Syfy Insider Exclusive

Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive videos, sweepstakes, and more!

Sign Up For Free to View
SYFY WIRE obituary

Max von Sydow, celebrated actor who appeared in The Exorcist and Star Wars, dies at 90

By Josh Weiss
Max von Sydow

Max von Sydow — the prolific genre actor who appeared in William Friedkin's The Exorcist, Ivan Reitman's Ghostbusters II, Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, and J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens — died at the age of 90 yesterday, Variety confirmed this morning.

His hallowed Hollywood career spanned over seven decades of respected performances, two of which nabbed him Oscar nominations.

Born Carl Adolf von Sydow in Lund, Skåne, Sweden in April of 1929, the actor began performing in high school when he and his fellow students formed a theater club. He also studied at Sweden's Royal Dramatic Theatre before hitting the stage professionally. One of his first major film roles was as Antonius Block in director Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957). In it, Block plays Death (Bengt Ekerot) in a game of chess.

The Seventh Seal

Max von Sydow first hit American screens as Jesus Christ 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told. By 1973, he had 22 more credits to his name, but became part of a cultural phenomenon after playing Father Merrin in 1973's The Exorcist, one of the scariest movies ever made. Merrin's foggy night appearance at the MacNeil household (set to Jack Nitzsche's chilling score, of course) is one of the most iconic film moments ever put to celluloid.

"When I got the offer, I didn’t know anything about it. Somebody gave me the book to read and said, 'They want you to play a priest.' I read the book, and I thought, of course, it was for the young priest. So I said, 'That’s a good part.' And they said, ‘No, no no. They want you for the exorcist!” I still don’t really know why," von Sydow remarked to The L.A. Times in 2013.

Father Merrin returned in the 1977 sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic, which saw von Sydow reprising the part.

Max von Sydow The Exorcist

Somewhat typecast as a villain over the years, von Sydow is also known for playing Emperor Ming in 1980's Flash Gordon; Vigo the Carpathian in 1989's Ghostbusters II (this was just a voiceover); Lamar Burgess in 2002's Minority Report; and Dr. Naehring in 2010's Shutter Island.

"When you have a certain success with a certain type of character, [you're] frequently asked to do it again, with some other name, some other surroundings, et cetera," von Sydow told NOW Magazine in 2011. "But that is very boring for an actor. I want to fight it, because that's not my thing."

Even so, he's got plenty of heroic credits to his name—from the Three-Eyed Raven on Game of Thrones, to Lor San Tekka in The Force Awakens.

During an interview with the Independent in 2003, von Sydow admitted that he tried to secure roles in the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movie franchises, but those productions were only really interested in British actors.

"I have always loved legends, especially British ones. I love Tolkien," said the actor. "My father was a professor, and he studied them at the university. He especially loved Irish ones, and went over there and taught himself Gaelic and translated these stories – stories that no one else in the world knew about – and would read them to me at night."

Max von Sydow Minority Report

With nearly 200 onscreen roles to von Sydow's name, it's almost impossible to characterize his impressive career in a single obituary. In addition to the projects we've already mentioned, he also appeared in Conan the Barbarian (1982) as King Osric; Never Say Never Again (1983) as Bond villain Blofeld; The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1993) as Sigmund Freud; Needful Things (1993) as Leland Gaunt; Judge Dredd (1995) as Judge Fargo; The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim  (2011) as Esbern; and even The Simpsons (2014) as Klaus Ziegler.

The actor is survived by his second wife, Catherine Brelet, and his four sons, Olin, Claes, Henrik, Cedric, and Yvan. The latter two are from von Sydow's first marriage to Kerstin Olin. 

(certain biographical elements via IMDB)