Born: April 10, 1929;

Died: March 8, 2020

MAX von Sydow, who has died aged 90, was an actor of magnetic and monumental gravitas, whose presence gave any film he appeared in a richness and a weight that elevated it in stature. This was the case with the eleven films he made with Ingmar Bergman that began with The Seventh Seal (1957) as much as it was as Jesuit priest Father Merrin in William Friedkin’s film of William Peter Blatty’s novel, The Exorcist (1973).

In the former, the scene of von Sydow’s character playing chess with Death has become one of cinema’s most iconic moments. While the latter film became tabloid fodder, the hysteria surrounding it was offset by a seriousness carried largely by von Sydow, who aged himself by 30 years to give a solemn, stately performance as he confronted the Devil eight years after playing the Son of God in George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Carl Adolf von Sydow was born in Lund, Sweden, to Carl Wilhelm von Sydow, an ethnologist and professor of folkloristics, and Baroness Maria Margareta von Rappe, a schoolteacher. He learned English at Lund Cathedral School and developed an interest in drama after seeing a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He started an amateur theatre company with schoolfriends.

While serving with the Army Quartermaster Corps, he adopted the name ‘Max’ from the star performer of a flea circus. He studied at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre between 1948 and 1951, where he again began a theatre group, and made his stage debut in Goethe’s Egmont. He also made his screen debut, in Only a Mother (1949) and Miss Julie (1951), both directed by Alf Sjoberg.

During a season at the Norrkoping-Linkoping Municipal Theatre, he appeared in nine plays, including Peer Gynt, before moving to the City Theatre in Halsingborg in 1953. While still in his mid-twenties, a sign of his authority saw him play Prospero in The Tempest and the title role in Pirandello’s Henry IV. His burgeoning talent was recognised in 1954, when he received the Royal Foundation of Sweden’s Cultural Award for young actors.

In 1955, he joined Malmo City Theatre, where Bergman was the main director. Casting his new charge as Antonius Block, the jaded fourteenth-century knight returning from the Crusades to a plague-stricken Sweden in The Seventh Seal was a move that would see them artistically entwined for life. Other Bergman films von Sydow appeared in included Wild Strawberries (1957), The Magician (1958), The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1963).

Onstage, von Sydow played the title roles in Peer Gynt and Faust in what was effectively Bergman’s ensemble company, who appeared on both stage and screen. He resisted offers from Hollywood, including the title role in James Bond film, Dr No, and Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music.

His first English-language role came in The Greatest Story Ever Told, in which he played Jesus. This led to other American films, including a contemporary western, The Reward (1965).

Outside Sweden, von Sydow found himself often cast as villains, be it the neo-Nazi of the Quiller Memorandum, a Russian colonel in The Kremlin Letter (1970), Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon (1980) and finally appearing in a Bond film, as Blofeld in Never Say Never Again (1983). He also appeared as Romy Schneider’s estranged husband in Death Watch, Bertrand Tavernier’s portent of reality TV starring Harvey Keitel and Harry Dean Stanton, and which was filmed in Glasgow and Mull of Kintyre.

Von Sydow went on to appear in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and two years later made Katinka (1988), his sole film as director. He reunited with Bergman in a mini-series, The Best Intentions (1991), directed by August, and Private Confessions (1996), directed by Liv Ullmann.

Von Sydow received the first of his two Oscar nominations for his role as a turn-of the century Swedish immigrant in Denmark in Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror (1987) and the second for best supporting actor in Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011).

He was married to Christina Olin from 1951-1979, then to film-maker Catherine Brelet from 1997. Having become a French citizen in 2002, he was made a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 2005, and named a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur in 2012.

Latterly, von Sydow appeared in three episodes of Game of Thrones. These were some of the last in a long line of elder-statesmen roles which von Sydow had always been made for in a career that spanned generations, but which in execution remain timeless.

He is survived by his wife, Catherine, and his four sons, two with Brelet, Cedric and Yvan, and two with Olin, Clas and Henrik.