ENTERTAINMENT NEWS

Donald Sutherland, towering actor whose career spanned decades, dies at 88

Jun 20, 2024, 11:10 AM

Image: Actor Donald Sutherland appears at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverl...

Actor Donald Sutherland appears at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California, on Oct. 13, 2017. (File photo: Chris Pizzello, Invision/AP)

(File photo: Chris Pizzello, Invision/AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Sutherland, the prolific film and television actor whose long career stretched from “M.A.S.H.” to “The Hunger Games,” has died. He was 88.

Kiefer Sutherland, the actor’s son, confirmed his father’s death Thursday. No further details were immediately available.

“I personally think one of the most important actors in the history of film,” Kiefer Sutherland said on X. “Never daunted by a role, good, bad or ugly. He loved what he did and did what he loved, and one can never ask for more than that.”

The tall and gaunt Canadian actor with a grin that could be sweet or diabolical was known for offbeat characters like Hawkeye Pierce in Robert Altman’s “M.A.S.H.,” the hippie tank commander in “Kelly’s Heroes” and the stoned professor in “Animal House.”

Before transitioning into a long career as a respected character actor, Sutherland epitomized the unpredictable, antiestablishment cinema of the 1970s .

Over the decades, Sutherland showed his range in more buttoned-down — but still eccentric — parts in Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People” and Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” More, recently, he starred in the “Hunger Games” films. He never retired, working regularly up until his death. A memoir, “Made Up, But Still True,” was due out in November.

“I love to work. I passionately love to work,” Sutherland told Charlie Rose in 1998. “I love to feel my hand fit into the glove of some other character. I feel a huge freedom — time stops for me. I’m not as crazy as I used to be, but I’m still a little crazy.”

Born in St. John, New Brunswick, Donald McNichol Sutherland was the son of a salesman and a mathematics teacher. Raised in Nova Scotia, he was a disc jockey with his own radio station at the age of 14.

“When I was 13 or 14, I really thought everything I felt was wrong and dangerous, and that God was going to kill me for it,” Sutherland told The New York Times in 1981. “My father always said, ‘Keep your mouth shut, Donnie, and maybe people will think you have character.'”

Sutherland began as an engineering student at the University of Toronto but switched to English and started acting in school theatrical productions. While studying in Toronto, he met Lois Hardwick, an aspiring actress. They married in 1959, but divorced seven years later.

After graduating in 1956, Sutherland attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts to study acting. Sutherland began appearing in West End plays and British television. After a move to Los Angeles, he continued to bounce around until a series of war films changed his trajectory.

His first American film was “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), in which he played Vernon Pinkley, the officer-impersonating psychopathic. 1970 saw the release of both the World War II yarn “Kelly’s Heroes” and “M.A.S.H.,” an acclaimed smash hit that catapulted Sutherland to stardom.

“There is more challenge in character roles,” Sutherland told The Washington Post in 1970. “There’s longevity. A good character actor can show a different face in every film and not bore the public.”

If Sutherland had had his way, Altman would have been fired from “M.A.S.H.” He and co-star Elliott Gould were unhappy with the director’s unorthodox, improvisational style and fought to have him replaced. But the film caught on beyond anyone’s expectations and Sutherland identified personally with its anti-war message. Outspoken against the Vietnam War, Sutherland, actress Jane Fonda and others founded the Free Theater Associates in 1971. Banned by the Army because of their political views, they performed in venues near military bases in Southeast Asia in 1973.

Sutherland career as a leading man peaked in the 1970s, when he starred in films by the era’s top directors — even if they didn’t always do their best work with him. Sutherland, who frequently said he considered himself at the service of a director’s vision, worked with Federico Fellini (1976’s “Fellini’s Casanova”), Bernardo Bertolucci (1976’s “1900”), Claude Chabrol (1978’s “Blood Relatives”) and John Schlesinger (1975’s “The Day of the Locust”).

One of his finest performances came as a detective in Alan Pakula’s “Klute” (1971). It was during filming on “Klute” that he met Fonda, with whom he had a three-year-long relationship that began at the end of his second marriage to actor Shirley Douglas. Having been married in 1966, he and Douglas divorced in 1971.

Sutherland had twins with Douglas in 1966: Rachel and Kiefer, who was named after Warren Kiefer, the writer of Sutherland’s first film, “Castle of the Living Dead.”

In 1974, the actor began living with actress Francine Racette, with whom he remained ever after. They had three children: Roeg, born in 1974 and named after the director Nicolas Roeg (“Don’t Look Now”); Rossif, born in 1978 and named after the director Frederick Rossif; and Angus Redford, born in 1979 and named after Robert Redford.

It was Redford who, to the surprise of some, cast Sutherland as the father in his directorial debut, 1980’s “Ordinary People.” Redford’s drama about a handsome suburban family destroyed by tragedy won four Oscars, including best picture.

Sutherland was overlooked by the academy throughout most of his career. He was never nominated but was presented with an honorary Oscar in 2017. He did, though, win an Emmy in 1995 for the TV film “Citizen X” and was nominated for seven Golden Globes (including for his performances in “M.A.S.H.” and “Ordinary People”), winning two — again for “Citizen X” and for the 2003 TV film “Path to War.”

“Ordinary People” also presaged a shift in Sutherland’s career toward more mature and sometimes less offbeat characters.

His New York stage debut in 1981, though, went terribly. He played Humbert Humbert in Edward Albee’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” and the reviews were merciless; it closed after a dozen performances.

A down period in the ’80s followed, thanks to failures like the 1981 satire “Gas” and the 1984 comedy “Crackers.”

But Sutherland continued to work steadily. He had a brief but memorable role in Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (1991). He again played a patriarch for Redford in his 1993 movie “Six Degrees of Separation.” He played track coach Bill Bowerman in 1998’s “Without Limits.”

In the last decade, Sutherland increasingly worked in television, most memorably in HBO’s “Path to War,” in which he played President Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford. For a career launched by “M.A.S.H.” it was a fitting, if ironic bookend.

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