Von Sydow was born in Lund, to Carl Wilhelm von Sydow, an ethnologist and professor of Irish, Scandinavian, and comparative folklore at the University of Lund and Maria Margareta “Greta” a schoolteacher. The particle von means “of” and usually indicates aristocratic descent.
He attended Lund Cathedral School and completed his national service before studying at the Royal Dramatic Theatre (Dramaten) in Stockholm, where he trained between 1948 and 1951. During his time at Dramaten, he made his screen debuts in Alf Sjöberg’s films Only a Mother (Bara en mor, 1949) and Miss Julie (Fröken Julie, 1951), a screen adaptation of the August Strindberg play.
Von Sydow moved to Malmö in 1955 where he met his mentor, Ingmar Bergman. He worked with Bergman for the first time on stage at the Malmö Municipal Theater and the two would eventually work together on other films including The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957), Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957) and The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1960).
Von Sydow got a lot of acclamation from his acting and in 1954 got awarded the Royal Foundation Culture Award.
He finally traveled to America after agreeing to star In George Steven’sThe Greatest Story Ever Told 1965. With the growing demand from other American productions,Von Sydow and his family relocated to Los Angeles for some time. From 1965, he became a regular on the American screen while maintaining a presence in his native Sweden.
He appeared in John Huston’s The Kremlin Letter 1969, and The Emigrants 1971, one of several films in which von Sydow acted alongside Liv Ullmann, Hawaii 1966 and The Exorcist 1973,both of which earned him Golden Globe Nominations and TheThree Days of the Condor 1975 which won him the KCFCC Award for Best Supporting Actor.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he appeared in Flash Gordon (1980), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Strange Brew (1983) and David Lynch’s Dune (1984) just to name a few. In 1985, he was a member of the jury at the 35th Berlin International Film Festival. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in the Danish film Pelle the Conqueror (1987), which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
In 2002, Sydow had one of his largest commercial successes, co-starring with Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg’s science fiction thriller Minority Report. In 2007, Sydow played Varden Reynard in the box-office hit Rush Hour 3.
He also appeared in Martin Scorsese’s 2010 film adaptation of Shutter Island and Ridley Scott’s 2010 adaptation of Robin Hood, playing Robin’s blind stepfather Sir Walter Loxley. In April 2013, von Sydow was honored at the Turner Classic Movie (TCM) Festival in Hollywood, with screenings of two of his classic films, Three Days of the Condor and The Seventh Seal.
In March 2014, von Sydow guest-starred in the animated sitcom The Simpsons, in 2015, he had a role in the sequel Star Wars: The Force Awakens and in 2016, joined the HBO series Game of Thrones in Season 6 as the Three-eyed Raven.
On 1 August 1951, von Sydow married actress Christina Inga Britta Olin and together they had two sons,Clas and Henrik.The two however divorced in 1979.
He later married Catherine Brelet on 30 April 1997 in Provence, France. In 2002, he became a citizen of France, at which time he had to relinquish his Swedish citizenship.
Von Sydow was a regular guest of Roy Hodgson’s during Hodgson’s spell as manager of Blackburn Rovers and continued to support the club up until his death in March 2020.
Von Sydow died on 8 March 2020 at the age of 90 in Paris, France.