Max von Sydow: The actor who commands silence

Max von Sydow as the Renter in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close." Warner Brothers

Max von Sydow made his Hollywood debut in 1965's "The Greatest Story Ever Told," and he was no bit player: He starred as none other than Jesus Christ.

He was just as convincing as the Devil, in "Needful Things."

"The Devil, of course, must have been or must be a very charming person," von Sydow told Barry Petersen. "I enjoyed it very much."

When asked if he had as much fun playing the Devil as being Jesus, he replied, "Yes, absolutely!"

He switched sides once again in "The Exorcist."

"You scared the daylights out of us in 'The Exorcist,'" said Petersen.

"It's funny for me, because I'm the good guy!"

A good guy, whose six decades in films has earned him the respect of Hollywood's biggest stars.

"I gotta tell you, I walked right up to him and said, 'I have to say hi and meet you,' 'cause that's Max von Sydow!" an excited George Clooney told "ET."

Now, the venerable actor has received his second Oscar nomination, this time for "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" - a film in which he speaks not a word.

He said being offered a role with no dialogue was not scary. "No, interesting - very, very interesting. Not scary, no because he speaks, but he speaks through his writing."

Through his writing, yes - but more importantly, through the expressiveness of this 82-year-old actor's face.

It was Von Sydow's wife, filmmaker Catherine Brelet, who convinced him to take the part. "Reading the script, I cry," she told Petersen.

Max von Sydow and Thomas Horn in the drama, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close."
Francois Duhamel/Warner Brothers

Using pen and paper, von Sydow helps a young boy find the meaning of a mysterious key left behind by his father - played by Tom Hanks - who died in the attacks of 9/11.

Von Sydow said there was never a moment during his performance when he wanted to talk.

"No, no, no - I didn't want to talk," he said. "There was an early version of the script where they wanted me to say something at the end. But I was immediately against that, I don't think it should be. It shouldn't have been done, and it wasn't. I'm very pleased."

The Swedish-born actor first gained international attention in "The Seventh Seal" - legendary director Ingmar Bergman's 1957 meditation on the trials of faith in our fallen world.

An iconic scene from Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" (1957): A chess game between a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) and the figure of Death (Bengt Ekerot).
Svensk Filmindustri
In one of the truly indelible scenes of cinema history, von Sydow's character challenges Death to a game of chess - literally playing for his life.

"Without Ingmar Bergman, I would never have been here today," von Sydow said. "I have him to thank so much. He was an extraordinary inspiration and a friend."

"When we see your most recent role, do you hear an echo of him somewhere in the back of your head?" asked Petersen.

"Probably there is something from Bergman," he replied. "I'm sure there is - I cannot analyze this, but I owe him so much."

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