​Donald Sutherland: The Consummate Character Actor


Actor Donald Sutherland died on Thursday in Miami, aged 88. Recognizable to six decades of film fans for his mellifluous voice and probing eyes, Sutherland was as close to stardom as character acting gets. Though seldom weighted with the burden of “opening’ a blockbuster film as the male lead, Sutherland nonetheless performed some of the most memorable roles of the late 1960s through the early 2000s. His range was as impressive as his body of work: humorous as “Hawkeye” Pierce in “M*A*S*H,” mysterious as the trench coat-clad informant in “JFK,” and sophisticated as the art dealer in “Six Degrees Of Separation.” Sutherland’s trademark elongated features, angular frame, and pursed lips commanded screen attention. His carriage led many filmgoers to assume he was British when he was, in fact, Canadian. Even so, he received his theater education at The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. 

Donald Sutherland grew up in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, a sickly child in small, rural towns. His first entertainment experience was doing radio news on CKBW in Nova Scotia when he was 14. After three years there, he left to study engineering at the University of Toronto- as a double major in drama. London came next. After drama school, he worked in repertory theater in Perth, Scotland. In the mid-1960s, he earned small character roles in British TV series and horror movies.

With his droopy eyes, he easily could have been typecast for a career in macabre supporting roles in the B movies churned out by British studio Hammer Films. Sutherland had higher ambitions. In 1965, he appeared in the Sidney Poitier submarine thriller “The Bedford Incident.” In 1966, he played a friend of assassin Lee Oswald in the BBC teleplay “Lee Oswald: Assassin.”

Sutherland’s big break arrived in 1967 when he was cast alongside male stars and supporting players in the World War Two hit “The Dirty Dozen.” It was then that he came to the attention of millions of U.S. film fans. Three years later, “M*A*S*H” was the first U.S. feature in which he was a lead, along with Elliott Gould. His 1971 co-star in “Klute,” Jane Fonda, earned an Academy Award for Best Actress. In 50 years of cinematic work, Donald Sutherland was never nominated for an Oscar. He and Fonda dated for a while, though he was married when they worked on “Klute.” His son Kiefer, now an actor, was a product of Sutherland’s second marriage to Canadian politician’s daughter Shirley Douglas. He remarried French actress Francine Racette in 1972.

Donald Sutherland’s star grew during the 1970s, with a filmography including “Kelly’s Heroes,” “Steelyard Blues,” “Fellini’s Casanova,” and “National Lampoon’s ‘Animal House,'” in which he played a stoner college professor. In Nicolas Roeg’s psychological drama “Don’t Look Now” Sutherland starred opposite Julie Christie as a grieving couple visiting Venice after the death of their child. The film is often cited as one of the best British films ever made, and made waves at the time of its release for its controversial sex scene.  

He opened the 1980s by co-starring beside Mary Tyler Moore in the critically acclaimed “Ordinary People,” which braved new territory in dramatizing family dysfunction. The movie garnered six Oscar nominations (winning four, including Best Picture, Best Director, and for young Timothy Hutton, Best Supporting Actor). Sutherland was again bypassed.

Since 1990, Sutherland has appeared in “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer,” “A View To Kill,” the cautionary “Outbreak,” and most famously to the youngest filmgoers, “The Hunger Games” franchise. His TV work included “Dirty Sexy Money,” “Commander In Chief,” and the 2018 true crime series “Trust,” in which he portrayed billionaire J. Paul Getty. Sutherland leaves a legacy of dozens of memorable scenes. 

One cannot imagine “M*A*S*H,” “Ordinary People,” or “JFK” without his quite varied contributions to those three works. In the Korean War sendup of the military, he is, as he was so often cast, irreverently witty. In “Ordinary People,” he is a grieving father attempting to bridge The Generation Gap. In “JFK,” he is a mysterious stranger bearing government secrets that may be missing links to the crime of the century (an archetype arguably adapted into “The X-Files”‘ Cigarette Smoking Man). 

Through the years, Sutherland worked with Brando and Kidman, Lee Marvin and John Belushi, Jennifer Lawrence, as well as DeNiro, Hoffman, and Will Smith. He turned down important roles in both “Straw Dogs” and “Deliverance” because the films were violent. While Sutherland had his share of military roles, he was vocally opposed to U.S. and Canadian involvement in the Vietnam War. He earned Golden Globe Award nominations as Best Actor for both “M*A*S*H” and “Ordinary People,” in addition to several Golden Globe nominations as a supporting actor on TV, For 2002’s HBO movie “Path To War,” he won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. He was awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 2017. He was 81 years old.

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