Donald Sutherland obituary

Estimated read time 10 min read

Donald Sutherland, who has died aged 88, brought his disturbing and unconventional presence to bear in scores of films after his breakthrough role of Hawkeye Pierce, the army surgeon in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970), one of the key American films of its period. It marked Sutherland out as an iconoclastic figure of the 60s generation, but he matured into an actor who made a speciality of portraying taciturn, self-doubting characters. This was best illustrated in his portrayal of the tormented parent of a drowned girl, seeking solace in a wintry Venice, in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), and of the weak, nervous, concerned father of a guilt-ridden teenage boy (Timothy Hutton) in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980).

Although Sutherland appeared in the statutory number of stinkers that are many a film actor’s lot, he was always watchable. His career resembled a man walking a tightrope between undemanding parts in potboilers and those in which he was able to take risks, such as the title role in Federico Fellini’s Casanova (1976).

Curiously, it was Sutherland’s ears that first got him noticed, in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967). During the shoot, according to Sutherland, “Clint Walker sticks up his hand and says, ‘Mr Aldrich, as a representative of the Native American people, I don’t think it’s appropriate to do this stupid scene where I have to pretend to be a general.’ Aldrich turns and points to me and says, ‘You with the big ears. You do it’ … It changed my life.” In other words, it led to M*A*S*H and stardom.

Sutherland and his M*A*S*H co-star Elliott Gould were at odds with Altman because they did not think the director knew what he was doing due to his unorthodox methods. In the early days, Sutherland was known to have confrontations with his directors. “What I was trying to do all the time was to impose my thinking,” he remarked some years later. “Now I contribute. I offer. I don’t put my foot down.”

Sutherland, who was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, was a sickly child who battled rheumatic fever, hepatitis and polio. He spent most of his teenage years in Nova Scotia where his father, Frederick, ran a local gas, electricity and bus company; his mother, Dorothy (nee McNichol), was a maths teacher. He attended Bridgewater high school, then graduated from Victoria College, part of the University of Toronto, with a double major in engineering and drama. As a result of a highly praised performance in a college production of James Thurber’s and Elliott Nugent’s The Male Animal, he dropped the idea of becoming an engineer and decided to pursue acting.

Sutherland (right) as Hawkeye Pierce, with his M*A*S*H co-stars Elliott Gould and Sally Kellerman, 1970.View image in fullscreen

With this in mind, he left Canada for the UK in 1957 to study at Lamda (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art), where he was considered too tall and ungainly to get anywhere. However, he gained a year’s work as a stage actor with the Perth repertory company, and appeared in TV series such as The Saint and The Avengers. He was Fortinbras in a 1964 BBC production of Hamlet, shot at Elsinore castle and starring Christopher Plummer. He also appeared at the Criterion theatre in the West End in The Gimmick in 1962.

In 1959 he married Lois Hardwick; they divorced in 1966. Then he married the film producer Shirley Douglas, with whom he had twins, Kiefer and Rachel; they divorced in 1971. Kiefer, who grew up to become a celebrated actor, was named after the producer-writer Warren Kiefer, who put Sutherland in an Italian-made Gothic horror film, The Castle of the Living Dead (1964). Christopher Lee played a necrophile count, while Sutherland doubled as a dim-witted police sergeant and, in drag and heavy makeup, as a witch.

In an earlier era, the gawky Sutherland might not have achieved the stardom that followed the anarchic M*A*S*H, but Hollywood at the time was open for stars with unconventional looks, and Sutherland was much in demand for eccentric roles throughout the 70s.

He was impressive as a moviemaker with “director’s block” in Paul Mazursky’s messy but interesting Alex in Wonderland (1970), which contains a prescient dream sequence in which his titular character meets Fellini. In the same year, Sutherland played a Catholic priest and the object of Geneviève Bujold’s erotic gaze in Act of the Heart; he was the appropriately named Sergeant Oddball, an anachronistic hippy tank commander, in the second world war action-comedy Kelly’s Heroes; and he and Gene Wilder were two pairs of twins in 18th-century France in the broad comedy Start the Revolution Without Me.

Sutherland was at his most laconic, sometimes verging on the soporific, in the title role of Alan J Pakula’s Klute (1971), as a voyeuristic ex-policeman investigating the disappearance of a friend and getting deeply involved with a prostitute, played by Jane Fonda.

Sutherland and Fonda were teamed up again as a couple of misfits in the caper comedy Steelyard Blues (1973). It initially had a limited distribution due mainly to their participation together in the anti-Vietnam war troop show FTA (Fuck the Army), which Sutherland co-directed, co-scripted and co-produced.

Sutherland always made his political views known, although they surfaced only occasionally in his films. In among the many mainstream comedies and thrillers was Roeg’s supernatural drama Don’t Look Now, in which Sutherland and Julie Christie are superb as a couple grieving their dead daughter. Despite the dark subject matter, the film was notable for containing “one of the sexiest love scenes in film history”, according to Scott Tobias in the Guardian, the frank depiction of their love-making coming “like a desert flower poking through concrete”. The actor so admired Roeg that he named another son after him, one of his three sons with the French-Canadian actor Francine Racette, whom he married in 1972.

Nicolas Roeg’s horror Don’t Look Now, 1973, in which Sutherland played grieving father John Baxter.View image in fullscreen

John Schlesinger’s rambling version of The Day of the Locust (1975) saw Sutherland as a sexually repressed character – called Homer Simpson – who tramples a woman to death in an act of uncontrolled rage. Perhaps Bernardo Bertolucci had that in mind when he cast Sutherland in 1900 (Novecento, 1976), in which he is a broadly caricatured fascist thug who shows his sadism by smashing a cat’s head against a post and bashing a young boy’s brains out. “And I turned down Deliverance and Straw Dogs because of the violence!” Sutherland recalled.

In Fellini’s Casanova, the second of his two bizarre Italian excursions in 1976, Sutherland calculates seduction under his heavily made-up features. The performance, as stylised as it is, still reveals the suffering soul within the sex machine.

In 1978 he appeared in Claude Chabrol’s Blood Relatives, a made-in-Canada murder mystery with Sutherland playing a Montreal cop investigating the murder of a young woman. More commercial was The Eagle Has Landed (1976), with Sutherland, attempting an Irish accent, as an IRA member supporting the Germans during the second world war, and as a chilling Nazi in Eye of the Needle (1981). Meanwhile, he was the hero of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), who resists the insidious alien menace until the film’s devastating final shot.

In 1981 Sutherland returned to the stage, as Humbert Humbert in a highly anticipated version of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, adapted by Edward Albee. It turned out to be a huge flop, running only 12 performances on Broadway. Both Sutherland and Albee played the blame game. “The second act is flawed,” Sutherland said. “Albee was supposed to have rethought it, but he never did.” Albee told reporters that he had scuttled some of his best scenes because they were “too difficult” for Sutherland because “he hasn’t been on stage for 17 years”.

Continuing his film career, Sutherland played a complex and sadistic British officer in Hugh Hudson’s Revolution (1985), and in A Dry White Season (1989) he took the role of an Afrikaner schoolteacher beginning to understand the brutal realities of apartheid. In Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), he held the screen with an extended monologue as he spilled the conspiracy beans to Kevin Costner’s district attorney hero Jim Garrison.

After having made contact with young audiences in the 70s with offbeat appearances in gross-out pictures The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) and National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), the latter as a pot-smoking professor, he was cast as an unconvincing bearded stranger in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992).

On a more adult level were Six Degrees of Separation (1993), in which he played an unfulfilled art dealer; A Time to Kill (1996), as an alcoholic lawyer (alongside Kiefer); Without Limits (1998), as an enthusiastic athletics coach; and Space Cowboys (2000), as an elderly pilot. By this time, he was gradually moving into grey-haired character roles, one of the best being his amiable Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (2005).

The Jane Austen novel was also featured in the television series Great Books (1993-2000), to which Sutherland lent his soothing voice as narrator. Other series in which he shone as quasi baddies were Commander in Chief (2005) – as the sexist Republican speaker of the house opposed to the new president (Geena Davis) – and Dirty Sexy Money (2007-09), in which he played a powerful patriarch of a wealthy family.

Sutherland with Jenny Agutter in the 1976 war film The Eagle Has Landed.View image in fullscreen

Sutherland continued to be active well into his 80s, his long grey hair and beard signifying sagacity, whether as a contract killer in The Mechanic, a Roman hero in The Eagle, a nutty retired poetry professor in Man on the Train (all 2011), or a quirky bounty hunter in the western Dawn Rider (2012), bringing more depth to the characters than they deserved. As President Coriolanus Snow, the autocratic ruler of the dystopian country of Panem in The Hunger Games (2012), Sutherland was discovered by a new generation; he went on to reprise the role in three further films in that franchise, beginning with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013).

He played artists in two art-world thrillers by Italian directors: in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Deception, AKA The Best Offer (2013), he was a would-be painter helping to execute multimillion-dollar scams, while in Giuseppe Capotondi’s The Burnt Orange Heresy (2019) he was on the other side of the heist as a reclusive genius targeted by a wealthy and unscrupulous dealer (Mick Jagger).

Aside from James Gray’s science-fiction drama Ad Astra (also 2019), in which he co-starred with Brad Pitt, Sutherland’s best late work was all for television. In Danny Boyle’s mini-series Trust (2018), which covered the same real-life events as Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, he played J Paul Getty, the oil tycoon whose grandson is kidnapped; while in The Undoing (2020), he was the father of a psychologist (Nicole Kidman), reluctantly putting up bail when her husband (Hugh Grant) is arrested for murder.

For the latter role Sutherland was in the running for a Golden Globe, having received an honorary Oscar in 2017, eight years after Leigh Singer in this newspaper named him as one of the 10 best actors never to have been nominated. “Is it because he’s Canadian?” asked the writer. No matter: Sutherland graced a Canada Post commemorative stamp in 2023.

He is survived by Francine and his children, Kiefer, Rachel, Rossif, Angus and Roeg, and by four grandchildren.

Donald McNichol Sutherland, actor; born 17 July 1935; died 20 June 2024


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