Donald Sutherland obituary: inimitable star of Don’t Look Now, MASH and Klute

Sutherland, who has died aged 88, emerged as a versatile and charismatic leading man in the 1970s before a memorable run of character roles and cameos.

Klute (1971)

Imparting news of his father’s death, Kiefer Sutherland called him “one of the most important actors in the history of film,” and it’s hard to disagree. Donald Sutherland rode the crest of shifting screen trends for six decades. He never stopped working, and was never less than committed and passionate, whether serving his screen apprenticeship in B-movie horror, emerging in the 1970s as a leading man and unlikely sex symbol, segueing into character roles and scene-stealing cameos, or electrifying a new generation as President Coriolanus Snow in The Hunger Games franchise (2012 to 2015).

He was never nominated for an Oscar, though did win an Emmy and Golden Globe for his supporting performance in the HBO film Citizen X (1995), and another Golden Globe for playing political adviser Clark Clifford in HBO’s Path to War (2002). In 2017, the Academy tried to make up for its neglect by presenting him with an Honorary Award.

Donald McNichol Sutherland was born in New Brunswick, and retained a strong Canadian identity for the rest of his life. He survived bouts of polio and rheumatic fever as a child to grow to a gangly 6 foot 4 inches. When, as a teenager, he asked his mother if he was handsome, she tactfully replied: “Your face has character.” 

He studied engineering and drama at the University of Toronto before moving to the UK in 1957. He dropped out of London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) to join the Perth Repertory Theatre and played small roles in British TV series such as The Saint and The Avengers. He made his film debut in Il castello dei morti vivi (1964), later naming his first-born son after its writer and co-director, Warren Kiefer. He staked a vampire in the Amicus anthology Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), and played a slow-witted handyman in Tallulah Bankhead’s last film, Die! Die! My Darling! (1965).

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

He was over 30 when he made his breakthrough as Vernon L. Pinkley in The Dirty Dozen (1967), filmed in the UK. When Clint Walker balked at his character having to impersonate a general, director Robert Aldrich plucked Sutherland out of the “Back Six” to replace him (“You! With the big ears! You do it!”). It led to Sutherland being cast in MASH (1970) as ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce, an insubordinate army surgeon stitching up casualties during the Korean War. Robert Altman’s black comedy tapped into the zeitgeist, was a massive hit and propelled Sutherland and Elliott Gould to stardom. That same year, Sutherland consolidated his status as one of the counterculture’s coolest actors by stealing scenes as hippy tank commander Oddball in another war comedy, Kelly’s Heroes (1970).

MASH (1970)

Sutherland’s face was not that of a traditional leading man; in old Hollywood he would surely have been cast almost exclusively as villains, like Basil Rathbone. But 1970s New Hollywood was turning convention upside-down, and his Droopy Dog features and ghostly blue eyes proved unexpectedly versatile. He could play goofy or sinister, grotesque or romantic, misfits or normies, with an astutely deployed half-smile that could be amiable or menacing, sometimes both at once. And he was low-key sexy in pyjamas as the eponymous private eye in Alan J. Pakula’s neo-noir conspiracy thriller Klute (1971), after which he and his co-star Jane Fonda embarked on an anti-Vietnam War tour, recorded in the documentary FTA (1972). The CIA put him on its watch list, though it didn’t seem to harm his career, and he remained a lifelong anti-war activist.

He was devastating as the bereaved father in Nicolas Roeg’s occult thriller Don’t Look Now (1973), and almost unbearably tender in the infamous sex scene with Julie Christie; creepy but heartbreaking as lovelorn accountant ‘Homer Simpson’ in The Day of the Locust (1975); evil incarnate as fascist foreman Attila in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976); tragicomic and haunted as Fellini’s Casanova (1976), the Italian director memorably describing his leading actor as “a sperm-filled waxwork with the eyes of a masturbator”. 

Casanova (Il Casanova di Federico Fellini, 1976)

He played the sympathetic everyman protagonist in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), with its shocking, much-memed ending. He returned to his native Canada to act opposite his third wife, Francine Racette, as a contract killer in Stuart Cooper’s dreamy, cryptic The Disappearance (1977), and as Steve Carella in Blood Relatives (1978), Claude Chabrol’s chilly adaptation of an Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel transplanted to Quebec.

He played another bereaved father in Robert Redford’s directing debut Ordinary People (1980), but curiously, his superb performance didn’t even get an Oscar nomination in a film that was otherwise showered with them. Sutherland imbued all his characters (except perhaps Attila) with credibly human dimensions, which stood him in good stead when he played, for example, Nazi spies plying unwitting British women with his off-kilter sex appeal in The Eagle Has Landed (1976) and Eye of the Needle (1981).

Eye of the Needle (1981)

Sutherland’s career hit the nearest thing to a lean patch in the 1980s. Playing the villain in Hugh Hudson’s clunky period epic Revolution (1985) did nothing for his career, but his cult credentials were reaffirmed with an appearance as Wilhelm Reich in the music video for Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’ (1985). He made a powerful impression in Euzhan Palcy’s anti-apartheid drama A Dry White Season (1989) and proved he didn’t need a leading role to steal the show in Backdraft (1991) as a convicted pyromaniac. 

He gave an elegant masterclass in how to deliver conspiracy theory exposition dump in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), imbued his Manhattan art dealer in Fred Schepisi’s Six Degrees of Separation (1993) with unexpected nuance, and gleefully revisited his B-movie roots for John Bruno’s Virus (1999). Among his latterday patriarch performances he was deeply moving as Mr Bennet in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (2005).

JFK (1991)

On CBS’s 60 Minutes in 2017, Anderson Cooper asked Sutherland where he found inspiration for his roles. The actor responded: “I don’t find it. It finds me. I mean, I will read it. And suddenly, it starts churning around inside me. And, then, it gets violent. And, then, it gets loving. And it’s an extraordinary thing. It gets more and more and more exciting. It’s delicious.” And for us, the audience, it has never been less than delicious to watch.

Donald Sutherland, 18 July 1935 to 20 June 2024