Donald Sutherland: Chameleonic actor and anti-war activist who combined charm with menace

Donald Sutherland, circa 1975 (Hulton Archive/Getty)
Donald Sutherland, circa 1975 (Hulton Archive/Getty)

When Kiefer Sutherland announced the death of his father, Donald Sutherland, at the age of 88, he called him “one of the most important actors in the history of film”. If the claim sounds hyperbolic, it is borne out by celluloid history. The elder Sutherland’s film career began in the early 1960s and spanned seven decades and more than 150 features to the present, with his final performance coming in last year’s western series Lawmen: Bass Reeves. His CV includes classics across several genres, including the 1970 anti-war satire M*A*S*H, the 1973 thriller Don’t Look Now, and his more recent appearances in The Hunger Games. At 6ft 4in, he was a towering presence on screen and cast a lengthy shadow.

Donald McNichol Sutherland was born in the Canadian east coast seaport of Saint John, New Brunswick on July 17, 1935. His parents were Dorothy and Frederick, who ran the local gas, electricity and bus company. His first word, he once told Esquire, was “neck”. “My mother turned around and said, ‘What did he say?’” Sutherland recalled. “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.”

Keen to get involved in the entertainment business, he landed his first job at the age of 14 working as a DJ for local radio station CKBW. By 1952, Sutherland was attending the University of Toronto, where he became a valued member of the UC Follies comedy troupe. He graduated in 1956 with a double major in engineering and drama, but it was clear which half of his degree had excited him the most when he moved to the United Kingdom to continue his acting studies at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He married his first wife, Lois May Hardwick, in 1959, and the marriage lasted seven years.

Sutherland started his career in the theatre and had a handful of minor roles on British television before landing his first film role, playing both a young soldier and an old hag in the 1964 Italian horror The Castle of the Living Dead. Sutherland was so appreciative of the break that in 1966 he named his first son after the producer who had hired him, Warren Kiefer.

In 1967, Sutherland became a Hollywood name following the release of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, in which Sutherland played a killer opposite Lee Marvin and John Cassavetes. Sutherland told The Guardian in 2005 that he originally had one line in the film until Clint Walker refused to play a scene requiring him to impersonate a general. According to Sutherland, Aldrich, who didn’t know his name, turned to him and said, “You! With the big ears! You do it!”

Three years later, his star rose still further when he appeared in the Gene Wilder comedy Start the Revolution Without Me, and then in two more war films: as the aptly named Sergeant Oddball in Kelly’s Heroes, and as subversive surgeon “Hawkeye” Pierce in Robert Altman’s hugely successful counterculture farce M*A*S*H.

Sutherland used his rising profile to become a prominent anti-war activist, which made him a target for the US establishment. In 2022, Kiefer Sutherland told The Independent: “Because of my father’s politics, they felt he was a Social Democrat, a socialist, who believed in nationalised healthcare and large government, and those were not necessarily ‘American values’.”

Sutherland’s second wife, Shirley Douglas, was also a high-profile campaigner. The daughter of Tommy Douglas, a socialist politician who was the architect of Canada’s welfare state, Douglas was both an actor and a civil rights activist who was one of the founders of the fundraising group Friends of the Black Panthers. Documents declassified in 2017 showed that at the CIA’s request, Donald Sutherland was placed on an NSA watch list in the early 1970s.

He didn’t let this unwanted attention deter him from speaking out. In 1971, Sutherland starred in Alan Pakula’s thriller Klute opposite Jane Fonda, a fellow anti-war protester with whom he had a two-year affair as his marriage to Douglas fell apart. In 1972, he co-wrote and co-produced an explosive anti-Vietnam-war documentary titled F.T.A., working with Fonda once again.

Sutherland in period costume as Sgt Maj Peasy for the historical drama ‘Revolution’, March 25, 1985 (P. Shirley/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty)
Sutherland in period costume as Sgt Maj Peasy for the historical drama ‘Revolution’, March 25, 1985 (P. Shirley/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty)

Throughout the 1970s, Sutherland starred in a string of films, each of which broke the mould in a different way. He starred alongside Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg’s chilling horror thriller Don’t Look Now in 1973, a film that became as well known for an explicit, emotionally tangled sex scene between Sutherland and Christie as it was for its sinister narrative.

In 2002, Roeg told The Independent that the scene had been inspired by a friend who had lost a child. “They’d been told to try for another,” recalled Roeg. “That very often happens. And we [Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie] talked about that. I think that’s why people have made so much of what is usually called the ‘love scene’ in the movie. Most love scenes are seduction scenes ... But these two are in love. They have kids and they’re happily married. And this awful thing happens to them, and it’s more than they can bear.”

Sutherland went on to work with the great Italian directors Bernardo Bertolucci (playing a Fascist in 1900 in 1976) and Federico Fellini (as a made-up Lothario in Casanova, also in 1976), but also found time to play a dope-smoking college professor in John Landis’s college comedy Animal House in 1978. The same year, he starred in Philip Kaufman’s sci-fi horror Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In 1980, Sutherland won widespread acclaim for his portrayal of the long-suffering patriarch in Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning Ordinary People, starring opposite Mary Tyler Moore and Timothy Hutton. During the 1990s he had a pivotal role in Oliver Stone’s provocative JFK (1991) and played a Van Helsing-type hunter in the original film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). In 1995 he won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his work in the TV movie Citizen X.

From 2012, Sutherland became known to a new generation of fans as President Snow, the main antagonist of the Hunger Games franchise. He appeared in a total of four films in the franchise, winning plaudits once again. Whether playing a villain, a hero, or an oddball combination of both, Sutherland was able to combine charm with menace in a way few actors can.

In 2015, at the age of 80, he told the BBC while promoting The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 that he was determined to keep working right to the end. “It’s a passionate endeavour,” said Sutherland. “Retirement for actors is spelt ‘DEATH’.”