Born in Vienna, he made his Hollywood debut in 1958 in the World War II film The Young Lions. In 1961, he took the role of the defense attorney in Judgment at Nuremberg, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. 1974's The Pedestrian, which Schell wrote, produced, directed, and starred in, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.
Schell has refused to be typecast. Although he has appeared in such World War II films as The Man in the Glass Booth, A Bridge Too Far, Cross of Iron and Julia, he has also appeared in Topkapi, The Freshman, Stalin and Candles in the Dark.
Schell has also served as a writer, producer and director for a variety of films.