Max von Sydow, actor known for ‘The Exorcist,’ ‘Game of Thrones,’ dies at 90

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Actor Max von Sydow, whose seven-decade career included roles as Father Merrin in the horror film “The Exorcist” and Emperor Ming in the cult classic “Flash Gordon,” died Sunday, his agent said. He was 90.

“It is with a broken heart and with infinite sadness that we have the extreme pain of announcing the departure of Max von Sydow,” his wife, Catherine, said in a statement sent to NBC News by agent Jean Diamond.

Von Sydow, who was born in Sweden in 1929 and became a French citizen in 2002, started acting in European films around age 20. Since then, he had appeared in nearly 200 movies and television shows, performing in multiple languages.

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Recently, von Sydow played the Three-Eyed Raven in “Game of Thrones” and Lor San Tekka in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and he voiced Klaus Ziegler for “The Simpsons.”

His appearance in “Game of Thrones” earned him an Emmy nomination. He was also nominated for two Academy Awards — for best actor in the late 1980s for his portrayal of a penniless farmer in “Pelle the Conqueror” and for best supporting actor in 2012 for his role as a mute in the 9/11-related drama “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.”

This was the first Max Von Sydow film I ever saw. Being a kid, I just assumed he was a famous Canadian comedian. Turns out he was a lot more! https://t.co/JHextSeYEe

— Seth Meyers (@sethmeyers) March 9, 2020

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He received the 2017 Los Angeles Film Critics Association career achievement award.

Von Sydow became an icon of global cinema in the 1950s and ’60s with his roles in famed Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s brooding existential dramas, such as “The Seventh Seal.” The actor was a regular in the director’s films, acting in nearly a dozen of them.

He also worked with the acclaimed directors Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, Woody Allen, John Huston, Ridley Scott and William Friedkin.

Von Sydow made his Hollywood debut as Jesus in 1965’s “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” but he shot to fame years later in his early 40s playing the priest in 1973’s “The Exorcist.”

Actor Max von Sydow performs an exorcism in a scene from the film “The Exorcist.”Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

He later portrayed the devil in the 1993 horror film “Needful Things,” based on the Stephen King novel. He was also known for roles in “Shutter Island” and “Minority Report.”

Von Sydow married Swedish actress Christina Olin in 1951, and they had two sons, Clas and Henrik, before divorcing. He then married French filmmaker Catherine Brelet in 1997, and they had two sons, Yvan and Cedric.

Von Sydow was baptized Carl Adolf von Sydow, but he later changed his name, saying his given name was “not a good name” after World War II, according to The Associated Press.

He had said that his family didn’t have an interest in the theater but that his father loved to tell stories, which inspired him to act. He started a theater society with his friends at 14. He went on to study at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm and to act in small municipality theaters in Sweden for nearly a decade.

Here was Max Von Sydow with his dear friend, master cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. Two great artists. Two true gentlemen. We were working on Bora Bora. I picture Max in heaven wearing his white linen suit, w Sven, Ingmar Bergman, Bibi Andersson, laughing & loving each other 💔 pic.twitter.com/ENdcB9bPKZ

— Mia Farrow (@MiaFarrow) March 9, 2020

In a 2018 video shared Monday by Diamond, von Sydow lamented the celebrity status that his long and prolific career had earned him, shunning the term “movie star.”

“This is not what I’m after,” he said. “I want to work with interesting things, you see. I want to work in the theater. I want to work in a film with interesting material that you can do something with. All the rest has no interest to me at all.”

While von Sydow’s characters were often dark, he said in an AP interview that he started acting in part to combat his childhood shyness.

“I was a very shy boy when I was a kid,” he said. “When I started acting in an amateur group in high school, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I suddenly got a tool in my hand that was wonderful.

“I was allowed to express all kinds of strange things that I never dared to express before. Now I could do it with the character as a shield, as a defense and as an excuse,” von Sydow said. “I think that for many years I used my profession as some kind of a mental therapy.”

Elisha Fieldstadt

Elisha Fieldstadt is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.

Associated Press

contributed.

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