Carl Adolf “Max” von Sydow (/vɒn ˈsiːdoʊ/; Swedish: [fɔn ˈsyːdɔv]; born 10 April 1929) is a Swedish actor who has also held French citizenship since 2002. He has starred in many films and had supporting roles in dozens more 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, was made a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 2005, and was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur on 17 October 2012.
Some of his most memorable film roles include Knight Antonius Block in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), the first of his eleven films with Bergman, and the film that includes the iconic scenes in which he plays chess with Death; Martin in Through a Glass Darkly (1961); Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965); Oktober in The Quiller Memorandum (1966); Karl Oskar Nilsson in The Emigrants (1971); Father Lankester Merrin in The Exorcist (1973); Joubert the assassin in Three Days of the Condor (1975); Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon (1980); the villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the James Bond film Never Say Never Again (1983); Liet-Kynes in Dune (1984); Frederick in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986); Lassefar in Pelle the Conqueror (1987), for which he received his first Academy Award nomination; Dr. Peter Ingham in Awakenings (1990); Lamar Burgess in Minority Report (2002) and The Renter in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2012), which earned him his second Academy Award nomination.
n 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, and in 1971 gave a powerful, quiet performance in Jan Troell’s acclaimed The Emigrants alongside actress Liv Ullmann. Though often 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.
Two hundred years to the day since King Gustav III, who founded Dramaten, was assassinated, von Sydow attended a meeting there on 16 March 1992 commemorating the date.
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.
Von Sydow at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
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 US 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 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.
In April 2013, von Sydow was honored at the Turner Classic Movie (TCM) Festival in Hollywood, with screenings of two of his classic films, Three Days of the Condor and The Seventh Seal.
In March 2014, von Sydow voiced a character on The Simpsons.