How Did Max Von Sydow Die? Legendary Actor Dead At 90

He played the "old priest" in 'The Exorcist'.

How Did Max Von Sydow Die? Legendary Actor Dead At 90 Getty

There are not many actors who could boast credits that include multiple films by legendary director Igmar Bergman as well as an appearance on The Simpsons. But Max Von Sydow wasn't many actors. He was one of the most prolific performers of his time, a time that began in 1949 with his first film and didn't end until his death this week at the age of 90. 

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The Swedish actor never put on airs about his work, preferring to think of himself as a working actor as opposed to some kind of auteur who only made high art. He did a little of everything, from playing Jesus in The Greatest Story Every Told to taking a turn as a Bond villain in Never Say Never Again. He was the only Swedish man ever nominated for an acting Oscar, though he didn't win for either of his nominations.

Now the legendary actor has passed away. How did Max von Sydow die? Plus, more details on his life.

1. He was originally from Sweden.

Max Von Sydow was born in Lund, Sweden, on April 10, 1929. He grew up the son of a college professor and a teacher and was actually quite shy as a young boy. His interest in acting stemmed from seeing a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream on a school trip and that gave him the idea of trying out the craft. The theatre, he said “gave me a lot of freedom and license, and I was allowed to express myself wildly on the stage in a way that I’d never have dared to do at home.” He attended the Royal Dramatic Theatre school in Stockholm and was working on stage and in film by the time he graduated in 1951. He struck up a working relationship with Ignar Bergman who was the chief director at the Malmo municipal theater and who soon cast him in The Seventh Seal


2. He never planned to leave Sweden.

Early in his career, Von Sydow never thought to leave Sweden or the film industry there. But by 1965, with a number of Bergman films under this belt, Hollywood took an interest in the gifted actor. He eventually agreed to play Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told, a film he ultimately didn't enjoy making. "It was the hardest part I've ever had to play in my life," he remembered. "I couldn't smoke or drink in public. The most difficult part of playing Christ was that I had to keep up the image around the clock. As soon as the picture finished, I returned home to Sweden and tried to find my old self. It took six months to get back to normal."

In addition to not liking the restrictions of trying to play Jesus himself, he felt like the film suffered from trying to be inoffensive. "[Director George Stevens] tried to make the ultimate version of the life of Christ in order to satisfy everybody, not stepping on anybody’s toes," he said. "And I think that’s the last thing I think you should do with such a theme. So, unfortunately the film turned out to be very beautiful but very boring, and a lot of walking, very serious walking.”

3. Being a foreign actor limited his choice of roles.

Van Sydow felt that American cinema didn't give him the chance to be anything other than a foreigner for much of his career. “Because I am not English or American, the parts I get are the foreigners,” he told reporters. “And who is the foreigner? He is either the villain or the mad scientist or the sane scientist or the psychoanalyst or the artist. But always an outsider.” In European films, he got to play a wider variety of roles. He also didn't like living in Hollywood and chose instead to make his home in Europe. 

Despite his frustration with Hollywood type-casting, he was lauded by the industry and was the only Swedish male performer to ever be nominated for an Oscar. In fact, he was nominated twice: once for Best Supporting Actor for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close in 2012 and for Best Actor for Pelle The Conqueror in 1987.


4. He wasn't afraid of breaking out of type.

Though he played a whole lot of religious characters, most famously Father Merrin in The Exorcist, he wasn't afraid to also do campier fare. He created the cat-stroking stereotype of the Bond villain in Never Say Never Again and played the ridiculously evil Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon. He was even in the cult favorite Canadian film Strange Brew in 1983. 

Von Sydow in The Exorcist. 


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5. He continued working until recently. 

In 2015, Von Sydow took on the role of Lor San Tekka in Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens. He was also cast in Game of Throne as the seer the Three-Eyed Raven for several episodes of the HBO smash hit fantasy. His final role was in 2018, in an as-yet-unreleased film called Echoes of the Past



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Von Sydow in Game Of Thrones.

6. How did Max Von Sydow die? 

Over the years, Von Sydow was married twice. First to actress Kerstin Olin in 1951, with whom he has two sons Claes and Henrik. They divorced in 1979 and he didn't remarry until 1997. His second wife is French film-maker Christina Olin Von Sydow and they remained married for the rest of his life. He passed away this week at the age of 90 at his home in France. His widow confirmed his death saying, "It's with a broken heart and with infinite sadness that we have the extreme pain of announcing the departure of Max Von Sydow on March 8, 2020."


No cause of death has been announced. 

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Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. She is the creator of the blog FeminXer and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.