This article was originally published in 2010
Donald Sutherland’s legendary screen presence has made him Canadian acting royalty for well over four decades.
Some actors fall back on matinee idol looks until they fade, but Hollywood actors with a quirky look must find a way to stand out. So, long-faced and lanky, Sutherland has managed an authoritative presence on screen with a signature scarecrow-like appearance, a rich voice and that twinkle in his eye.
But as much as Sutherland has been around forever, from The Dirty Dozen to Dirty Sexy Money, he might never have become a movie star at all.
Credit his big Hollywood break to fellow Canadian thesp Christopher Plummer, whom a young Sutherland met in 1964 while both performed in a British/Danish TV special Hamlet at Elsinore in Denmark. Sutherland played Fortinbras to Plummer’s Hamlet.
Four years later, in 1968, Sutherland had critical praise for his role in The Dirty Dozen, but no money to march on Los Angeles, despite his agent’s urging. So Plummer foisted some cash on Sutherland to make the move. And it paid off. Before long, Sutherland landed a role as the original ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, with Elliott Gould as wingman.
With that success, Sutherland’s life changed. He became an overnight sensation in Hollywood, a long, long way from Saint John, New Brunswick, where he was born in 1934, before being raised in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia.
He’d been ambitious from the get-go, having cut his teeth as a radio DJ at age 14. While studying to be an engineer at the University of Toronto, Sutherland first performed in campus stage productions. Before long, he was studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. That was followed by stage and TV work, including a stint on the British TV series The Saint.
Not many Canadian actors who have worked on sacred stages in Britain successfully made the jump to the lush beguilements of Hollywood. So it’s no minor achievement that Sutherland made the leap to Los Angeles and stardom without squandering his artistic touch or integrity.
Post-M*A*S*H, in the 1970s, few memorable Hollywood movies seem complete without Sutherland’s edgy, magnetic presence.
His scene-stealing roles included playing a skulking private detective in Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, opposite Jane Fonda, sealing his sex symbol status with Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg’s off-kilter horror pic Don’t Look Now, and the role of a meek, sexually-repressed accountant in The Day of the Locust.
Through that early stardom, Sutherland avoided being type-cast. That allowed him to consistently do movie and TV work as varied as it was creatively challenging and complex.
Sutherland played a 17th century Don Juan in Federico Fellini’s Casanova, a hapless, pot-smoking professor in National Lampoon’s Animal House, and a good-natured, yet conflicted father in Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning family drama Ordinary People (1980).
And with memorable roles in The Eagle Has Landed, opposite a young Michael Caine, or as Sergeant ‘Oddball’ in Kelly’s Hero’s, Sutherland clearly did war well.
Along the way, Sutherland never left behind his Canadian roots. He starred in the 1976 CBC TV movie Bethune, performing the role of real-life Canadian Dr. Norman Bethune, best known for practicing medicine in pre-Second World War China.
Despite his long exodus in Hollywood and Europe, Canada also figured large in helping Sutherland raise a family. While in university, he met his first wife, Lois Hardwick, the daughter of a silent movie star.
His second wife, Shirley Douglas, is the daughter of NDP political legend Tommy Douglas, and a long-standing supporter of Canadian culture. With Shirley Douglas, Sutherland had twins, Rachel and Kiefer Sutherland.
Then came Sutherland’s current wife, French-Canadian actress Francine Racette. Together, they had three more sons, Roeg, Rossif and Angus Redford. All five children have in some way followed their father into the movie business, none more impressive than Kiefer Sutherland, aka Jack Bauer of 24.
Sutherland may have never snagged an Oscar, but did win a Genie for best actor for his star-turn in the 1981 movie Threshold. And he received a Walk of Fame tribute in Toronto in 2000.
The signs are the Nova Scotia lad who went on to perform in over 100 movies isn’t done yet. His dance card remains filled, not least with a role in Seth Gordon’s Jennifer Aniston-starrer Horrible Bosses, and a star-turn in Mary McGuckian’s Man on the Train.
As Sutherland told Maclean’s magazine in 2000: “The harder you work, the harder you’re going to have to work. You never get to the truth, but that’s what your job is, to find it. The closer you get, the harder you have to dig to find it.”
Main photo: Donald Sutherland stars as President Snow in 2014′s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. Photo Credit: Murray Close