Max Von Sydow – Star of “The Exorcist”, “Hannah and Her Sisters”, “Shutter Island” – Passes Away at Age 90
Try as I might, when I heard that one of our greatest actors, Max Von Sydow, had passed away on March 8, 2020 at the age of 90, the only image that kept coming to me was the iconic shot of Sydow shrouded in silhouette staring up at the bedroom window of a possessed little girl in the 1973 horror masterpiece, The Exorcist. For some reason, that image of Sydow’s vulnerable yet infinitely stoic and righteous priest has been so ingrained in my mind that it serves as the actor’s ultimate calling card for me and a whole generation of filmgoers in a career that spanned over seventy years and included any number of cinematic masterpieces.
Starting in 1949 with his role in director Alf Sjoberg’s Only a Mother, Max Von Sydow was an actor to watch. Born on April 10, 1929 in Lund to father Carl Wilhelm von Sydow and mother Maria Margareta, this erstwhile thespian decorated both the stage and the silver screen in a variety of roles that brought him early acclaim and success. If you want to measure a man by his resume, then Sydow ranks high indeed: Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, The Seventh Seal, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Kremlin Letter, The Emigrants and Hawaii are just a smattering of film roles that made this Swedish citizen of the world an acclaimed actor.
It was with director William Friedkin’s smash adaptation of The Exorcist, however, that Sydow is probably best known today. It’s also the role that made this auteur a reluctant international movie star. Sydow’s character of the sage and kindly Father Merrin arrived late in the proceedings of this masterpiece, but he effectively stole the show in one of the best climactic showdowns ever committed to celluloid. Heavily layered in old age makeup from makeup artist Dick Smith, Sydow seemed to inhabit a different time and space from his co-stars in the film and many late in the day admirers of the actor just assumed that he was the age of Merrin. The makeup and prosthetics aside, that is acting of the highest caliber.
Sydow was in his early forties by the time The Exorcist saw release and, as noted earlier, the film put him on the Hollywood map. A lesser actor might have suffered from flop sweats after this great box office success, but Max Von Sydow kept on chugging along, seemingly oblivious to his new standing in the industry he so loved. In the many years that followed he acted in an astounding eighty film projects ranging from Three Days of the Condor to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That’s not counting the copious television work the journeyman actor worked in. Along the way, he delivered sly and masterful turns in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, Penny Marshall’s Awakenings and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island; he always looked like he was having a blast.
Max Von Sydow had been around the entertainment industry most of his life and no less of a talent than director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Baby Driver) commented upon his passing that “it seemed like he’d always been with us.” Sydow was an old soul with the most human of touches that could make audiences the world over laugh, cry and think. What a talent and what a testament to an actor that transformed all of us by simply being. A beautiful light has gone out in the world but it still blazes brightly in our collective hearts. Rest easy, Mr. Sydow; you done good.