Donald Sutherland: An enduring legacy of playing both heroes and villains

Canadian actor Donald Sutherland had an enduring legacy of playing both heroes and villains but is best remembered for his various war film roles.

From starring in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970). it would be the womanising Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce Jr in the 1970 film version of M*A*S*H, that he would bring him international fame.

Born in July 1935 in New Brunswick and growing up in town of Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, he got to grips with severe ill health in his childhood, almost dying from spinal meningitis following bouts of paralysis and rheumatic fever.

62nd Venice Film Festival
Donald Sutherland in 2005 (Ian West/PA)

However, this did not hold him back and he had a spell as a DJ at his own radio station when he was 14 and graduated from the University of Toronto in English.

He moved to Britain to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda), and began to land small roles in British films and TV shows.

Among those was the 1966 version of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms starring Vanessa Redgrave on the BBC, Castle Of The Living Dead, which starred Christopher Lee, and Fanatic with Tallulah Bankhead.

In 1967, following a second appearance alongside Roger Moore in The Saint, Sutherland was handed the role of Vernon L Pinkley in The Dirty Dozen – a box office hit and he soon became a draw himself.

Sky1 HD’s Touch Launch – London
Kiefer Sutherland paid tribute to his father who has died aged 88 (Ian West/PA).

His later films included The Eagle Has Landed (1976), Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978), National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), The First Great Train Robbery (1978) and JFK (1991).

He worked with many directors outside the US including Federico Fellini in 1976’s Fellini’s Casanova as the title character along with Bernardo Bertolucci in 1976’s 1900, Claude Chabrol in 1978 Blood Relatives and John Schlesinger in 1975’s The Day Of The Locust.

During this decade, he became outspoken about the Vietnam War and from 1971 to 1973 was put an a watchlist by the FBI for his activities, according to documents released in 2017.

He would return to playing army characters again and again, and as Soviet general Mikhail Fetisov, he won a Golden Globe along with an Emmy Award for the mini-series Citizen X (1995).

Another Golden Globe was earned for the television movie Path To War (2002), and he later picked up nominations for political drama series, Commander In Chief, and dramas Human Trafficking and Dirty Sexy Money, and thriller The Undoing.

Sutherland’s son, Kiefer, called his father “one of the most important actors in the history of film” following his death.

In 2019, Kiefer said he broke down in tears after discovering his father’s acting work.

The actor said he was unaware of his father’s career – and the “extraordinary” work he had done – until he was old enough to watch his films.

Equally adept at playing heroes and villains, Sutherland portrayed President Snow, the main antagonist of The Hunger Games film franchise, beginning in 2012.

This was not a role he was up for but he petitioned Gary Ross, who wrote and directed the first movie, about being “overwhelmed with the political possibilities” in the part.

Sutherland said that originally it “was not a part of any particular significance” but wrote a letter to Ross outlining what he “thought the film was” and they hired him.

He says he was thinking: “I would like to be able to, at the end of my life, look back and say I was a part of that film that I believe will revolutionise the political situation in the United States and maybe even the rest of the world.”

Fool’s Gold premiere – Los Angeles
Donald Sutherland in 2008 (Ian West/PA)

In 2017, it was announced that Sutherland would receive an Honorary Oscar, from the Academy, but was never honoured with a nomination despite his more than 140 film credits spanning six decades.

Despite the many movies, he admitted in Los Angeles in 1999, while rehearsing for the play Enigma Variations, that he gets stage fright.

“I’ve made 101 films and I throw up at the beginning of every one,” he said at the time. “I haven’t been on the stage for 20 years and I’m terrified, but it’s not an uninteresting terror.”

Sutherland was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1978, promoted to Companion of the Order of Canada in 2019.

Sutherland was about to publish his memoir, Made Up, But Still True, later this year, which was set to explore “an unfiltered account of his memories of his life” from how life-changing a role M*A*S*H had been along with “his far too many brushes with death”.

He married three times.

He is survived by his wife, Francine Racette, and five children, including actors Kiefer, Rossif and Angus.