Who Is Donald Sutherland?
Donald Sutherland studied at the University of Toronto and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. An actor of enormous versatility, he became known for his role in The Dirty Dozen (1967), following this with parts in M*A*S*H (1970) and Klute (1971). Among his other films in a half-century screen career are Ordinary People (1980), A Time To Kill (1996), Instinct (1999), Cold Mountain (2003), Pride & Prejudice (2005) and The Hunger Games franchise.
Widely considered one of Canada’s best-known film actors, Donald McNichol Sutherland was born on July 17, 1935, in Saint John, New Brunswick. His parents, Dorothy, a math teacher, and Frederick, who worked in sales and managed the local utility company, forged a standard middle-class home for their son. Sutherland would later describe his father as a self-involved, controlling man while his mother was a direct, loving presence in the youngster's life.
Sutherland’s early childhood was shaped by poor health. The first word he learned to say was “neck” because that's where he was in pain, a sign that the young boy was weathering the early onset of polio. Today, one leg is shorter than the other as a result of the illness. Sutherland also dealt with bouts of hepatitis and rheumatic fever.
Entry Into Acting
Resisting their son’s dreams of becoming a sculptor, Sutherland’s parents urged conventionality and successfully pushed him to study engineering at the University of Toronto, where Sutherland experienced his first exposure to acting. As the story goes, the first play Sutherland ever saw was one he had a small role in: a student production of Edward Albee’s The Male Animal during his junior year. Other shows followed, and in 1958 Sutherland graduated with dual degrees in engineering and drama.
While at the University of Toronto, Sutherland also met his first wife, Lois Hardwick. The couple married in 1959, the first of Sutherland’s three marriages, and divorced seven years later without any children.
'Dirty Dozen' Breakthrough
Scrapping a potential engineering career, Sutherland moved to the United Kingdom after college to work at the Perth Repertory Theater in Scotland. He also appeared on the London stage before embarking on his half-century film career. It was an inauspicious start.
“My first offer ever for a film was in 1962,” Sutherland said to GQ magazine. “I auditioned for the producer, the writer, the director. And I came home and said to my first wife, ‘I thought it went okay.’ 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 year later he did get a part in the 1963 British romantic drama The World Ten Times Over. But it didn’t lead to steady or even good paying work. Thus, on the advice of his agent, a flat broke Sutherland moved to Hollywood in the mid-1960s. His big break came in 1967 when he landed the small but significant role of Vernon Pinkley in the war film The Dirty Dozen, starring Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown and Telly Savalas, among others. The movie went on to become the fifth highest-grossing film of the year. Leveraging that success, Sutherland found more work, including a part in the Clint Eastwood comedy Kelly’s Heroes (1970).
Major Success With 'M*A*S*H'
It was around this time that Sutherland accepted the part that would catapult his career into stardom, starring as “Hawkeye” Pierce in the classic Robert Altman war comedy, M*A*S*H. The film, which also starred Elliot Gould and Tom Skerritt, proved to be a giant cultural and financial success, evoking surprise from even those who made the movie with its box office results.
“I remember going up to the theater in New York at eleven o'clock in the morning on the first day M*A*S*H opened,” Sutherland later recalled in an Esquire interview. “These were the days before advertising, and the only word of mouth was from one screening in San Francisco two months earlier. We went to the theater early to see if it was going to sell any tickets. The line was twice around the block.”
Following M*A*S*H, Sutherland became a regular part of the Hollywood rotation. His acting style has been described as offbeat and precise, with an onscreen presence that is no doubt aided by his 6'4" frame. His versatility and range also allowed him not to be typecast.
Fonda and Fellini
Over the next several decades Sutherland appeared in a steady lineup of either critical or commercial successes. The list includes Klute (1971), co-starring Jane Fonda (whom Sutherland also had an affair with), Don't Look Now (1973), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Robert Redford's Ordinary People (1980), A Dry White Season (1989) and JFK (1991).
His choices included some unconventional picks too. In 1976 he teamed up with legendary Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini for Fellini’s Casanova, in which Sutherland portrayed the title character. Sutherland would speak in glowing terms about his time with the director, who provided a nurturing presence in a work experience that was both challenging and highly sensual. Two years later Sutherland played a pot smoking professor in the John Landis comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House.
Sutherlands’ film choices have continued to vary, from the '90s into the next millennium. His big-screen credits include Backdraft (1991), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), the drama Space Cowboys (2000), A Time to Kill (1996), The Italian Job (2003), Pride & Prejudice (2005) and The Con Artist (2010), in addition to a variety of TV projects like Uprising (2001) and Frankenstein (2004).
In 2012 he played wicked President Snow in The Hunger Games, a role he reprised for the franchise’s subsequent films—Catching Fire (2013) and the 2014 and 2015 installments of Mockingjay. Returning to the small screen, he took on the role of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty for the 2018 FX series Trust, about the infamous 1973 kidnapping of Getty's grandson.
In all, Sutherland has worked in more than 150 films, going harder than most at an age when many of his contemporaries have eased back on their schedules. “I’m going to be working until I’m helping them with the shovel,” he has said.
Awards and Honors
While considered one of Hollywood’s most esteemed actors, Sutherland has received little Oscar attention to date. He’s neither won nor been nominated for the award. He has however been nominated for seven Golden Globes and won two. His first came in 1996 for his supporting role in the television movie Citizen X, which also netted him an Emmy. In 2003 Sutherland won a second supporting actor Globe for his work in another TV film, Path to War.
Sutherland's home country has also shown pride in its native son. In 1978 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and was inducted into the country’s Walk of Fame in 2000.
Following his divorce from Lois Hardwick, Sutherland wed actress Shirley Douglas in 1966. The two were married for four years and had two children together, Kiefer, who would go on to forge his own successful screen career, and twin sister Rachel, who works behind the camera as a film post-production supervisor.
Sutherland married again in 1972, this time to French Canadian actress Francine Racette, with the union having lasted for decades. The couple has three sons: Rossif, Angus and Roeg.
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