Max von Sydow, from Jesus to the evil brewmeister

Max von Sydow’s mesmerizing performance in Ingmar Bergman’s seminal 1957 drama “The Seventh Seal,” as a 14th century knight who challenges Death to a game of chess, catapulted the tall, imposing Swedish actor onto the international scene. As part of Bergman’s repertory company of actors, he starred in several of the landmark filmmaker’s movies, including 1958’s “The Magician,” 1961’s “Through a Glass Darkly” and 1963’s “Winter Light.”

After making his U.S. debut as Jesus Christ in George Stevens’ final film, 1965’s “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” Von Sydow has appeared in numerous American films, including William Friedkin’s 1973 blockbuster “The Exorcist,” Sydney Pollack’s 1975 thriller “Three Days of the Condor” and Martin Scorsese’s 2010 psychological thriller “Shutter Island.”

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He’s being feted this weekend at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. Besides participating in discussions at screenings of “Seventh Seal” and “Condor,” he’ll also be talking about his career in a conversation with TCM host Robert Osborne. We chatted with him by phone the day before his 84th birthday from Paris, where he lives with his second wife, documentarian Catherine Brelet.

Do you remember the first time you traveled to Hollywood? Was it to meet with George Stevens for “The Greatest Story Ever Told”?


It was for that. I was offered to play Jesus. I didn’t want to do it for various reasons, but he was after me, and my agent tried to convince me I should. George Stevens said, “Why don’t you come over and see what we are doing and we will show you that we are doing something important.”

He worked his magic, because you did the film.

I was seduced, of course, by Hollywood and Mr. Stevens. He was a remarkable man. I admired him very much, but he was not easy. He probably postponed decisions as long as he could. Watching the film now, I must say I am disappointed he didn’t get closer to the characters. There are very few close-ups. It’s aesthetically a very beautiful film, but I think it’s a little cold. But he was a remarkable filmmaker.

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And so was Bergman, the director with whom you are most closely associated. Would you talk about your collaboration?

Mr. Bergman was a man of great working discipline. He forced everyone to concentrate when it was important. No disturbing noise during rehearsal. A code of silence. But in between, when [the camera and lighting] was being changed and re-rigged, there were a lot of laughs and a lot of fun.

He had a great sense of humor. He had a talent of making people feel that they were participating in something important and something aspiring. He created teamwork. Mr. Bergman had a great imagination and saw the possibilities within every one of his actors, and he gave us great challenges. It was very inspiring.

Whatever good I have done on screen I owe to him. I have learned discipline. I have learned concentration and the joy of acting.

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In the U.S., you’re best known as Father Merrin, the title role in the 1973 horror classic “The Exorcist.” Though the character was almost 80, you were only 43 at the time of the production. Had you read the bestselling book before you did the movie?

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.

There have been reports of odd things going on on the set with films revolving around the devil, like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Omen.” Did anything bizarre happen on the set of “The Exorcist”?

Between you and me, odd things happen always on set. In this case if something happened, it was immediately used by the publicity people. Mr. Friedkin did something very clever at the end of production. He did an interview where he sort of declared we didn’t have special effects. The devil was taking care of the special effects himself!

Though you are best known for your dramatic work, you did appear as an evil brewmeister in the 1983 cult comedy “Strange Brew,” which starred Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as the beer-and-bacon-loving-brothers Doug and Bob McKenzie, which they had introduced on “SCTV.”

It’s funny, it’s become sort of a cult movie for young people, especially in Canada and maybe in the United States. Somebody sent me clips of their television shows. I found them very funny and very nice people. It was fun.


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