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Von Sydow: Maxing at the Extremes : Movies: Swedish actor is the first on record to play both God and Satan in major studio films. His latest role is the Adversary in 'Needful Things.'

August 27, 1993|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Talk about your traitors. Max Von Sydow's first American film was 1965's "The Greatest Story Ever Told," for which he was imported to play the Son of God.

A decade later, the Swedish-born actor had his biggest commercial success as "The Exorcist," doing battle to the death with a very literal, personal devil.

Now he's switched sides, essaying the Adversary himself in the new Stephen King-based feature "Needful Things," which opens today.

"Perhaps I scare people, I don't know," says Von Sydow, laughing the most genial and least satanic of laughs, when asked to ponder Hollywood's eagerness to cast him at extreme ends of the battle of the cosmos. "I don't know where they get this, but . . . I don't mind."

Trivial pursuers might note that Von Sydow is the first thespian on record to play both God and Satan--as a leading man each time, no less--in major studio pictures.

Von Sydow, with low-key gentlemanliness, shies away from the spiritual significance of such a landmark and, instead, sees it as the ultimate extension of his homeland's dramaturgical work ethic.

The road from Jesus to Beelzebub "suits me very well, actually," says Von Sydow, "because all my life I've been looking for diversity. That's how I was brought up in the Swedish repertory theater traditions--doing funny parts and tragic parts and leading characters and bit parts. To me, that's an actor's life--from a European point of view. In this country, of course, you have movie actors and theater actors and television actors. Over there, because we aren't that many, we have to do everything."

So his name is Legion, then.

"Needful Things" is the first theatrical release directed by Fraser Heston, son of the man who paved the way, as it were, for Von Sydow's Christ.

"I had met Fraser, but that was 30 years ago when he was a kid. My very first film in this country was 'The Greatest Story Ever Told,' and the first sequence we shot in that film was the one where John the Baptist, played by Charlton Heston, baptizes Jesus in the river Jordan, which in our case was represented by the Colorado River. And the first day of production was the first of November, 1962, and exactly 30 years later, give or take a week, we started shooting this film where second-generation Heston directed me playing not Jesus but the opposite end of the line."

Von Sydow, 64, stars as the ostensible Leland Gaunt, a European-accented expatriate (in perhaps the movie's best joke, he claims to be from Akron) who comes to the small burg of Castle Rock in New England to open the strangest and definitely best-stocked of all antique shops. Under his negotiable credit plan, the town goes to hell, or close to it.

Stephen King fans may have mixed feelings about the adaptation, but to the extent that "Needful Things" works, it's largely because of the casting of Von Sydow, who has just enough mischievous gravity to bring off quips like the Luciferian lament that, unlike the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, "I'm just one lonely guy," or Satan's best comeback line: "Don't blame me! Blame it on the bossa nova."

In his sinister way, Von Sydow is effectively playing for laughs--not something the star of Ingmar Bergman's classic "Seventh Seal" and quite a few more of the best and most sober art movies ever made is especially recognized for. But don't presume that he's slumming by doing either comedy or King.

"It's a lot of tongue in cheek, yes," he says. "I like Mr. Gaunt very much because he's a non-cliche villain, a villain with surprise. It's an ironic character, which is always fun. . . . I'm sorry I haven't had many opportunities in that respect. I've done (comedy) in Swedish films and a lot on the stage, but not in international films.

"Have you read the book?" he queries. "It's very good reading. Unfortunately, there is so much that has been cut out for the film, because the book is 700 pages or something. It's a very intricate weave that he created, with quite interesting character backgrounds and much more complex manipulations than there is time for in the film. And it's a very moral story, indeed. As I see it, it deals with greed and the danger of being possessed by your possessions. And," he adds, slightly resignedly, "it's even tougher in the book."

Of course, that's what they said about "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

Von Sydow's Hollywood career thrived after "The Exorcist." And he points out that although he's most often associated with the fatherly and/or academic type here, as in "Hannah and Her Sisters," he has played villains before, his two favorites being in the suspenseful "Three Days of the Condor" and as the gaudily menacing Ming the Merciless in "Flash Gordon."

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