RIP Donald Sutherland, a Hollywood Legend

Donald Sutherland (1935–2024) projected equal parts warmth, intelligence, and menace on the big screen. But he wasn’t just a brilliant actor — he was a man of the Left who never abandoned those values.

Actor Donald Sutherland at the premiere of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire on November 18, 2013, in Los Angeles, California. (Axelle / Bauer-Griffin / FilmMagic via Getty Images)

There are some actors you can’t help loving. Not many, but the late Donald Sutherland was definitely one.

Just to see that narrow, bony face on-screen — with the long Stan Laurel chin and the big ears and the pale blue eyes that could be kindly or crazy, warm or cold, humorous or sinister — was to feel better at the movies. His presence alone helped me get through The Hunger Games. It was a pleasure to watch an old pro like him delicately snipping roses in the garden and exuding restrained, intellectual menace as the American dictator-president Coriolanus Snow. And it was touching to read that he hoped the very popular Hunger Games and its sequels might help spark a political youth movement to confront the dire state of the nation. It wasn’t so far-fetched an idea to an actor who’d been young and politically engaged when there was still a belief that film movements such as Third Cinema and more mainstream cycles of political modernism could play an important role in revolutionary struggle.

Sutherland wasn’t just a great actor, always interesting even in mediocre crap; he was one of ours, a lefty, with a period of intense anti–Vietnam War organizing to his credit. In the early 1970s, the start of the defining ten years of his stardom, he toured with Klute costar Jane Fonda in a traveling roadshow called FTA (Fuck the Army), which put them on the national security radar for years to come. FTA was a profane alternative to Bob Hope’s long-running USO show, meant to counter the rah-rah patriotism of the conservative Hope and his old-fashioned entertainment.

Still from The Hunger Games. (Lionsgate)

A documentary about the FTA group shows Sutherland reading from Dalton Trumbo’s harrowing antiwar book Johnny Got His Gun, which was made into a 1971 movie featuring Sutherland. Sutherland kept the faith after the counterculture struggle of the 1970s faded. He played the role of crusading Canadian communist Dr Norman Bethune twice, in Bethune (1977) and Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1990), both films celebrating this advocate for socialized medicine who served as a combat surgeon on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War.

But of course, most of us know Sutherland from his marvelous performances in mainstream films, especially M*A*S*H (1970), Klute (1971), Don’t Look Now (1972), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and Ordinary People (1980). It’s hard to describe the effect of Sutherland’s performances overall, as he was so able to sink into his roles you could hardly ever catch him “acting.” A kind of hangdog intelligence is central to his star power — which seems an odd term to use in his case, though it was possible to be a big star in the 1970s with idiosyncratic, hard-to-define qualities as your main appeal. He was somehow beautiful to look at though he was a collection of physical oddities and contradictions — that impressive baritone emerging from a long, thin, unglamorous frame; that almost devilish swoop of his eyebrows countered by the sweetest smile.

Becoming an actor in Scottish theater after giving up his university training to be an engineer, Sutherland first came to widespread prominence in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), about twelve military convicts recruited to pull off a suicide mission against the Nazis in WWII, bringing his offbeat charm to the lanky goofball Vernon Pinkley. Robert Altman saw his performance and regarded it as an aptly irreverent audition for the lead role of wry prankster surgeon Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H (1970).

Sutherland conveyed a kind of unlikely grit and could pull off heroics in a way that took all the triteness out of demonstrations of courage and determination. As the health inspector hero of Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he defines his character’s implacable nerve by the underlying delight he takes in confronting a French restaurateur trying to pass off rat turds as capers in a soup by holding up the unidentified object and barking, “If it’s a caper, then eat it.”

There’s something inspired about the way a scene like that can set you up for his character’s dogged struggle to escape the pod-people overrunning San Francisco, including scenes of rescuing the woman he loves (Brooke Adams) by breaking into her home and eluding her already-podded boyfriend by carrying her bodily out of the building. Despite his unconventional looks, you don’t doubt this guy would be the last man standing. And his pod-person takeover at the end, the famous much-memed moment when he points and screeches at a former friend is still so powerful because Sutherland made this character a kind of ultimate, incorruptible individual.

Still from Don’t Look Now. (Paramount Pictures)

His earlier scenes with Adams show Sutherland’s amazing attractiveness as a romantic lead. They’re supposed to be friends and work colleagues, but the way he leans just slightly in toward her when they stand together joking around, and infuses his grins with tenderness, conveys his unspoken love for her without sentimentality or cliché.

He’s a very loving actor, Sutherland — he does affection extremely well. And it’s strange to realize how sexy he was, though the famously erotic scenes in Don’t Look Now and Klute are there to attest to this stealthy power of Sutherland’s.

And given all this power, it’s surprising to read Sutherland’s own account of his essential nervousness as an actor that’s made him throw up before starting in almost any role, as he attests in a freewheeling exchange with Hugh Grant in Interview magazine:

SUTHERLAND: I’m nervous all the time. For me, the camera’s either a voyeur or a lover. If it’s your lover, it shares your soul. . . . If it’s a voyeur, it’s a fucking paparazzi.

GRANT: I know that Anthony Hopkins goes and strokes the camera every morning and says “Good morning” to it.

SUTHERLAND: I kiss the lens.

Sutherland then goes on to make Grant write down an Alexander Pope quote he feels describes him perfectly: “True wit is nature to advantage dressed, what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.”

In a late-life Esquire magazine piece, Sutherland contributed a series of statements about what he’d learned by his mid-seventies. The last ones are moving in the context of Sutherland’s death at age eighty-eight, and convey again those qualities that seemed inherently part of him on-screen. On the subject of death, he wrote with a kind of cool, cerebral insistence on looking at the reality of it:

The spirit of mankind is not going to help me through my death. My death is a lonely little journey that I’ll take myself.

And then he concluded with life-loving warmth:

You know Dalton Trumbo? He wrote Johnny Got His Gun. He was one of the blacklisted writers. Spent time in prison. Lost everything. Got everything back. Wonderful fellow. The last thing he said to me was “Don’t forget to be happy.”

So Sutherland’s gone on his lonely little journey, but it seems like he didn’t forget to be happy.