The Reel Dad salutes Max von Sydow’s cinematic career

At first, he seemed to fade into a background, an actor so subtle, so in command of nuance, that he rarely drew attention to himself. He simply let others discover.

But when Max von Sydow died March 8, at 90 years, he left as rich a legacy of character performances as any Hollywood luminary. And he did it with such style, such rich taste, that we felt his presence on screen before, perhaps, actually observing the actor in front of the camera. While cinema buffs may initially associate him with a series of classic films directed by Ingmar Bergman, von Sydow’s career after this work is filled with magical performances. Here are seven of my favorites.

Hawaii (1966)

One year after playing Jesus in “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” von Sydow returned to a religious setting as an aggressive missionary in this epic adaptation of the James Michener novel. Opposite the ever-so-engaging Julie Andrews, the actor demonstrated a richness of craft and a range of skill in portraying Abner Hale as an authentic but flawed man determined to share his beliefs with others. And he and Andrews establish a strong on-screen chemistry.

The Exorcist (1973)

In the year’s most popular film, von Sydow creates an unforgettable presence as Father Merrin, a priest called in to help with a most delicate situation involving a girl who others believe may be possessed. While some moments and effects of this film now feel exaggerated, the authentic sense of reality that von Sydow creates effectively humanizes a story that can be trapped in its supernatural storylines. And he creates real chills.

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

This popular thriller from director Sydney Pollack pitches von Sydow as a genuine “bad guy” making life difficult for leading man Robert Redford. Again, what could come across as artificial in lesser hands feels consistently authentic thanks to the intensity von Sydow brings to his portrayal of a hired assassin. While the actor has limited dialogue and, actually, only appears in a few scenes, his presence gives the film its real chills.

Duet for One (1986)

Twenty years following “Hawaii,” von Sydow works again with Andrews in this under-appreciated adaptation of the play by Tom Kempenski. Playing a psychiatrist who tries to support a professional violinist suffering from multiple sclerosis, the actor is at his most reassuring, most engaging, and the conversations he leads with Andrews bring out the best in each actor. Sadly, few people ever saw this film, and missed some of the best work both actors contributed.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Of the potential partnerships on film, matching the classic stoicism of von Sydow with the sharp sense of humor of Woody Allen might not be everyone’s first idea. But it works perfectly in this classic exploration of sibling rivalry as von Sydow scores as a prickly artist who loses his interest in engaging with people. Rarely cast in roles filled with humor, the actor brings magic wit to a complex character who simply can’t understand how other people behave.

Awakenings (1990)

Often at the movies, von Sydow would make the most of roles with few scenes or lines. In this popular drama from director Penny Marshall, the actor is a captivating presence as Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams struggle with the emotional reactions to devastating illness and potential miracles. Von Sydow reminds us, in these small roles, that the impact he creates has little to do with how much screen time he actually fills.

Extremely Close and Incredibly Close (2011)

In one of his final films, von Sydow fills his few moments in this drama with authenticity and hope. As a young boy tries to make sense of his father’s death on September 11, 2011, he encounters many New Yorkers. As “the renter” in this journey, von Sydow brings such a sense of calm and reason to the boy’s questions that he reassures all of us that, no matter the crisis that people may face, any moment can be filled with hope.

Throughout his career, von Sydow could constantly surprise with his chameleon quality to thrive as any actor. Check out some of these classic performances from a great actor.

See you at the movies.