The son of an actress mother and playwright father, Maximilian Schell made his own acting debut at the age of three in one of his father’s plays. Born in Austria but raised in Switzerland after his parents fled the Nazis, he established himself as an actor in German-language television and films, and developed a much-respected stage presence. He soon established himself as a Shakespearean actor of note, and attracted the attention of international film and theatre producers.
Schell made his London debut in 1957 in Buchner’s comedy Leonce and Lena at Sadler’s Wells. Both his Broadway debut, alongside Rosemary Harris in Ira Levin’s psychological melodrama Interlock, and his Hollywood screen debut, in the war drama The Young Lions alongside luminaries Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Dean Martin, were made the following year.
He returned briefly to Germany to play Hamlet (a role he would repeat for Munich’s Deutsches Theater in 1968) on television before securing his reputation as an actor of dark intensity in Stanley Kramer’s star-laden 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg, for which he won a best actor Oscar. He later appeared in a stage version on Broadway in 2001.
The Academy award gave him a profile in Hollywood that led to a succession of hit films, including Topkapi (1964), The Odessa File (1974), The Man in the Glass Booth (1975) and Fred Zinnemann’s Julia (1977) – picking up Oscar nominations for the latter two – and others that fared less well. It also allowed him to develop his interest in directing and writing, notably in his 1968-helmed version of Kafka’s The Castle, in which he also played the luckless K.
As a stage director, Schell enjoyed success in opera and theatre, and in the late 1960s began a long and successful relationship with the National, scoring a hit with his 1977 production of Tales From the Vienna Woods.
His first London appearance in an English-language play came in 1966, when he played Alfred Redl in John Osborne’s A Patriot For Me at the Royal Court. He was also responsible for the translation for its German debut the same year, and later took the play to Broadway in 1969.
His most recent UK stage appearance was in Arthur Miller’s 2006 flop Resurrection Blues at the Old Vic, directed by Robert Altman in his London debut.
Schell’s later career was characterised by a mix of Hollywood and European films and television work in the UK, US and Germany. His final screen appearance, in the Luxembourgian/German/Belgian co-production Les Brigands, will be released later this year.
Maximilian Schell was born on December 8, 1930. He died on February 1 after a sudden illness. He was 83. He is survived by his second wife, the German-Croatian soprano Iva Mihanovic, and a daughter from his first marriage.
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