Saturday, July 20, 2024

Donald Sutherland, shape-shifting movie star, dies at 88

Donald Sutherland

Donald Sutherland, whose ability to both charm and unsettle, both reassure and repulse, was amply displayed in scores of film roles as diverse as a laid-back battlefield surgeon in “M*A*S*H,” a ruthless Nazi spy in Eye of the Needle, a soulful father in Ordinary People and a strutting fascist in 1900, died Thursday in Miami. He was 88.

His son Kiefer Sutherland, the actor, announced the death on social media. CAA, the talent agency that represented Donald Sutherland, said he had died in a hospital after an unspecified “long illness.” He had a home in Miami.

With his long face, droopy eyes, protruding ears and wolfish smile, the 6-foot-4 Sutherland was never anyone’s idea of a movie heartthrob. He often recalled that while growing up in eastern Canada, he once asked his mother if he was good-looking, only to be told, “No, but your face has a lot of character”. He recounted how he was once rejected for a film role by a producer who said, “This part calls for a guy-next-door type. You don’t look like you’ve lived next door to anyone.”

Yet across 6 decades, starting in the early 1960s, he appeared in nearly 200 films and television shows; some years he was in as many as half a dozen movies. Klute, Six Degrees of Separation and a 1978 remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers were just a few of his other showcases.

And he continued to work well into his last years, becoming familiar to younger audiences through roles in multiple installments of The Hunger Games franchise, alongside Brad Pitt in the space drama Ad Astra (2019) and as the title character in the Stephen King-inspired horror film Mr. Harrigan’s Phone (2022).

Sutherland’s chameleon-like ability to be endearing in one role, menacing in another and just plain odd in yet a third appealed to directors, among them Federico Fellini, Robert Altman, Bernardo Bertolucci and Oliver Stone.

“For me, working with these great guys was like falling in love”, Sutherland said of those filmmakers. “I was their lover, their beloved.”

He was far from a willing lover early on; he acknowledged having been unduly rigid about how a role should be played. But by 1981, he was telling Playboy magazine that “film acting is about the surrender of will to the director”. He was so in thrall to some directors that he named his 4 sons after them, including Kiefer, named in homage to Warren Kiefer, with whom he had worked early in his career. He also had a daughter, Rachel, Kiefer’s twin.

Sutherland first came to the attention of many moviegoers as one of the Army misfits and sociopaths in The Dirty Dozen (1967), set during World War II. His character had almost no lines until he was told to take over from another actor.

“You with the big ears ~ you do it!” he recalled the director, Robert Aldrich, yelling at him. “He didn’t even know my name.”

While Sutherland worked almost nonstop to the very end, some of his more memorable roles fell in a stretch from 1970 to 1981, when he appeared in 34 films, often playing men who walked a fine line between sanity and madness ~ and on occasion erased that line. His fascist in Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976), his heavily made-up Lothario in Fellini’s Casanova (1976) and his murderous World War II spy in Eye of the Needle (1981) were examples of his capacity for the grotesque and the ominous.

But he could also be winningly irreverent, as in a pivotal early role: Hawkeye Pierce, an insolent mobile-hospital surgeon, in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970), set during the Korean War but with distinctly Vietnam-era sensibilities. Ten years later, he stretched his emotional range further in Ordinary People, Robert Redford’s debut as a director, in which he played a beleaguered suburban husband and father struggling to hold his family together after a son drowned. Although his character may seem weak, “he’s really the only one in the family with some idea of what is wrong”, Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times.

One of the actor’s more controversial roles was in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), which is set in Venice and has supernatural overtones. Sutherland and Julie Christie, as his wife, had a sex scene so hot that it left a long-lingering question as to whether there was, in fact, copulation. He insisted there was not, but she left open the possibility.

In Klute (1971), another early triumph, Sutherland was a small-town policeman crossing paths with a big-city call girl played by Jane Fonda. He and Fonda then began an affair that lasted 3 years; their relationship dovetailed with his most conspicuous burst of political activism, which matched hers.

In 1971, he joined Fonda and other actors in a comedy troupe called FTA that toured military towns, performing satirical sketches infused unmistakably with an anti-Vietnam War spirit. The group’s initials stood for Free the Army, though soldiers recognized a far less dainty meaning.

Although Sutherland’s politics leaned leftward, he told Playboy, “I didn’t like doing anything political within the United States because I am, after all, Canadian.” But, he added, “there was a huge Canadian participation in the war, and so I felt, on this, I had a right.”

Despite the critical acclaim that he usually enjoyed, he never received an Academy Award nomination. There were other honors, though, including a 1995 Emmy for his role as a Soviet investigator in Citizen X, an HBO film. He also won 2 Golden Globes ~ for Citizen X and for his 2002 portrayal of presidential adviser Clark Clifford in HBO’s Path to War.

Some years, Sutherland was so busy racing among film projects that he lived life almost as if he were double-parked. Well-received performances included his pot-smoking professor in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), the mysterious X in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), the self-important father in Six Degrees of Separation (1993), the kindly Bennet in Pride & Prejudice (2005), a lascivious astronaut in Space Cowboys (2000) and the president in the dystopian Hunger Games series of the 2010s.

But there were pans, too ~ be it for his sexually repressed accountant in The Day of the Locust (1975) or his country doctor in Apprentice to Murder (1988), or for a flock of forgettable offerings like Beerfest (2006) and “S*P*Y*S,” a failed 1974 attempt to rebottle the allure of M*A*S*H. Sutherland was well aware of the stinkers. “I don’t go into any picture saying, ‘Oh, boy, this is going to be a bad one”,” he told The Boston Globe in 1981. “I try to be right. But when I’m wrong, I’m really off the wall.”

His earliest acting gigs were onstage in London, where he had gone to learn his craft, but his was not a notable theater career. He received reasonably good reviews in 2000 for his performance as a prizewinning author in Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s Enigma Variations, staged in Los Angeles, Toronto and London. But the notices were disastrous for Edward Albee’s 1981 Broadway adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and Sutherland did not escape unscathed. Frank Rich of the Times wrote that in a sex scene, his Humbert Humbert “gasps and pants and bobs like a fleabag comic cavorting at a stag dinner”. The play closed after 12 performances.

Donald McNichol Sutherland was born July 17, 1935, in Saint John, a coastal town in New Brunswick. One of 3 children of Frederick McLae Sutherland, a salesperson, and Dorothy (McNichol) Sutherland, a math teacher, Donald lived his formative years in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia.