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Donald Sutherland, the towering actor whose career spanned ‘M.A.S.H.’ to ‘Hunger Games,’ dies at 88

By JAKE COYLE, , AP Film Writer,
Published: June 20, 2024, 11:06am

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Sutherland, the Canadian actor whose wry, arrestingly off-kilter screen presence spanned more than half a century of films from “M.A.S.H.” to “The Hunger Games,” has died. He was 88.

Son Kiefer Sutherland confirmed the death Thursday. No details were immediately available.

“I personally think one of the most important actors in the history of film,” Kiefer Sutherland said on X. “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.”

The tall and gaunt Sutherland, who flashed a grin that could be sweet or diabolical, was known for offbeat characters like Hawkeye Pierce in Robert Altman’s “M.A.S.H.,” the hippie tank commander in “Kelly’s Heroes” and the stoned professor in “Animal House.”

Before transitioning into a long career as a respected character actor, Sutherland epitomized the unpredictable, antiestablishment cinema of the 1970s. He never stopped working, ultimately appearing in nearly 200 films and series.

Over the decades, Sutherland showed his range in more buttoned-down — but still eccentric — roles in Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People” and Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” More, recently, he starred in the “Hunger Games” films. A memoir, “Made Up, But Still True,” is due out in November.

“I love to work. I passionately love to work,” Sutherland told Charlie Rose in 1998. “I love to feel my hand fit into the glove of some other character. I feel a huge freedom — time stops for me. I’m not as crazy as I used to be, but I’m still a little crazy.”

Born in St. John, New Brunswick, Donald McNichol Sutherland was the son of a salesman and a mathematics teacher. Raised in Nova Scotia, he was a disc jockey with his own radio station at age 14.

“When I was 13 or 14, I really thought everything I felt was wrong and dangerous, and that God was going to kill me for it,” Sutherland told The New York Times in 1981. “My father always said, ‘Keep your mouth shut, Donnie, and maybe people will think you have character.'”

Sutherland began as an engineering student at the University of Toronto but switched to English and started acting in school theatrical productions. While studying, he met Lois Hardwick, an aspiring actress. They married in 1959 but divorced seven years later.

After graduating in 1956, Sutherland attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art to study acting. He began appearing in West End plays and British television. After a move to Los Angeles, a series of war films changed his trajectory.

His breakthrough was “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), in which he played Vernon Pinkley, the officer-impersonating psychopath. 1970 saw the release of both the World War II yarn “Kelly’s Heroes” and “M.A.S.H.,” a smash hit that catapulted Sutherland to stardom.

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“There is more challenge in character roles,” Sutherland told The Washington Post in 1970. “There’s longevity. A good character actor can show a different face in every film and not bore the public.”

If Sutherland had had his way, Altman would have been fired from “M.A.S.H.” He was unhappy with the director’s unorthodox, improvisational style. But the film caught on beyond anyone’s expectations.

Sutherland identified personally with its anti-war message. Outspoken against the Vietnam War, he along with actress Jane Fonda and others founded the Free Theater Associates in 1971. Banned by the Army because of their political views, they performed in venues near military bases in Southeast Asia in 1973.

“I thought I was going to be part of a revolution that was going to change movies and its influence on people,” Sutherland told the Los Angeles Times.

His career as a leading man peaked in the 1970s, when he starred in films by the era’s top directors — even if they didn’t always do their best work with him. Sutherland, who frequently said he considered himself at the service of a director’s vision, worked with Federico Fellini (1976’s “Fellini’s Casanova”), Bernardo Bertolucci (1976’s “1900”), Claude Chabrol (1978’s “Blood Relatives”) and John Schlesinger (1975’s “The Day of the Locust”).

One of his finest performances came as a detective in Alan Pakula’s “Klute” (1971). It was during filming that he met Fonda, with whom he had a three-year relationship that began at the end of his second marriage to actor Shirley Douglas. He and Douglas divorced in 1971 after having twins: Rachel and Kiefer, who was named after Warren Kiefer, the writer of Sutherland’s first film, “Castle of the Living Dead.”

Nicolas Roeg’s psychological horror film “Don’t Look Now” (1973) was another high point. Sutherland starred with Julie Christie as a grieving married couple who move to Venice after their daughter’s death. The film included a famous, explicit sex scene, artfully edited.

“Nic and I thought that maybe I would die in the process of it, so much were we committed,” Sutherland once said. His admiration for the film and Roeg was such that he and his next wife, actress Francine Racette, named their first-born child Roeg.

Sutherland married Racette in 1972 and remained with her the rest of his life. She survives him. They had two other children together: Rossif, named after the director Frederic Rossif; and Angus Redford, named after Redford.

Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People” (1980) also dealt with the loss of a child. His directorial debut, starring Sutherland as the father of a family destroyed by tragedy, won four Oscars, including best picture.

Sutherland was never nominated for an Oscar but received an honorary Oscar in 2017. He did win an Emmy in 1995 for the TV film “Citizen X” and won two Golden Globes for “Citizen X” and the 2003 TV film “Path to War.”

Sutherland’s New York stage debut in 1981, though, went terribly. He played Humbert Humbert in Edward Albee’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” and the reviews were merciless; it closed after a dozen performances. A down period in the ’80s followed, with failures like the 1981 satire “Gas” and the 1984 comedy “Crackers.”

But Sutherland continued to work steadily and increasingly worked in television, most memorably in HBO’s “Path to War,” in which he played President Lyndon Johnson’s defense secretary, Clark Clifford.

After son Kiefer emerged as a star, Sutherland appeared in numerous films with him, including the 1996 thriller “A Time to Kill” and 2015’s “Forsaken.” But he turned down the chance to play the father on the hit series “24.”

To a younger generation, Sutherland was most familiar as President Snow in “The Hunger Games” franchise beginning with the 2012 original. Sutherland sought out the part.

“The role of the president had maybe a line in the script. Maybe two. Didn’t make any difference,” Sutherland told GQ. “I thought it was an incredibly important film, and I wanted to be a part of it.” He said he hoped the movie would inspire young people who were “dormant” politically.

In his final years, the nonstop actor mused about dying onscreen, for real.

“I’m really hoping that in some movie I’m doing, I die — but I die, me, Donald — and they’re able to use my funeral and the coffin,” Sutherland told the AP. “That would be absolutely ideal. I would love that.”

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