with Bergman occurred on stage at the Malmö Municipal Theatre. Von Sydow later would work with Bergman on films such as The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957), Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957) and The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1960). In The Seventh Seal, von Sydow is the knight who plays a chess game with Death. The chess scenes and the film were international breakthroughs for actor and director alike. It was in these films where von Sydow honed and perfected his craft.
Von Sydow came to dominate the screen as he did the stage, becoming an idol of the international arthouse film scene. Critical recognition came as early as 1954 when he was awarded the Royal Foundation Culture Award. He worked profusely on both stage and screen while in Scandinavia, resisting the increasing calls from the United States to go to Hollywood. After being seen in Bergman’s Academy Award–winning films and having been first choice for the title role of Dr. No, von Sydow finally went to America after agreeing to star in the film which led to much greater recognition, in the role of Jesus in George Stevens’ all-star epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). As his talents were soon in demand in other American productions, von Sydow and his family relocated for some time to Los Angeles. From 1965, he became a regular on the American screen while maintaining a presence in his native Sweden. In 1969, he appeared in John Huston’s The Kremlin Letter. Though perhaps typecast as a villain, he was rewarded in the United States with two Golden Globe nominations, for Hawaii in 1966 and The Exorcist in 1973.
In the mid-1970s, von Sydow moved to Rome and appeared in a number of Italian films, becoming friendly with another screen legend, Marcello Mastroianni. In the U.S., he played a memorably professional Alsatian assassin in Three Days of the Condor (1975), a role which won him the KCFCC Award for Best Supporting Actor.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he appeared in Flash Gordon (1980), Strange Brew (1983), David Lynch’s Dune (1984), and Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). In 1985, he was a member of the jury at the 35th Berlin International Film Festival. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in the Danish film Pelle the Conqueror (1987), which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Two hundred years to the day since King Gustav III, who founded Dramaten, was assassinated (16 March 1792), von Sydow attended a meeting there commemorating the date, 16 March 1992; this photo was taken in the stage entrance.
Von Sydow has since won the Australian Film Institute’s Best Actor Award for his title role in Father (1989), the Guldbagge Best Director Award for his only directorial foray, Katinka (Ved vejen, 1988), based on a novel by Herman Bang, and the Best Actor Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival for The Silent Touch (Dotknięcie ręki, 1993). He received international acclaim for his performance as Nobel Prize–winning novelist Knut Hamsun in Jan Troell’s biopic Hamsun. He received his third Swedish Guldbagge and his second Danish Bodil for his depiction of a character often described as his King Lear. In 1996, he starred in Liv Ullmann’s Private Confessions (Enskilda samtal). Back in Hollywood, he appeared in What Dreams May Come.
He was acclaimed for his role as an elderly lawyer in Scott Hicks’ Snow Falling on Cedars. In 2002, von Sydow had one of his largest commercial successes, co-starring with Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg’s science fiction thriller Minority Report. In 2003, he played mentor character Eyvind in the European TV adaptation of the Ring of the Nibelung saga. The show set ratings records and was released in the USA as Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King. In 2007, von Sydow starred in the box-office hit Rush Hour 3. He followed that with Julian Schnabel’s award-winning foreign film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby.
Recently, von Sydow appeared in Showtime’s drama series The Tudors, where he portrayed Cardinal Otto Truchsess von Waldburg, a German-born clergyman who tries to organize the defeat of King Henry VIII. He also appeared in Martin Scorsese’s 2010 film adaptation of Shutter Island and Ridley Scott’s 2010 adaption of Robin Hood, playing Robin’s blind stepfather, Sir Walter Loxley.
Von Sydow voices the character of Esbern in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which was released on 11 November 2011. He narrated the initial teaser trailer for the game.
On 1 August 1951, von Sydow married actress Christina Inga Britta Olin (born 1926 – died 1998); the couple had two sons, Claes and Henrik, who appeared with him in the film, Hawaii, playing his son at different ages. He and Olin divorced on 26 February 1979.
Von Sydow married French filmmaker Catherine Brelet on 30 April 1997 in Provence; she has two sons, Cedric (b. 1970) and Yvan (b. 1971). He currently lives with his wife in Paris, where he enjoys reading, listening to music, and gardening. He received French citizenship in 2002 and holds dual Swedish/French citizenship.