Max von Sydow, who starred in brooding, metaphysical masterpieces by Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, notably as the medieval knight stalked by Death in a game of chess, and who later brought Nordic gravitas to a breathtaking array of roles, from Jesus to Satan, died March 8 at his home in the French region of Provence. He was 90.
His agent, Jean Diamond, confirmed his death. The cause was not immediately available.
Von Sydow did not transform the craft of acting in the way Marlon Brando did, nor did he epitomize the classical tradition as vividly as Laurence Olivier. But over a hectic career spanning seven decades and more than 150 movies, the breadth and lucidity of his performances - in roles that were commanding, stoic, tormented and, at times, broadly comic - elevated him to the highest echelon of international cinema.
Some of his best-remembered performances included the aged Jesuit priest battling for the soul of a possessed young girl in the horror juggernaut "The Exorcist" (1973), a dapper contract assassin who kills with precision and without malice in "Three Days of the Condor" (1975), a moody artist in Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986), a corrupt crime unit supervisor in "Minority Report" (2002) and a roguish French widower who struggles with his mortality and his son's crippling stroke in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (2007).
Film critics showered him with superlatives. In 2015, Terrence Rafferty called 86-year-old von Sydow, then appearing in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and on the cable series "Game of Thrones," the "greatest actor alive" for imbuing even the humblest of roles with a rich expressiveness. "Like a novelist," Rafferty wrote, "he finds the human details that vivify the character."
A sinewy 6-foot-4, with a blond crew cut, electric-blue eyes and a craggy, granite face, von Sydow was one of the screen's most imposing male performers. He achieved cinematic immortality in "The Seventh Seal" (1957), in which he was a weary, soul-battered veteran of the Crusades who has come home to a Scandinavia terrorized by the Black Plague.
On a rocky seaside, he begins a chess game with Death to forestall the inevitable. The film, with its allegorical framework and starkly beautiful camerawork by Gunnar Fischer, was a watershed for moviemaking that aspired to high art.
Von Sydow appeared in 10 more Bergman movies over the next 15 years, taking leading and supporting roles in films such as "Wild Strawberries" (1957), "Through a Glass Darkly" (1961) and "The Hour of the Wolf" (1966). He seemed to become an alter ego for the director through his portrayal of severe and cryptic husbands, fathers, lovers and artists wrestling internally with emotional and spiritual alienation.
Von Sydow said he had no ambitions for a career outside Sweden but faced an avalanche of offers after starring in Bergman's Oscar-winning "The Virgin Spring" (1960), in which he played a 14th-century Swede who plots vengeance on the men who raped his daughter. He turned down the title villain in the first Bond film, "Dr. No," but eventually agreed to play Jesus in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965), studying English for more than a year to prepare for the role.
The all-star epic was a flop, which von Sydow blamed on director George Stevens. "He tried to make the ultimate version of the life of Christ in order to satisfy everybody, not stepping on anybody's toes," he told a British Film Institute (BFI) forum in 1988, "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."
For von Sydow, the film begot decades of typecasting in Hollywood, where he played stern men of the cloth as well as lugubrious villains. He was a 19th-century missionary in "Hawaii," co-starring Julie Andrews and based on the best-selling novel by James A. Michener, and a knuckle-cracking neo-Nazi in "The Quiller Memorandum" (both 1966). For "Needful Things" (1993), based on the Stephen King book, von Sydow played Beelzebub in the guise of a shopkeeper in Maine.
Initially, von Sydow seemed to be poised for a significant Hollywood career, but he said he disliked being part of a film colony where "even people who were not in the industry seemed to be acting parts." He instead made his home in Rome and Paris, collecting fat paychecks by lending his cachet to campy, English-language fare while aiming higher in European productions.
To interviewers, he explained that he was a working actor and felt no shame that a stalwart of Bergman's lacerating examinations of wounded souls should play Ming the Merciless ("Prepare her for my pleasure") in "Flash Gordon" (1980), the cat-stroking James Bond villain Ernst Blofeld in "Never Say Never Again" (1983) and an evil brewmeister in the Canadian romp "Strange Brew" (1983).
He confessed disappointment not in the caliber of the films but in the restrictiveness of his roles.
"Because I am not English or American, the parts I get are the foreigners," he told the Guardian. "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. ... Amongst my American parts I was pleased with the hit-man in 'Three Days of the Condor' because he was not a cliche villain, with 'Hawaii' which - although it wasn't a great film - gave me the chance to play a stupid New England missionary. What I distrust is the American tendency to judge the performance by the success or failure of the film."
He found greater artistic fulfillment working in Europe, where directors cast him as ordinary but complex men - what he called "people without any remarkable talents" facing tremendous odds.
He starred opposite Liv Ullmann in Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell's acclaimed two-part saga "The Emigrants" (1971) and "The New Land" (1972), which traced a 19th-century Swedish farm couple on their journey to Minnesota. Troell also showcased von Sydow as the doomed Swedish explorer S.A. Andrée, who tried to fly over the North Pole in a balloon, in "The Flight of the Eagle" (1982).
Von Sydow received an Academy Award nomination for his leading role in "Pelle the Conqueror" (1987), about a widowed Danish farmhand who moves to Sweden with his young son in search of a better life and suffers endless indignities. Film critic Roger Ebert marveled at von Sydow's Scandinavian minimalism, calling him "unsurpassed at the difficult challenge of appearing not to act." The movie, a Danish production, received the Oscar for best foreign-language film.
The film's producer, Per Holst, once told the New York Times that he initially worried that he could not afford someone of von Sydow's stature for the modestly budgeted film. He called the actor's agent, who said von Sydow was aboard as long as the "usual arrangements" were in place - airplanes at his disposal between takes, chauffeur-driven limos, champagne at his breakfast table.
"I thought, 'Oh, God, how am I going to pay for all this,' before I heard loud laughing at the other end of the phone," Holst said. "He was joking, of course. Max was never difficult, never made special demands, and he stayed in the same small huts as everyone else."
Max Carl Adolf von Sydow was born in Lund, Sweden, on April 10, 1929. He grew up burdened by shyness, he said, with parents - a folklore professor and a schoolteacher - who urged his pursuit of a legal career.
A class trip to see Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream" at a majestic new theater in the nearby city of Malmo sparked a fascination with acting. Theater, he said in the BFI interview, "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."
After mandatory army service, he enrolled at the Royal Dramatic Theatre school in Stockholm. By the time he graduated, in 1951, he had appeared in films and had begun to establish a reputation as a gifted repertory stage performer. Bergman was chief director at the Malmo municipal theater and guided von Sydow's stage performances before casting him in "The Seventh Seal."
His first marriage, to actress Christina Olin, ended in divorce. In 1997, he married Catherine Brelet, a French documentarian, and soon acquired French citizenship. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Von Sydow periodically ventured into television, earning an Emmy Award nomination for his 2016 guest role as the seer called the Three-Eyed Raven in HBO's fantasy series "Game of Thrones." Mostly he was known for his indefatigable screen career, playing scientists, lawyers, doctors and rigid authority figures. A rare exception was "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" (2011), a post-Sept. 11 drama in which von Sydow played an elderly man who cannot bring himself to speak. It brought him a supporting-actor Oscar nod.
The role had outward similarities to what he regarded as one of his most enduring performances: a traveling illusionist who may be a flimflam artist in Bergman's "The Magician" (1958). That part, also nonspeaking, was about how people project their own fantasies and needs on artists and celebrities. It was typical von Sydow - great impact, no fuss.
"I think I have achieved," he told the Times, "a certain simplicity, and economy of expression. If you are new in a sport, for example, you use too many muscles. The same thing is true in acting, because you want to express everything, all the time."