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Remembering Donald Sutherland

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With the passing of Donald Sutherland at the age of 88, the worlds of film and television have lost one of the finest character players of the last 60 years. Cinema Paradiso reflects on a career containing 199 screen credits.

Where do you start with someone as distinctive and significant as Donald Sutherland? When his son, Kiefer, announced his death on 20 June 2024, he labelled him 'one of the most important actors in the history of film'. In most cases, this would be hyperbole. But Sutherland really was that vital to the evolution of American film, as it passed from the studio era into the all-too-brief New Hollywood phase and on into the blockbuster age that is now in its 50th year.

Normally, with such a revered figure, you would start with their Oscar nominations. But Sutherland never received a single one - which rather suggests how random and pointless awards are in general - and had to make do with an honorary award in 2017. Moreover, he never became a star on a level with such august peers as Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, or Jack Nicholson. The versatility that made him endlessly useful to film-makers well into old age prevented audiences from readily identifying with him because they never knew what to expect.

Always a character player rather than a screen personality, Sutherland possessed what The Hollywood Reporter defined as 'the extremely rare quality - call it a kind of alchemy - where he could disappear into a role and yet somehow remain Donald Sutherland at the same time'. As The New York Times put it, 'he had a chameleonlike ability to be endearing in one role, menacing in another and just plain odd in a third'. He made his share of clunkers, of course. But his presence alone makes them worth seeing, as he always did something that would linger in the mind.

A Sickly Childhood

Donald McNichol Sutherland was born on 17 July 1935 in the small coastal town of St John in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. Father Frederick McLae Sutherland ran the local bus, gas, and electricity company, while mother Dorothy McNichol, was a maths teacher. Donald grew up in a farmhouse in Lakeside alongside two older half-siblings. Born in Liverpool, Nova Scotia in 1919, brother John became a respected poet, literature critic, and magazine editor before dying of cancer at the age of 37, while sister Betty was a poet and painter who adopted the name, Boschka. She was 64, when she died in 1984.

In an interview with Esquire, Sutherland recalled that his first word was 'neck'. 'My mother turned around and said, "What did he say?" My sister said, "He said, neck." My neck was killing me. That was a sign of polio. One leg's a little shorter, but I survived.' Indeed, the young Sutherland struggled with ill health, missing the entire fourth grade at school when he was confined to bed for a year with rheumatic fever. At the age of 12, the family moved to Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, where Frederick became a salesman. But Sutherland and his father never go on, with the actor declaring him 'possibly the most self-centered individual I've ever met'.

At 14, Sutherland became a part-time news correspondent for the local CKBW radio station, where he eventually worked as a DJ. His initial ambition was to become a sculptor, but he enjoyed the acclaim for his performance as Scrooge in a radio adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Frederick, however, insisted that his son had a trade to fall back on after he graduated from Bridgewater High School and he took a double major in engineering and drama at the University of Toronto.

Such were the positive notices for his work with the UC Follies comedy troupe and his displays in campus productions of The Tempest and The Male Animal that Sutherland decided to drop engineering and focus on acting after failing his exams in accounting and statistics. Instead, he transferred to Victoria College and graduated in English. Deciding that British stagecraft would give him a better grounding than training in the United States, he applied to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in 1952. However, he found it 'snobby and unwelcoming' and he dropped out after a voice coach suggested he might be better off becoming a lorry driver.

'I should have been at RADA,' Sutherland later mused. 'I think I would have been very happy there, but I was at LAMDA, and I left after the first year of a three-year course and immediately went to work, did one audition for the Perth Repertory Theatre, and stayed there for several years.'

Nevertheless, Sutherland was informed that he was too tall and ungainly to become an actor. The New York Times rather cuttingly opined, 'With his long face, droopy eyes, protruding ears and wolfish smile, the 6-foot-4 Mr Sutherland was never anyone's idea of a movie heartthrob.' Even his mother seemingly had her doubts. When he once asked her if he was good looking, she replied, 'No, but your face has a lot of character.' Despite this less than ringing endorsement, he took to the boards and learned his trade as second male lead in a range of plays.

On the Box

Following his stint in rep, Sutherland began to seek parts on television. He debuted as a switchboard operator in a 1962 episode of Studio 4 and further bits followed in The Odd Man, Suspense, The Sentimental Agent, and Man of the World (1962-63), with his turn as an unhelpful neighbour in the latter's 'Portrait of a Girl' episode being available to rent from Cinema Paradiso. As is Wolf Rilla's The World Ten Times Over (1963), in which Sutherland made an uncredited feature bow as a tall man in a nightclub.

The West End beckoned, as Sutherland followed a debut in The Gimmick (1962) by teaming with Rex Harrison and Rachel Roberts in August For the People (1963). All the while, he developed his technique, as he learned to participate in scenes rather than try to steal them. As a result, he became a respectful and watchful actor, who knew how to modulate his distinctive baritone voice and how to shift tone between goofily playful and vulnerably gentle. Not everyone recognised his gifts, however, as he told GQ. 'My first offer ever for a film was in 1962. I auditioned for the producer, the writer, the director. And I came home and said to my first wife, "I thought it went OK." You never want to say you did well before you know anything. The next morning they were all on the phone saying how wonderful the audition had been. And then the producer said, "We loved you so much, we wanted to explain why we weren't casting you. We've always thought of this as a guy-next-door sort of character, and we don't think you look like you've ever lived next door to anybody."'

A still from The Avengers: Series 5 (1967)
A still from The Avengers: Series 5 (1967)

Nonetheless, the BBC cast him as Fortinbras alongside compatriot Christopher Plummer in Philip Saville's famous 1964 production of Hamlet that was staged at Elsinore Castle - and which surely should be worth a release on disc, as the cast also includes Robert Shaw, Steven Berkoff, Roy Kinnear, and Michael Caine, in his sole Shakespearean role. Small-screen assignments kept coming in series, serials, and drama showcases alike. The most notable, however, were 'The Millionaire's Daughter' episode in Gideon's Way (1964-66), 'The Happy Suicide' and 'The Escape Route' instalments of The Saint (1965-66), - 'The Superlative Seven' episode of The Avengers (1961-69), and 'Day of Execution' and 'Which Way Did He Go, McGill?' in Man in a Suitcase (1967-68). Often casting Sutherland as an eccentrically-accented villain, all are available to rent from Cinema Paradiso. But oh that someone would put the long-forgotten short, Terry-Thomas Says How Do You Do (1963), on disc, regardless of the fact that Sutherland has a cameo.

Such versatility and willingness to go to extremes appealed to Italian producer Luciano Ricci, who cast Sutherland in Warren Keifer's Castle of the Living Dead (1964), which starred Christopher Lee as a necrophiliac count and allowed Sutherland to dress up as an old man and a witch, in addition to essaying slow-witted copper, Sergeant Paul. This horror baptism led to Freddie Francis hiring him for Dr Bob Carroll in the 'Vampire' episode of the Amicus anthology, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, while later in 1965, Canadian director Silvio Narizzano paired Sutherland with Tallulah Bankhead in the gleefully delirious Die! Die! My Darling! (aka Frantic).

'I was always cast as an artistic homicidal maniac,' Sutherland later recalled. 'But at least I was artistic.' Such genre outings didn't improve his mainstream prospects, however, as he played a sick bay orderly in James B. Harris's Cold War naval thriller, The Bedford Incident, and an autograph hunter in Arthur Hiller's Promise Her Anything (both 1965), the Warren Beatty-Leslie Caron romcom that was written by William Peter Blatty before he got the idea for The Exorcist (1973). At least he was seen, as Sutherland was restricted to a vocal presence as Zebulon in David Greene's The Shuttered Room and had to make do with a bit as a computer operator in reuniting with Michael Caine in Ken Russell's Billion Dollar Brain (both 1967). But things were about to change...

Donald Goes to War

A still from The Dirty Dozen (1967)
A still from The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Sutherland made such a good impression on Roger Moore when they worked on the 'Escape Route' episode of The Saint (which the star had directed) that he agreed to recommend him to the producers of a Hollywood feature he was keen to land. Initially, the role of Private Vernon Pinkley in The Dirty Dozen (1967) wasn't particularly prominent. But everything changed on the set, when co-star Clint Walker addressed director Robert Aldrich about a key scene. As Sutherland remembered, '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.'

Amused by the fact that Aldrich (who is the subject of one of Cinema Paradiso's Instant Expert guides ) didn't even know his name, Sutherland grasped the chance with both hands and grinned and gurned while inspecting Robert Ryan's troops under the seething gaze of superior Lee Marving. It's a classic counterculture scene and got Sutherland noticed, eventually. He still had to return to Blighty to play American decoding expert Ackerman in David Greene's Sebastian; Lord Peter Sanderson fending off a gold digger in Michael Sarne's Joanna; musician Lawrence in Kevin Billington's Interlude; and the chorus leader in Philip Saville's Oedipus the King. Despite getting to co-star with Christopher Plummer and Orson Welles, Sutherland had to put up with his lines being dubbed by veteran British actor, Valentine Dyall. However, the project enabled Sutherland to ask Plummer for a loan so that he could follow up a couple of leads Stateside, including Gordon Flemyng's The Split (all 1968), a heist movie in which he appeared as marksman Dave Neglis that is best known for receiving the first-ever R rating after the removal of the Production Code.

Bidding farewell to television (and Britain) for a while after playing David Crayley in the 'Shadow of the Panther' episode of The Champions (1968-69), Sutherland flew to Hollywood at the behest of producer Ingo Preminger, whose brother was the notorious Austrian director, Otto Preminger. He wanted him to play Captain Benjamin Franklin 'Hawkeye' Pierce in Ring Lardner, Jr.'s adaptation of Richard Hooker's MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. When Robert Altman came aboard to direct M*A*S*H (1970), he wasn't overly convinced by Sutherland or Elliott Gould as Captain John Francis 'Trapper John' McIntyre, as neither had much experience of improvisation. Accounts vary about who tried to get whom fired from the picture, which was set in a military field hospital during the Korean War. Gould went on to work with Altman frequently during the 1970s, but he never asked Sutherland back, even though he later conceded: 'What I was trying to do all the time was to impose my thinking. Now I contribute. I offer. I don't put my foot down.'

A still from Kelly's Heroes (1970) With Donald Sutherland
A still from Kelly's Heroes (1970) With Donald Sutherland

Famously, John Schuck became the first to utter the 'F word' in a major Hollywood movie. But Sutherland never saw it all the way through, hence seeming relaxed by the fact that Alan Alda made Hawkeye his own in re-imagining the character in the classic TV series, M*A*S*H (1972-83). Before his breakthrough was released, however, Sutherland found himself playing the fool in uniform again, as spaced-out tank commander Sergeant Oddball helping Clint Eastwood get his hands on 14,000 bars of Nazi gold from a bank in the occupied French town of Clermont in Brian G. Hutton's Kelly's Heroes (1970). During the shoot in Yugoslavia, however, Sutherland was stricken with spinal meningitis. As he later recalled, 'I went into a coma and they tell me that for a few seconds, I died.' But nothing, it seemed, could halt Sutherland's unstoppable momentum.

The Heart Grows Fonda

A still from Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
A still from Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

Over the next 11 years, Sutherland would make 34 films. It was as if Hollywood had been storing them up waiting for someone of his versatility and distinctive mien to come along. He played two sets of 18th-century French twins opposite Gene Wilder in the comedian's historical romp, Start the Revolution Without Me, before being cast as a Catholic priest who bewitches parishioner Geneviève Bujold in Québecois auteur Paul Almond's drama, Act of the Heart (both 1970). Sutherland changed denominations to essay the pastor officiating over a chaotic wedding in Alan Arkin's directorial bow, Little Murders (which reunited Sutherland with Elliott Gould), before he got to play Jesus Christ himself in Dalton Trumbo's pacifist allegory, Johnny Got His Gun (1971).

New Hollywood sophomore Paul Mazursky hired Sutherland to play a director with creative block in Alex in Wonderland (1970), which proved a critical failure. But it enabled him to share a dream sequence with Italian maestro, Federico Fellini, who was so impressed by the actor that he earmarked him for a major role later in the decade.

By now based in Los Angeles, Sutherland was living with second wife, Shirley Douglas, whom he had married in 1966 after divorcing compatriot Lois Hardwick, with whom he had tied the knot in 1959. In addition to mothering twins Rachel and Kiefer (who was named after the director of Sutherland's first horror film), Douglas was also the daughter of progressive Canadian politician, Tommy Douglas, and hosted political soirées for the likes of Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Candice Bergen, and Jon Voight. She was also a supporter of the Black Panthers and, while her husband was filming Kelly's Heroes, she was arrested for trying to use a personal cheque to purchase hand grenades from an undercover FBI agent.

She was never charged, but the incident brought the couple to the attention of the authorities and Sutherland found himself on a National Security Agency watch list after he became romantically and politically entangled with Jane Fonda, his co-star in Alan J. Pakula's Klute (1971). This story about a detective who becomes obsessed with a call girl when he attempts to protect her from a killer has been discussed at length in one of Cinema Paradiso's What to Watch Next articles. Fonda won the Oscar for Best Actress, but Sutherland was entirely overlooked, despite giving one of his most emotionally open performances.

Having embarked upon an affair that ended his marriage, Sutherland joined Fonda in the protests against the Vietnam War that had earned her the nickname of 'Hanoi Jane'. They formed a comedy troupe named Free the Army, which toured military towns with a show full of anti-war material. However, the first word in the ensemble's name was quickly replaced by a more strident epithet, as Fonda and Sutherland released a tour documentary, F.T.A. (1972). They also teamed in Alan Meyerson's comedy, Steelyard Blues (1973), which saw prostitute Iris Caine become attached to ex-con-turned-demolition derby driver, Jesse Veldini.

He would be the last of Sutherland's edgy iconoclasts, while advocating pacifism turned him against roles in violent films. Consequently, he declined offers to play the Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight characters in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971) and John Boorman's Deliverance (1972). Later in the decade, he also opted not to invest or act in a Broadway version of Édouard Molinaro's hit gay comedy, La Cage aux Folles (1978), a decision that made Sutherland feel 'very stupid for a long time'.

Some of his other choices were more inspired, however. He excelled as art historian and grieving father, John Baxter, opposite Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg's unforgettable adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's Don't Look Now (1973). Playing a couple who go to Venice after the accidental drowning of their young daughter, Sutherland and Christie were so authentically passionate and tender during a love-making scene that rumours spread that they had not simply been acting. However, as the action was filmed with two noisy handheld cameras and every movement was choreographed by Roeg, there was little scope for arousal.

As Sutherland recalled, he barely knew Christie before they were required to film the scene. 'The director said: "Right, Julie, pull your knees up to your shoulder. Donald, take your mouth and slide it down the inside of her left thigh." It went on like this for 12 hours. Neither of us could speak afterwards.' But the experience changed Sutherland's perception of an actor's role, as he came to accept the director's controlling vision. Having read the original text, he suggested that the story should have a happy ending. But Roeg snapped, 'Do you want to do it or not? Because that's the film.'

Taking direction paid off, as Sutherland won the BAFTA for Best Actor for his combined efforts in Steelyard Blues and Don't Look Now. He didn't always plump for surefire hits, however, and went on a frustrating trot that was comprised of Tom Gries's crime thriller, Lady Ice (1973); Irvin Kershner's espionage spoof, S*P*Y*S; and Claude Fournier's Alien Thunder (both 1974), a fact-based saga set in 1890s Saskatchewan, in which North-West Mounted Police sergeant, Dan Candy, seeks to capture Almighty Voice (Gordon Tootoosis), the Woodland Cree man who had accidentally killed his partner.

A still from The Day of the Locust (1975)
A still from The Day of the Locust (1975)

Sutherland and French-Canadian co-star, Francine Racette, married after meeting on the set and their three sons would also be named after directors: Roeg, Rossif, and Angus Redford. Sutherland's character in John Schlesinger's adaptation of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (1975) would go on to become better known in an entirely different context. In this tale set in 1930s Hollywood, Homer Simpson is a sexually repressed accountant who lusts after actress Faye Greener (Karen Black). But Sutherland did get to meet the Springfield version while voicing Johnnycake-baking museum attendant Hollis Hurlbut in 'Lisa the Iconoclast', a Season 7 episode of The Simpsons (1989-).

Sutherland had done S*P*Y*S as a favour to Elliott Gould, but it cost him the chance to play the reporter in Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975). However, he would make it to Italy to play Attila Mellanchini in Bernardo Bertolucci's epic drama, 1900 (1976). The plot centres on the cross-class, inter-war friendship between Emilia-Romagna landowner Alfredo Berlinghieri (Robert De Niro) and peasant Olmo Dalcò (Gérard Depardieu). But Sutherland and Laura Betti are chilling as the Fascist foreman and his sadistic wife, with the former infamously killing a cat and a young boy in sickening manners.

Staying in Italy, Sutherland took the title role in Federico Fellini's Casanova (1976), which was based on the 18th-century Venetian roué's autobiography. Depicting Giacomo Casanova as a prisoner of his libido and reputation, Sutherland traverses Europe in search of contentment and winds up pining for the lost love of his life, Henriette (Tina Aumont). Fellini earned an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay, while Danilo Donati did the Oscar/BAFTA double for his costumes. But award season bypassed Sutherland again, although he was just delighted to have fulfilled an ambition. 'Working for Fellini,' he later remarked, 'was the best experience of my life. For an actor, there is no one like him. More than anyone else in the world, you submit to Fellini. He is the master, and you go to serve.'

Some You Win

Having played a dead Swiss cop without credit in Maximilien Schell's End of the Game (1975), Sutherland had fun mangling an Irish accent as IRA man Liam Devlin in The Eagle Has Landed (1976), John Sturges's adaptation of Jack Higgins's bestselling account of a Nazi bid to kidnap Winston Churchill. He would be much more effective, however, as Henry Faber, the ruthless German agent sent to a Scottish island to seduce RAF wife Kate Nelligan and discover Allied plans for an invasion of Europe in Richard Marquand's take on Ken Follet's Eye of the Needle (1981), which so impressed George Lucas that he entrusted the director with Return of the Jedi (1983).

Amusing himself by playing the clumsy waiter in the 'That's Armageddon' sketch in John Landis's The Kentucky Fried Movie, Sutherland teamed with Francine Racette, David Hemmings, and John Hurt in Stuart Cooper's The Disappearance (both 1977), in which he plays a Canadian contract killer scouring Suffolk for his missing spouse. The same year saw Sutherland play Norman Bethune in Eric Till's Bethune, a biopic of the Canadian doctor who ministered to the people of Communist China that so moved Sutherland that he reprised the role in Philip Borsos's Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1990).

A still from Blood Relatives (1978)
A still from Blood Relatives (1978)

A busy 1978 started with Sutherland starring as Montreal cop Steve Carella investigating a young woman's murder in Claude Chabrol's interpretation of Ed McBain's police procedural, Blood Relatives. The criminality was more lighthearted in The First Great Train Robbery, which Michael Crichton directed from his own book in pairing Sean Connery and Sutherland as a toff and a pickpocket seeking to steal gold from a train heading to Folkestone in 1855.

The mood was markedly more sombre in Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a remake of the 1956 Don Siegel sci-fi classic, in which scientists Matthew Bennell (Sutherland) and Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) seek to discover why their loved ones and colleagues have suddenly started behaving so dispassionately. But the year ended on a high note, as Sutherland reunited with John Landis (who had been a runner on Kelly's Heroes) to play Faber College's pot-smoking English professor, Dave Jennings, in National Lampoon' s Animal House (both 1978). Much to his chagrin, Sutherland demanded a flat fee rather than taking a percentage of the gross and missed out on a fortune that sources quote as being anything from $14-40 million.

Another assignment with old friend Christopher Plummer followed, as Sutherland played Victorian occultist, Robert Lees, seeking to help Sherlock Holmes (Plummer) and Dr Watson (James Mason) crack the Jack the Ripper case in Bob Clark's Murder By Decree. He reteamed with Brooke Adams in seeking to break into a Vancouver vault in Noel Black's A Man, a Woman and a Bank before heading further north, as botanist Frank Lansing becomes suspicious of the motives of his crewmates on a voyage to monitor climate change in Don Sharp's Bear Island (all 1979), a thriller based on an Alistair MacLean bestseller that was somewhat ahead of its time in its eco thinking.

While Sutherland had few free spaces on his calendar, he didn't always take roles that challenged him. Robert Redford asked him to play psychiatrist Tyrone C. Berger in his directorial debut, Ordinary People (1980). But Sutherland preferred the part of Calvin Jarrett, the suburban Chicago lawyer seeking to help wife Mary Tyler Moore and teenage son Timothy Hutton come to terms with the sailing accident that cost the life of his older child. Much to the surprise of many, the drama pipped Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull to the Oscar for Best Picture. But, even though he holds things together as the self-doubting father, Sutherland was snubbed during awards season.

Dusting himself down, he threw himself into work, opposing the killing of baby seals in George Bloomfield's romcom, Nothing Personal (1980); treating his patients with compassion in Richard Pearce's sci-fi drama, Threshold; and cameoing as Radio DJ, Nez the Noz, in Les Rose's Canadian comedy; Gas (both 1981). Speaking to The Boston Globe around this time, Sutherland recognised that he didn't always choose wisely. 'I don't go into any picture saying, "Oh, boy, this is going to be a bad one." I try to be right. But when I'm wrong, I'm really off the wall.'

A case in point was his calamitous Broadway debut, when his Humbert Humbert in a 1981 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita contributed to the play closing after just 12 performances. Frank Rich of The New York Times claimed his efforts during a sex scene had him gasping, panting, and bobbing 'like a fleabag comic cavorting at a stag dinner'. He would fare a little better at the Savoy Theatre in London in 2000, when he played a reclusive Nobel Prize-winning author in son Roeg's translation of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's Enigmatic Variations.

Although he narrated Anne Wheeler's A War Story (1981), Sutherland struggled to get auditions for almost a year after his New York debacle. He claimed to have been most disappointed by missing out on Adrian Lyne's Flashdance, but he did get to see son Kiefer through his feature debut in Hertbert Ross's version of Neil Simon's Max Dugan Returns before he returned to the small screen to partner Teri Garr and the Emmy-winning Tuesday Weld in Waris Hussein's adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent (all 1983).

Some have suggested that Sutherland's versatility and workaholism counted against him during this period. As he often cropped up in modest pictures, audiences didn't quite know what to make of him when he took character roles in superior fare. Moreover, the fact that he didn't have a recognisable screen image meant that moviegoers struggled to identify with him, even when he excelled, as he did as visionary psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich in the Terry Gilliam-devised video for Kate Bush's 1985 single, 'Cloudbusting', which is recalled in Alec Lindsell's Kate Bush: The Hounds Run Up the Hill (2008).

Sutherland and Plummer shared another cast list in Desmond Davis's take on Agatha Christie's Ordeal by Innocence (1984), as paleontologist Arthur Calgary exposes the skeletons in a family's closet when he reopens a murder case. The crime was more comical in Louis Malle's Crackers (both 1984), a remake of Mario Monicelli's vastly superior Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), in which a small-timer named Weslake plans a robbery at a backstreet pawn shop.

A still from Catholic Boys (1985)
A still from Catholic Boys (1985)

Back in clerical garb, Sutherland essayed headmaster Brother Thadeus in Michael Dinner's Catholic Boys (aka Heaven Help Us), which starred Andrew McCarthy and Kevin Dillon among the subversive Brooklyn teens. Rebellion was also in the air in Hugh Hudson's Revolution (1985), a misjudged account of the American War of Independence, in which Sutherland's Sergeant Major Peasy antagonised Al Pacino's short-fused fur trapper. Coming forward to the 1880s, Sutherland showed how Paul Gauguin fared during his time in Copenhagen in Henning Carlsen's The Wolf At the Door (1986), which is well worth a release on disc.

The fact that Burt Kennedy's The Trouble With Spies (1987) was left on the shelf for three years suggests why we can't bring you Appleton Porter's efforts to find a missing agent on Ibiza. But Cinema Paradiso users can watch Sutherland in holy orders again, as Detroit priest, Fr Robert Koesler, hunts a serial killer in Fred Walton's The Rosary Murders, which was co-scripted by Elmore Leonard. Also available is Ralph L. Thomas's Apprentice to Murder (1988), in which Sutherland is suitably shady as John Reese, a pedlar of 'powwow medicine' in 1920s Pennsylvania.

Staying with matters medical, Sutherland reunited with Hugh Hudson for Lost Angels (aka The Road Home), in which Dr Charles Loftis questions the incarceration at a psychiatric unit of juvenile delinquent Tim Doolan (Adam Horovitz). But, while this isn't currently available, we can bring you Sutherland's snarling turn as Warden Drumgoole making life tough for Frank Leone (Sylvester Stallone) in John Flynn's Lock Up and his display of dawning decency, as South African school teacher, Ben Du Toit, comes to question the integrity of the apartheid police he has always trusted when his Black gardener's son disappears in Euzhan Palcy's A Dry White Season (both 1989). Mustering a credible accent, Sutherland bristles with shame and fury, as the scales fall from his eyes. Typically, however, he was nowhere near the shortlists, as Marlon Brando landed a Best Supporting nomination.

Some You Lose

Sutherland made 35 features and teleplays in the 1990s. That's a phenomenal number for anyone, but he breezed into his seventh decade taking roles that interested him in what were often moderate and little-seen pictures. Yet he also graced the occasional classic and never gave anything less than an accomplished performance.

Having played a doctor with a penchant for poisonous snakes in Rebecca Horn's Buster's Bedroom (1990), Sutherland headed to Patagonia to play Ivan, a journalist reporting on the rivalry between Vittorio Mezzogiorno and Stephan Glowacz as they prepare to climb Cerro Torre in Werner Herzog's Scream of Stone (1991). The same year also saw him relish the role of imprisoned pyromaniac Ronald Bartel in Ron Howard's Backdraft and the picture-stealing five-minute summation of the Kennedy assassination provided by Mr X to Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) beside the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Oliver Stone's JFK.

Sadly, we can't bring you Sutherland's pairing with Anne Archer as a pair of expelled Polish politburo members in John Irvin's true story, Eminent Domain. Also off limits are Michael Spoor's animated short, The Poky Little Puppy's First Christmas, which Sutherland narrated, and Michael Whyle's The Railway Station Man (all 1991), in which a romance develops in a remote Irish village between artist Helen Cuffe (Julie Christie), whose husband has just been killed by the IRA, and American Roger Hawthorne (Donald Sutherland), who has plans to renovate a disused railway halt.

A teasing cameo as Merrick Jamison-Smyth, the stranger who convinces cheerleader Buffy Summers (Kristy Swanson) that she's the Chosen One, enlivens Fran Rubel Kuzui's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). This watcher role passed to Richard Riehle in the spin-off series (1997-2001) that Joss Whedon wrote for Sarah Michelle Gellar, while Sutherland moved on to Rou Tomono's barely seen Rakuyô (aka The Setting Sun, 1992), as well as such TV-movies as Quicksand: No Escape (1992), Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, The Lifeforce Experiment (both 1994), Natural Enemy (1996), and The Hunley (both 1999). The most significant of these teleplays was Chris Gerolmo's Citizen X (1995), which earned Sutherland an Emmy for his performance as Colonel Mikhail Fetisov, the Soviet police chief covertly helping Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea) track down the killer of over 50 young people.

A still from Younger and Younger (1993)
A still from Younger and Younger (1993)

Sutherland is on sparkling form as the adulterous Jonathan Younger, whose wife dies after catching him being unfaithful and son Winston (Brendan Fraser) has to prevent the family storage business from going belly up in Percy Adlon's quirky dramedy, Younger and Younger. The equally self-involved Flan Kittredge allows himself to be duped by Paul (Will Smith), a con artist who recognises a fool when he sees one in Fred Schepisis's adaptation of John Guare's Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, Six Degrees of Separation (both 1993).

Far too few got to see Sutherland as a mean 1930s Mountie pursuing Lou Diamond Phillips's hot-blooded Inuit in Jacques Dorfmann and Pierre Magny's Shadow of the Wolf (1992); as a KGB commander clamping down on illicit rock'n'roll recordings in the debuting Paul Haggis's Red Hot; or as the man leaving prison two decades after his daughter provided the evidence that he had killed her mother in Jonathan Heap's Benefit of the Doubt (both 1993). But the year's big mystery is Alan Birkinshaw and Johannes Flütsch's Punch, which appears in some filmographies, even though next to nothing is known about it other than the fact that Sutherland was cast as Arthur Craman.

Body snatching echoes pervade Stuart Orme's The Puppet Masters, an adaptation of a 1951 Robert A. Heinlein novel that sees Andrew Nivens head a covert CIA unit hunting down aliens that have used mind control methods to insinuate themselves into human bodies. Unwanted attentions are also crucial to Barry Levinson's Disclosure (both 1994), which sees a plan by CEO Bob Garvin (Sutherland) to sell off his computing company and retire become compromised when Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore) and Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas) become involved in a sexual harassment suit after she is promoted over his head.

Big names also abound in Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak. But the cause of all the trouble is a certain Major General Donald McClintock (guess who), who is desperate to cover up a botched attempt to eradicate the Motaba virus in a Congolese village in the mid-1960s. He's more open in singing the praises of the man who helped him get his big break in Gene Feldman and Suzette Winter's documentary, Roger Moore: A Matter of Class (both 1995), but Sutherland's back to his old tricks as an unconventional assassin who has to team with agents Tia Carrere and Thomas Ian Griffth to stymie John Lithgow's mob accountant in Sidney J. Furie's Hollow Point (1996).

For only the second time, Donald and Kiefer got to work together in Joel Schumacher's adaptation of John Grisham's A Time to Kill, in which they respectively play Civil Rights lawyer Lucien Wilbanks and Ku Klux Klan member, Freddie Lee Cobb. But Sutherland, Sr. was back to his slippery best as a CIA agent using the names Henry Fields and Jack Shaw in a bid to entrap Carlos the Jackal (Aidan Quinn) in Christian Duguay's The Assignment (1997). And, just to add to the complications, Quinn doubles up as a US naval officer who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Venezuelan terrorist.

Sutherland is very much the bad guy in George P. Cosmatos's Shadow Conspiracy (1997), however, as White House Chief of Staff Jacob Conrad plans to assassinate the President (Sam Waterson) and only junior aide Bobby Bishop (Charlie Sheen) can thwart him. He's equally reprehensible as Judge Rolf Rausenberger helping vicious prison warden, Sven 'The Swede' Sorenson (Marlon Brando), get away with murder in Yves Simoneau's Free Money (1998), a black comedy that proved to be Brando's penultimate picture.

Back on the right side of the law, Lieutenant Stanton and Detective Jones (John Goodman) come to believe that fellow Philadelphia police officer, John Hobbes (Denzel Washington), is committing copycat killings while possessed by banished angel Azazel in Gregory Hoblit's Fallen. However, no one has released Robert Towne's Without Limits (both 1998), even though Sutherland was every bit as good in earning a Golden Globe nomination as Coach Bill Bowerman as Billy Crudup is as record-breaking 1970s runner, Steve Prefontaine. who was killed in a car crash at just 24.

A still from Virus (1999)
A still from Virus (1999)

A busy decade was rounded off with three films that are all available to rent on high-quality disc from Cinema Paradiso. In Tom McLaughlin's teleplay, Behind the Mask, Sutherland plays Dr Bob Shushan, who vows to discover the reasons for the anti-social behaviour of James Jones (Matthew Fox), the man who had saved him after he had suffered a heart attack at the wheel of his car. He was next cast as Professor Ben Hillard, in Jon Turteltaub's Instinct, as Dr Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) tries to work out why anthropologist Ethan Powell (Anthony Hopkins) became a killer after living for several years with mountain gorillas in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. And Sutherland closed his century, as alcoholic tugboat skipper Robert Everton seeking to salvage a Russian research vessel that he doesn't know has been zapped by a mysterious interstellar force in John Bruno's Virus (all 1999).

Always in Demand

As Sutherland took such genuine pleasure in acting, he cheerfully took roles in minor outings, as well as blockbusters. In 2000, for example, he went from playing the father of troubled hitman William H. Macy in Henry Bromell's Panic to being UN Secretary-General Douglas Thomas in Christian Duguay's spy thriller, The Art of War, and retired flight engineer Captain Jerry O'Neill, who is sent into orbit to repair a damaged Soviet satellite alongside Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, and Clint Eastwood in Space Cowboys.

Having joined the stellar vocal line-up as Dr Sid in Hironobu Sakaguchi's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Sutherland went to Beijing to play ailing film director Rob Tyler, whose death while shooting a remake of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987) sparks the offbeat comic fun in Feng Xiaogang's Big Shot's Funeral (both 2001). The year also saw him feature in Robert Markowitz's teleplay, The Big Heist, and Jon Avnet's Warsaw Ghetto drama, Uprising, in which he portrayed Adam Czerniaków, the head of the Jewish Council striving to resist Nazi deportation orders.

After popping up in Damian Pettigrew's documentary, Fellini: I'm a Born Liar, Sutherland excelled as presidential adviser Clark Clifford seeking to guide President Lyndon B. Johnson (Michael Gambon) through the escalation of the crisis in Vietnam in John Frankenheimer's compelling political drama, Path to War, which brought Sutherland a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. He would be equally imposing as Nathan Templeton, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives who makes life difficult for America's first female president, Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis), in 19 episodes of Rod Lurie's Washington saga, Commander in Chief (2005-06).

Back on the big screen, Sutherland remained as busy as ever. Having had fun stepping into Noël Coward's shoes, as safecracker John Bridger, in F. Gary Gray's remake of The Italian Job, he went to Siena to play Rosario Sarracino, a judge re-examining the 1978 kidnapping of Prime Minister Aldo Moro in Renzo Martinelli's Five Moons Square. He then cropped up as shady American fixer Lou Aldryn, who seeks to prevent journalist Julia Reuter (Greta Scacchi) from discovering the truth about the sinking of an Estonian ferry in Reuben Leder's Baltic Storm. Then, after cameoing as the Reverend Monroe in Anthony Minghella's Civil War drama, Cold Mountain (all 2003), he dipped back into television to essay Richard Throckett Straker, the antique-dealing familiar to Rutger Hauer's Kurt Barlow in Mikael Solomon's tele-take on Stephen King's Salem's Lot, and Captain Robert Walton, the polar explorer who gets to hear the chilling tale told by Victor Frankenstein (Alec Newman) in Kevin Connor's Frankenstein (both 2004), which co-starred Luke Goss as The Creature.

A still from Fierce People (2005)
A still from Fierce People (2005)

Even by the prolific Sutherland's standards, 2005 turned out to be a particularly busy year. Starting out alongside Louise Fletcher as Joshua Jackson's grandparents in James C.E. Burke's romcom, Aurora Borealis, he twinkled as eccentric billionaire Ogden C. Osbourne, the owner of the estate on which Liz and Finn Earl (Diane Lane and Anton Yelchin) rent lodgings in Griffin Dunne's Fierce People. He was on even finer form in a very different study of class and family, as Mr Bennet in Joe Wright's adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, which cast Keira Knighley and Matthew Macfadyen as Elizabeth and Mr Darcy.

Having guested alongside Jane Fonda in David Zeiger's account of the anti-Vietnam War movement, Sir! No Sir!, he played gun shop owner Carl Wilk in the debuting Aric Avelino's pro-gun control drama, American Gun. Sutherland also made a vocal contribution. as Colonel Oliver Southern, to Andrew Niccol's Lord of War before venturing back into the early 19th century to join Sissy Spacek as a couple who are cursed after a land dispute in Courtney Solomon's retelling of the Bell Witch legend, An American Haunting (all 2005).

Somehow, Sutherland found time to play Agent Bill Meehan in Christian Duguay's miniseries, Human Trafficking (2005), which co-starred Robert Carlyle and Mira Sorvino and earned the Canadian an Emmy nomination. But he was back on the big screen in a tattered bathrobe to play Hellfrick, the Great War veteran who keeps pestering Bunker Hill waiter Arturo Bandini, in Robert Towne's adaptation of John Fante's Depression classic, Ask the Dust, which was co-produced by Tom Cruise and deserved to be much more widely seen. Why not give it a click on Cinema Paradiso and judge for yourself?

An uncredited cameo as Johann von Wolfhaus followed in Jay Chandrasekhar's chug-a-lug championship comedy, Beerfest, before Sutherland dabbled in political subterfuge as John Thorne, the rebel who teaches Joe (Ralph Fiennes) about what matters in life after he is jailed by Maximilian II (Tom Hollander) in Robert Edwards's satire, Land of the Blind (all 2006).

A still from Puffball (2008)
A still from Puffball (2008)

He was down the cast list as the committal judge in Mike Binder's post-9/11 buddy comedy, Reign Over Me, which paired Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle. A reunion with Nicolas Roeg followed in an acclaimed adaptation of Fay Wheldon's Puffball, in which Sutherland played Lars, the former boss of ambitious architect, Liffy (Kelly Reilly). Following a guest slot as himself in Denys Arcand's Days of Darkness, Peter Askin's documentary, Trumbo, kept the diary filled, as did a narrating gig on Marc Fafard's Dinosaurs: Giants of Patagonia. But the most significant credit of 2007 saw Sutherland take on the role of Patrick 'Tripp' Darling, the head of New York's richest family in Craig Wright's Dirty Sexy Money (2007-09), which featured Peter Krause, Jill Clayburgh, and William Baldwin among his dysfunctional relations.

Busy to the End

An incident with a hat on a yacht belonging to millionaire Nigel Honeycutt (Sutherland) leads to him funding an expedition to find the lost Queen's Dowry treasure trove in Andy Tennant's Fool's Gold (2008), which co-starred Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson, as a divorced couple rekindling their romance. But this proved a rare quiet period, as Sutherland voiced President Stone in David Bowers's Astro Boy (2009) and teamed with son Rossif in Risa Bramon Garcia's The Con Artist (2010) in order to play a parolee seeking to escape the clutches of a vicious gang boss.

Indeed, television was providing Sutherland with his more interesting roles and he revelled in returning to 12th-century England to back the claim to the throne of the Empress Maud (Alison Pill) as Bartholomew, Earl of Shiring in Sergio Mimica-Gezzan's take on Ken Follett's bestseller, The Pillars of the Earth (2010). He also showed well as Father Mapple in two episodes of Mike Barker's adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick (2011) and as Captain Flint in Steve Barron's Treasure Island (2012), which starred Eddie Izzard as Long John Silver. However, his standout display came as Michel Dorn in Crossing Lines (2013-15), a Dutch member of the International Criminal Court that gives NYPD officer Carl Hickman (William Fichtner) a second chance as a special investigator after he had become addicted to morphine while working undercover.

Covert operations were also the order of the day as Sutherland essayed contract killer Harry McKenna, the mentor of Jason Statham's Arthur Bishop, in Simon West's The Mechanic. His heroic deeds were performed on the battlefields of Roman Britain, as Aquila, the uncle of Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum), the young centurion seeking to clear his father's name in Kevin Macdonald's The Eagle (both 2011), which reworked Rosemary Sutcliff's children's classic, The Eagle of the North.

Having been seen only briefly as kindly chemical company owner Jack Pellitt, Sutherland left the field open to Colin Farrell, Jennifer Aniston, and Kevin Spacey to display their nasty sides in Seth Gordon's Horrible Bosses. He was also disarmingly genial in taking over Jean Rochefort's role as the elderly professor befriending the bank robbery who has shown up in his small town in Mary McGuckian's Man on the Train, which capably reworked Patrice Leconte's wonderful, L'Homme du Train (2002), which had co-starred Johnny Hallyday.

A still from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
A still from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Sutherland doubled up as the narrator and Sir Percy Fitzpatrick in Jock the Hero Dog, Duncan MacNeillie's animated version of James Percy FitzPatrick's 1907 underdog tale, Jock of the Bushveld. But it was a more recent bestseller that afforded him the best role of his twilight years, as he reached a new audience as President Coriolanus Snow in Gary Ross's The Hunger Games (2012) and Francis Lawrence's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014), and Part 2 (2015). Admitting to not having read Suzanne Collins's novels, Sutherland told GQ in 2014 how he landed the role. 'I like to read scripts,' he explained, 'and it captured my passion. I wrote them a letter. The role of the president had maybe a line in the script. Maybe two. Didn't make any difference. I thought it was an incredibly important film, and I wanted to be a part of it. I thought it could wake up an electorate that had been dormant since the '70s. I hadn't read the books. To be truthful, I was unaware of them. But they showed my letter to the director, Gary Ross, and he thought it'd be a good idea if I did it. He wrote those wonderfully poetic scenes in the rose garden, and they formed the mind and wit of Coriolanus Snow.'

Showcasing the blend of menace, melancholy, and charm that had become his speciality, Sutherland reminded Americans of the dangers of dictatorship before giving them an object lesson in the perils of corrupting justice as Cochrane, the bounty hunter pursuing Christian Slater in Terry Miles's Dawn Rider, which is a remake of Robert N. Bradbury's John Wayne sagebrusher, The Dawn Rider (1935), which is available to rent from Cinema Paradiso. With his white beard giving him an air of gravitas, Sutherland moved on to play Ambassador Ashdown opposite Slater again in Isaac Florentine's Sofia (aka Assasin's Bullet, both 2012), a thriller set in the Bulgarian capital in which an FBI agent has to discover the identity of a devious terrorist before the vigilante who has vowed to kill them.

While no one could mistake either title for great cinema, they are still highly entertaining and Sutherland provided more of the same as aspiring artist Billy Whistler, who helps auctioneer Geoffrey Rush rig the bidding on certain paintings in Giuseppe Tornatore's Deception (aka The Best Offer). Following another collaboration with Christian Duguay as John Lester in the equestrian biopic, Jappeloup (both 2013), Sutherland resumed to the cloth, playing Father Price helping Fort Dundas cop Susan Sarandon catch a serial killer in Jason Stone's The Calling (2014), and the Reverend Samuel Clayton hoping to lead Civil War veteran son John Henry (Kiefer Sutherland) back on to the straight path in Jon Cassar's revisionist Western,

Forsaken (2015).

During that year, the 80 year-old Sutherland informed the BBC of his intention to keep working. 'It's a passionate endeavour,' he confided. 'Retirement for actors is spelt "DEATH".' He had just returned from India, where he had teamed with Brie Larson in Dan Baron's musical comedy, Basmati Blues, although this wouldn't get a release for another three years. By which time, Sutherland had been Grandpa Howard in Barnet Bain's Milton's Secret (2016) and John Spencer in Paolo Virzi's first English outing, The Leisure Seeker (2017), which earned Helen Mirren a Golden Globe nomination as one half of a retired couple who impulsively take off in the camper van in which they had enjoyed family holidays in the 1970s.

Sutherland had also been interviewed for Adam Nimoy's documentary, For the Love of Spock (2016). But, while this is available from Cinema Paradiso, no one has released the US small-screen series, Ice (2016-17), or Danny Boyle's Trust (2018), in which Sutherland had respectively played Pieter Van De Bruin and J. Paul Getty. In Jim Loach's Measure of a Man (aka American Summer, 2018), he was cast as another millionaire, Wall Street tycoon Dr Kuhn, who gives young Bobby Marks (Blake Cooper) a summer job on his estate.

Having endured trial by Internet, as a judge who had supposedly botched a high-profile murder case, in Wilson Coneybeare's American Hangman, Sutherland reprised the role of firestarter Ronald Bartel in Gonzalo López-Gallego's direct-to-disc sequel, Backdraft 2. While this proved a disappointment, the teaming of Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, and Mick Jagger around Sutherland's reclusive artist proved much more intriguing in Giuseppe Capotondi's The Burnt Orange Heresy, which would be well worth a watch if someone would care to release it on disc.

It was back to outer space, as Colonel Thomas Pruitt accompanies Roy Richard McBride (Brad Pitt) on a mission to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) in James Gray's Ad Astra (2019). Horror also beckoned again in Johnny Martin's Final Days (aka Alone), in which Sutherland and Tyler Posey initially seem relieved to have survived an encounter with some virus-infected Screamers. But Sutherland was better served by writer David E. Kelley and director Susanne Bier with the Golden Globe-nominated role of Franklin Renner in The Undoing, a supremely tense mini-series that co-starred Nicole Kidman as his daughter, Grace, a New York therapist who can't believe that doctor husband Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant) has been charged with murder.

A still from Ad Astra (2019)
A still from Ad Astra (2019)

Having enjoyed himself as demanding studio boss Redmond Isaacson in Swimming With Sharks (2022), Sutherland essayed NASA official Holdenfield hinting about a cover-up over Apollo 11 in Roland Emmerich's Moonfall before he took the title role in John Lee Hancock's take on Stephen King's Mr Harrigan's Phone (both 2022), which sees a lottery winner communicate from beyond the grave with his first mobile phone. He then banged a gavel as Judge Laurence T. Wren in Michelle Danner's Miranda's Victim (2023), which was based on an infamous 1963 murder case.

Having voiced an albino crocodile in Tim Harper's Ozi: Voice of the Forest, Sutherland settled into six episodes alongside David Oyelowo, as Fort Smith hanging judge Isaac Parker in Lawmen: Bass Reeves (both 2023). However, he passed away in Miami on 20 June 2024 after a long illness, leaving us to await his autobiography, Made Up, But Still True, which is due to be published in the autumn.

Although he was a generous co-star, Sutherland was always a director's actor. As he once said, 'For me, working with these great guys was like falling in love. I was their lover, their beloved.' He was finally rewarded for his efforts by the Academy with an honorary Oscar in 2017. The citation read, 'For a lifetime of indelible characters, rendered with unwavering truthfulness.' In his acceptance speech, however, the always modest actor admitted to being 'beset by my mind's unrelenting interrogation of me demanding if I deserve this'. He concluded: 'I finally found peace in the words of the great Benjamin Kubelsky, who is also known as Jack Benny, when he said, as I say to you now: "I don't deserve this, but I have arthritis, and I don't deserve that either."'

Pleased though he was to be recognised by his peers, Sutherland was more delighted at being depicted on a commemorative Canada Post stamp in 2023. He once claimed, 'The spirit of mankind is not going to help me through my death. My death is a lonely little journey that I'll take myself.' But he goes with the gratitude and good wishes of film lovers the world over.

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