Exorcists and Emperors: young actors play old, then play young again in flashbacks or prequels

Further to my post marking the 40th anniversary of The Exorcist, I thought it might be fun to look at one other way in which the Exorcist movies parallel the Star Wars franchise: namely, both series feature an actor who plays considerably older than his real age, and then, in at least one of the sequels or prequels, the actor plays more-or-less his real age in scenes set years or even decades earlier.

In the case of The Exorcist, that actor is Max von Sydow, who was about 44 when The Exorcist was made in 1973, though he is clearly playing someone two or even three decades older than that. Here he is in full make-up:

And here he is in a flashback from Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), which was set at least several years before the events of the first film:

This flashback sequence is based on a line in the first film, to the effect that von Sydow’s character took part in an exorcism in Africa 10 or 12 years earlier. Von Sydow was 48 when the sequel came out, so if you imagine that his character was in his 60s in the original film, then he would have been playing about his own age here.

Incidentally, this flashback sequence was later contradicted by the two prequels — not one, but two! — which gave their own competing accounts of what, exactly, happened in Africa. And in both of those prequels — set in the late 1940s, or roughly 25 years before the first film came out, rather than the 10 or 12 years suggested by the original film — the von Sydow character is played by his fellow Swede Stellan Skarsgård, who was 51 when Paul Schrader cast him in Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005) and 52 when Renny Harlin remade that film as Exorcist: The Beginning (2004):

So if this character was in his early 50s then, he would have been in his mid-70s when the 44-year-old Max von Sydow played him in the original film in 1973.

Incidentally, this is what Max von Sydow looked like when he appeared in Minority Report (2002) at the age of 72:

Then, turning to the Star Wars franchise, there is the case of Ian McDiarmid, who played the Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi (1983) and all three prequels. Here is how he appeared in Jedi, when the actor was 38 and the character, according to the official Star Wars chronology, would have been about 86:

The next time we saw him was in the prequel trilogy, beginning with The Phantom Menace (1999). By this point, the actor was 54, but the character he played was 50 — so this time, the actor arguably had to play a few years younger than his real age:

But it wasn’t long before he had to play slightly older than his real age again. In Attack of the Clones (2002), set 10 years after the previous prequel, the actor was 57 and the character was 60 — and the gap between their ages persisted in Revenge of the Sith (2005), when the actor was 60 and the character was 63:

And now, there are rumours to the effect that Palpatine might return two years from now in Star Wars: Episode VII, either as a clone, the way he returned in the 1991 comic-book mini-series Dark Empire, or as a Force ghost, the way Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker and Yoda appeared to Luke in the original trilogy.

McDiarmid is currently 69, so he is not quite as old as his character was in Return of the Jedi, but presumably he can be made up to look older again. (But please, don’t let it be as bad as the make-up in Revenge of the Sith.) Or, alternatively, the Emperor could come back as a slightly younger version of himself, the same way Anakin came back as his younger self in the DVD version of Return of the Jedi.

In any case, can you think of any other actors who have played older than themselves and then played their own ages when they returned to those characters? If so, let me know in the comments, and who knows? Maybe I’ll update this post.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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