Max von Sydow was born Carl Adolf von Sydow on April 10, 1929 in Lund, Skåne, Sweden, to a middle-class family. He was the son of Baroness Maria Margareta (Rappe), a teacher, and Carl Wilhelm von Sydow, an ethnologist and folklore professor. His surname traces back to his partial German ancestry.
When he was in high school, he and a few fellow students, including Yvonne Lombard, started a theatre club which encouraged his interest in acting. After conscription, he began to study at the Royal Dramatic Theatre's acting school (1948-1951), together with Lars Ekborg, Margaretha Krook and Ingrid Thulin. His first role was as Nils the crofter in Alf Sjöberg's Only a Mother (1949). After graduation, he worked at the city theatres in Norrköping and Malmö.
His work in the movies by Ingmar Bergman (especially The Seventh Seal (1957), including the iconic scenes in which he plays chess with Death) made him well-known internationally, and he started to get offers from abroad. His career abroad began with him playing Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965); Hawaii (1966) and The Quiller Memorandum (1966). Since then, his career includes very different kind of characters, like Karl Oskar Nilsson in The Emigrants (1971); Father Lankester Merrin in The Exorcist (1973); Joubert the assassin in Three Days of the Condor (1975), Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon (1980); the villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the Never Say Never Again (1983); Liet-Kynes in Dune (1984) the artist Frederick in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986); Lassefar in Pelle the Conqueror (1987), for which he received his first Academy Award nomination; Dr. Peter Ingham in Awakenings (1990); Lamar Burgess in Minority Report (2002) and The Renter in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011), which earned him his second Academy Award nomination.
He became one of Sweden's most admired and professional actors, and is the only male Swedish actor to receive an Oscar nomination. He was nominated twice: for Pelle the Conqueror (1987) in 1988 and for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) in 2012. He received the Guldbagge Award for Best Director in his directing debut, the drama film Katinka (1988). In 2016, he joined the sixth season of the HBO series Game of Thrones (2011) as the Three-eyed Raven, which earned him his Primetime Emmy Award nomination.
Max von Sydow died on March 8, 2020, in Provence, France, and was survived by his wife Catherine Brelet and four children. He was 90.