Donald Sutherland Dead at 88: An Actor Who Appeared in Every Genre Imaginable — and Made Each His Own

Donald Sutherland is dead at the age of 88. The news was confirmed on X by his son Kiefer, who wrote, “With a heavy heart, I tell you that my father, Donald Sutherland, has passed away. I personally think one of the most important actors in the history of film. Never daunted by a role, good, bad or ugly. He loved what he did and did what he loved, and one can never ask for more than that. A life well lived.”

One of the most acclaimed actors of his or any generation, Donald Sutherland appeared in almost every genre of movie imaginable, with a presence that could carry the artiest of arthouse movies as well as the biggest blockbuster spectaculars. Consider that one of his earliest hits was “The Dirty Dozen,” in which he was one of the title squad; and in his last years he starred as the primary villain in “The Hunger Games” movies. A galaxy of pop culture lies between…

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Sutherland was born in Saint John, New Brunswick in 1935, and though deeply associated with Hollywood since the 1960s, always somehow retained his essence as a uniquely Canadian actor. He received his first taste of appearing in public working as a news correspondent for a radio station in Nova Scotia when he was still in his teens, but he initially expected his career to turn toward engineering. But adding drama as a double major at Victoria University signaled his true passion, and he left Canada for London in 1957 to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

With those studies under his belt he came to appear opposite Christopher Lee in a number of horror movies such as “Castle of the Living Dead” (1964) and “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” (1965). It’s a genre he’d return to throughout his career. Exceptionally skinny, with a long, gaunt face and haunted, slightly fishy eyes, he was a natural for horror — especially the artier explorations of the genre to come in the years ahead.

On the strength of an episode of “The Avengers” he appeared in, he landed the role of Pinkley in “The Dirty Dozen,” one of the psychotic inmates who are tapped by the U.S. Army to go on a daring raid in Nazi territory during World War II. Fidgety, full of odd reactions onscreen to his fellow castmates, he was arguably unlike any actor who’d been seen before — he wasn’t trying to be Anthony Perkins or any other actor who telegraphed “creepy.” He found those unsettling notes all on his own and in his own style.

“The Dirty Dozen” was the fifth highest grossing movie of 1967 and all but ensured his entry to Hollywood. Starring as lead character Hawkeye in Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H” followed next. And he quickly showed his range by playing the title character in Alan J. Pakula’s “Klute,” as a private investigator looking into the murders of several sex workers in New York City, who falls in love with one played by Jane Fonda. He conveys great sympathy in that film for Fonda’s character that goes beyond just romantic feelings, but even still there’s always something a little remote and unknowable about his performances. It’s like he’s not playing a character, but a real person, and like a real person there are depths to him you’ll never fully know.

The commingling of sexuality and sadness he portrayed in “Klute” erupts in Nicolas Roeg’s arthouse horror, “Don’t Look Now,” made notorious by his graphic four-minute sex scene with Julie Christie. Throughout that film he’s the definition of haunted — figuratively certainly, but perhaps literally too. There’s a feeling of doom written on Sutherland’s face in that movie.

That face. His was truly singular. Not quite handsome perhaps, but more interesting than handsome. Arresting. When Fellini cast him in his “Casanova” he said he wanted Sutherland because the actor was “a sperm-filled waxwork with the eyes of a masturbator.” In “The Great Train Robbery” when one of the robbers has to play a corpse at one point, you know already that it’s going to be Sutherland.

More horror movies (Philip Kaufman’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” remake) and more genre films (Richard Marquand’s superbly lusty World War II thriller “Eye of the Needle”) followed, but then he could headline an Academy Award winner for Best Picture as in “Ordinary People” as well. As a weak father incapable of giving his son what he needs, he’s heartbreaking in Robert Redford’s film. How impressive, though, that he could exchange icy patter in the Bergmanesque “Ordinary People” and also deliver one of the most iconic final shots in all of cinema, when he points his finger at a body-snatched Veronica Cartwright in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and screams. There was never under-playing it or overplaying it with Sutherland: There was just what made sense for the character and the story.

But he was as comfortable being in “Cold Mountain,” or “Space Cowboys,” or “A Time to Kill.” Or in Joe Wright’s 2005 version of “Pride & Prejudice,” in which he’s an exceptionally tender and sensitive Mr. Bennett, tuned to the wavelength of his daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley).

In the last decade or so of his life, Sutherland got a whole new fanbase by appearing as the main villain in the “Hunger Games” films, Coriolanus Snow, the president of the dystopian Panem. He brought a lizard-like coolness to the role of this fascist dedicated only to the calculus of power, regardless of how many should die in the spectacles hosted under his watch to keep his populace entertained and pacified. He showed an ability, much like his costar in those films Philip Seymour Hoffman, to make even a nine-figure-budgeted blockbuster his own, to impose his will on this spectacle and make sure it bears in the imprint of his personality. Not every actor can do that. Certainly not every one in a more or less supporting role. Even as his career came to a close, he was doing something unique.

Remarkably, Sutherland never once received an Academy Award nomination, putting him top among the ranks of great actors who never did. It seems not to have been something that concerned him. He was a dedicated father, and his sons Kiefer, Angus, Roeg, and Rossif followed him into acting. Above all there is his work: So distinctive and memorable and timeless, no matter in what decade a film was made, that anyone who cares about movies will return to his work time and again.

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