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RIP “THE EXORCIST” star Max von Sydow

Monday, March 9, 2020 | News

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

The actor known equally for international art-house cinema and Hollywood genre fare has passed away.

Various sources have reported that Swedish screen star Max von Sydow died yesterday at age 90. Born Carl Adolf von Sydow, he began his career doing stage work, where he met director Ingmar Bergman, with whom he would find fame in movies like THE SEVENTH SEAL, WILD STRAWBERRIES and THE VIRGIN SPRING (the latter an inspiration for Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT). The producers of the first James Bond film DR. NO wanted von Sydow for the villainous title role, but he wound up making his U.S. debut playing Jesus in the 1965 Biblical epic THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD.

He would seal his place in the horror pantheon eight years later in another religious role, playing Father Lankester Merrin, who attempts to expel the demon from Linda Blair’s Regan MacNeil in William Friedkin’s landmark THE EXORCIST. On his first day of filming, von Sydow did the shot in which Merrin arrives at the MacNeill house, silhouetted in the light of a streetlamp, which became one of the movies’ all-time iconic images. For the role, the then-43-year-old von Sydow wore aging makeup by Dick Smith that was so convincing, many American viewers believed the actor to be older than he actually was. He reprised the Merrin role in flashback scenes for John Boorman’s sequel EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC.

Von Sydow (who also starred in the 1971 psychological chiller THE NIGHT VISITOR) went on to win more fans in studio sci-fi/fantasy fare in the 1980s, including a memorable turn as Ming the Merciless in FLASH GORDON and parts in CONAN THE BARBARIAN, DREAMSCAPE and David Lynch’s DUNE. He returned to horror portraying the devilish Leland Gaunt in the Stephen King adaptation NEEDFUL THINGS, as the star of Dario Argento’s 2001 giallo SLEEPLESS and playing a doctor in Martin Scorsese’s SHUTTER ISLAND. Most recently, he was introduced to a new generation of fans via his role in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS and appearances in three episodes of GAME OF THRONES. Von Sydow was one of the all-time greats of the acting world, and he will be deeply missed while his many great performances live on.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.