Salute to Max von Sydow at Eighty

The first time I “met” Max was in May of 1959, when Bergman’s stunning production of Urfaust came to London for just one week in the World Theatre Season. Groupie of all things Swedish that I was, I waited outside the stage door at the end of the evening and gathered the signatures of Max, Gunnel Lindblom, and Toivo Pawlo in my program booklet.

Not enough people know that Max was among the most gifted Swedish stage actors of his generation, if not the most gifted, and during his years at Malmö Civic Theatre, he appeared in nine productions under the direction of Bergman, who said at the time: “Max is wonderful. You’ll see, posterity will consider him as one of the greatest actors of our time.”

We really only became friends in the early 1980s, when Max played the Emperor Ming in Mike Hodges’s version of Flash Gordon and was stationed at Shepperton Studios for a stint. I went down to interview him for my book on Bergman, and then one year later, I was invited to visit the shoot of Jan Troell’s The Flight of the Eagle, in which Max played the intrepid, obsessive explorer S. A. Andrée.

To reach the “location” on The Flight of the Eagle, you endured a fifty-minute ride across rough ice on a snowmobile just south of the Arctic Circle, in the Gulf of Bothnia. Andrée and his two companions tried to reach the North Pole in a balloon in 1897, and it seemed Jan Troell was having as much difficulty launching the balloon that day as the explorers must have experienced more than eighty years earlier. It lurched upward, then lost height, and suddenly Max was trapped between the ice floe and the gondola basket. The crew managed to free him, but almost immediately the ice started breaking up. A helicopter was summoned, and I was flown back to shore with Max and two of the actors. While awaiting the return of Troell and his crew, Max led the way to a nearby farm. As darkness fell, the farmer’s wife served coffee and smorgasbord to us all, not recognizing Max. Then the others arrived, and we all drove back to the small town of Kalix in a Volkswagen minibus laid on by the production company. Max nodded off in the front seat. Once at the hotel, makeup had to be removed, and a late supper devoured. Long after midnight, the producer moved among the tables, circulating the next day’s call sheet. “9:00 a.m.,” said Max gravely, and with his consummate professionalism, “Yes, that sounds acceptable.”

Max’s professionalism has also always gone hand in hand with a certain, remarkable modesty. In 1988, he came to London to appear as Prospero in Jonathan Miller’s staging of The Tempest at the Old Vic. He had an apartment in South Kensington, and there we would meet regularly to work on a small book I was writing about his work. Max invited me to see his friend Tim Pigott-Smith in A Winter’s Tale at the National. I barely recognized Max in the foyer—coat collar turned up and a cap pulled down over his dark glasses. After the performance, Max said he’d promised to visit Tim in his dressing room. We went through security at the stage door, and as Max signed the visitor’s book, a man in a dirty raincoat (literally) sprang up from a couch nearby and asked Max to sign an 8 x 10 glossy from The Seventh Seal. “Certainly,” intoned Max in that medieval voice of his. Halfway up the spiral staircase to the dressing rooms, he turned and asked me: “Peter, how do you think that man found out that I would be here this evening?” I mumbled something about the price of fame, but he, the most self-effacing of actors, was clearly impressed.

It’s all too easy to classify Max as a Bergman actor and not much else. But his work for Jan Troell has been enormously fruitful. They have made seven films together, at least three of which are classics—The Emigrants, The New Land, and The Flight of the Eagle—and the latest of which, Hamsun, features a subtle and perceptive portrait of Norway’s most notorious writer. Nor should we forget some of Max’s Hollywood characterizations, such as the assassin in Three Days of the Condor, the defense attorney in Snow Falling on Cedars, and Father Merrin in The Exorcist (“Not many realize, Peter,” he said to me, tongue in cheek, “that I am the exorcist in that film!”). And what about his marvelously petulant painter in Hannah and Her Sisters, and the scorn he puts into that memorable line: “Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling?”

When Max played the knight in The Seventh Seal, he was a mere twenty-seven years of age, and looked more than double that. When I last saw him, he was relaxed in T-shirt and chinos, and at eighty he must surely appear younger than the knight ever did. Happy birthday, Max!

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