Donald Sutherland life and biography

Donald Sutherland picture, image, poster

Donald Sutherland biography

Date of birth : 1935-07-17
Date of death : -
Birthplace : St. John, New Brunswick, Canada
Nationality : Canadian
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2010-07-12
Credited as : Actor, ,

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Perhaps one of the most prolific and widely recognized actors of his generation, Donald Sutherland made a career playing some of the most unusual and memorable characters in cinema history. Though best known for playing odd, off-beat roles, like a hippie tank commander in “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970), an anti-authoritarian surgeon in “M*A*S*H” (1970) and a stoned-out college professor in “Animal House” (1978), Sutherland cut a wide swath of characters throughout his career, mainly in order to avoid being typecast as freaked-out weirdos. Critical acclaim for several of his performances – especially “Ordinary People” (1980) and “JFK” (1991) – was abundant, but he rarely received any awards – a surprising revelation given the breadth and quality of his work. Nonetheless, Sutherland maintained a steady career despite a long lull in the mid-1980s, even expanding his horizons into series television with “Commander in Chief” (ABC, 2005-06) and “Dirty Sexy Money” (ABC, 2007- ), both of which confirmed his status as one the finest, most divergent talents of his time.

Born on July 17, 1935 in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, Sutherland was raised in neighboring Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. His father, Frederick, was a salesman and head of the local bus, gas and electric company, and his mother, Dorothy, was a mathematics teacher. When he was 14, Sutherland was heard on CKBW as the youngest news reader and disc jockey in Canada. After high school, he studied engineering at the University of Toronto, but he quickly made the switch to an English major and began acting in school productions, making his stage debut in “The Male Animal” in 1952. He graduated UT in 1956, then moved to England where he attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. He went immediately to work in provincial repertory companies, landing roles in several stage productions in London, including “August for the People.” Sutherland was performing in a West End production of “Spoon River Anthology” when he was offered his first film, the dual role of a soldier and a witch (who end up fighting each other at the end) in “Castle of the Living Dead” (1964).

A couple of years after his film debut, Sutherland had moved to the United States where he continued taking strides to advance his career. He made his first American screen appearance in “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), playing a one of 12 soldiers in military prison during World War II, who are sent on a dangerous mission that gives them the chance to regain their honor. After bit parts in “Sebastian” (1968) and “Oedipus the King” (1968), Sutherland landed meatier supporting roles in “Joanna” (1968) and “Interlude” (1968). Then, without really meaning to, Sutherland suddenly made a name for himself in Robert Altman’s Korean War satire “M*A*S*H” (1970), playing misfit surgeon Hawkeye Pearce, whose love of nurses and moonshine martinis were the only things keeping him and fellow surgeon Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould) sane amidst the chaos of war. Because of the antiwar fervor of the late-‘60s, early-‘70s, “M*A*S*H” was one of the year’s biggest hits, both critically and financially, turning an unknown Sutherland into an overnight star.

Hot on the heels of “M*A*S*H,” Sutherland was seen in yet another war-themed comedy, “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970), playing one of his most notorious and ultimately beloved characters, Oddball, a Bohemian tank commander who joins forces with a ragtag group of Army soldiers (led by Telly Savalas and Clint Eastwood) on a mission 30 miles behind Nazi lines to steal a large cache of gold. He achieved his first substantial critical acclaim for an excellent performance as a rural private detective who follows the sordid life of a prostitute (Jane Fonda) while on the trail of a killer in “Klute” (1971). Throughout the decade, Sutherland – despite his best efforts – was in danger of being typecast as a stoned-out goofball or an off-the-wall freak, thanks in large part to his rather unconventional looks. Luckily, he had both the sense and the talent to transcend the problem. In “Johnny Got His Gun” (1971), Sutherland was Jesus Christ, while in “Steelyard Blues” (1973), he was a demolition driver released from prison after serving time for larceny, and who gathers a band of misfits together to restore an old World War II plane in which to fly away to live in a nonconformist world.

Despite having made his name with “M*A*S*H” and “Klute” – both critical successes – Sutherland managed to make his share of duds, like “Lady Ice” (1973) and “S*P*Y*S” (1974), a ridiculously dull espionage comedy that reunited him with Elliot Gould. He was rather one-note as an ambitious and wealthy Hollywood powerbroker in the otherwise worthy adaptation of John Schlesinger’s entertainment satire, “The Day of the Locust” (1975), before returning to the comfortable confines of World War II action in “The Eagle Had Landed” (1976), playing an English-hating Irishman who helps arrange a Nazi plot to kidnap Winston Churchill on British soil. After being cast as an everyman Casanova in “Il Casanova di Federico Fellini” (1976) and appearing briefly in the often uproarious spoof “Kentucky Fried Movie” (1977), Sutherland scored another landmark role, playing a pot smoking college professor who takes the girlfriend (Karen Allen) away from an irresponsible, but irrepressible fraternity leader (Tim Matheson) in “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978). Sutherland was once again memorable in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978), bringing forth a palpable paranoia as a Department of Health employee contending with an alien invasion of soul-possessing spores.

Sutherland forever obliterated being typecast with his subtle portrayal of an emotionally conflicted father in “Ordinary People” (1980), director Robert Redford’s extraordinary Oscar-winning look at a so-called perfect family. Though ultimately overlooked by the Academy Awards, Sutherland was exceptional as a family man dealing with the death of a child and the love for his wife (Mary Tyler Moore). Unfortunately, his critical success with “Ordinary People” failed to translate into other meaty roles; instead leading to the miserable satire “Gas” (1981) and the rather uninspired caper comedy “Crackers” (1984). Meanwhile, an ill-received stage performance as Humbert Humbert in Edward Albee’s “Lolita” in 1981 helped keep him off the stage for a good 18 years – critics savaged the play, forcing the production to be canceled after only 12 performances. Sutherland, on the other hand, was spared from most of the critical drubbing the play received. After a 15 year absence, he returned to the small screen to play Ethan Hawley, a grocery store clerk who dreams of buying back his store from corrupt local bankers, in “John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent” (CBS, 1983), one of the few highlights for Sutherland in the 1980s.

While he remained prolific throughout the decade, Sutherland was mired in career doldrums that made his earlier successes more out of focus with time. Unexceptional features like the uneven murder mystery “Ordeal by Innocence” (1984), the flat-out dull period epic “Revolution” (1985), and the ineptly unfunny espionage comedy “The Trouble With Spies” (1987) only helped give rise to the notion that Sutherland’s career was in trouble. He returned to more dramatic fare with “A Dry White Season” (1989), playing a South African schoolteacher ignorant of the horrors of apartheid and who turns radically against the system when his gardener’s son is viciously murdered. Once the 1990s rolled around, however, Sutherland suddenly found himself in better films. He had a small, but integral role in “JFK” (1991), playing the mysterious Mr. X, a former black ops officer who feeds vital background information to New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the only person to bring a trial in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Despite being onscreen for only 15 minutes, Sutherland’s compelling performance made an indelible impression and remained one of the most remembered sequences in Oliver Stone’s exceptional film.

After a series of high-profile, but ultimately forgettable roles in “Backdraft” (1991), “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1992) and “Outbreak” (1995), Sutherland received rare award recognition for his performance in “Citizen X” (HB0, 1995), an exceptional thriller about an eight-year investigation by an obsessed Russian detective (Stephen Rea) into the serial killings of 52 women and children. Sutherland received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Special for his portrayal of Colonel Fetisov, the investigator’s supportive boss who helps him fight the bureaucracy of the Soviet state. Building off that success, he was superb as the law school professor and mentor of a novice lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) in “A Time to Kill” (1996), then gave an understated and overlooked performance as famed track coach Bill Bowerman in “Without Limits” (1998), an engaging look at the ill-fated track star, Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup). Sutherland rounded out the millennium with more underwhelming projects, including the mediocre features “Fallen” (1998) and “Virus” (1999), and the above average made-for-television movie, “Behind the Mask” (CBS, 1999), in which he played a doctor who forms a father-son relationship with a mentally-challenged man (Matthew Fox).

Alongside charismatic turns as a sex-minded, over-the-hill astronaut in Clint Eastwood's amusing "Space Cowboys" (2000), and as William H. Macy's hit man father in "Panic" (2000), Sutherland occasionally slummed his way through routine big screen thrillers, including the easily dismissed Wesley Snipes action thriller, “The Art of War” (2000). He continued finding compelling roles on television, however, namely as a small time hood looking to make a big score in "The Big Heist" (2001), and as Clark Clifford, political advisor to Lyndon Johnson, in John Frankenheimer's acclaimed "Path to War" (HBO, 2002). In 2003, Sutherland enjoyed a renaissance on the big screen, delivering a charming performance as the mentor to a professional thief (Mark Wahlberg) in the hit remake "The Italian Job" (2003), and as Nicole Kidman's doting Southern dad in "Cold Mountain" (2003). In “Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot” (TNT, 2004), he played a sinister old man who deals in antiques and has taken residence in a haunted mansion on a hill. Though not as frightening as the original made-for-television version, this new rendition nonetheless delivered plenty of chills. Sutherland continued the horror trend with yet another version of “Frankenstein” (Hallmark, 2004), though this particular version remained faithful to Mary Shelley’s original novel.

Taking a different turn on the small screen, he appeared as a regular in his first scripted series, “Commander In Chief” (ABC, 2005- ), a political drama about a female vice president (Geena Davis) who assumes the presidency after the death of her predecessor. Sutherland played the right-wing Speaker of the House and next in line for the job, who tries to convince the vice president to step aside so he can grab hold the reigns of power. He then earned his second Emmy award nomination in a supporting role in the miniseries, “Human Trafficking” (Lifetime, 2005), starring Robert Carlyle and Mira Sorvino, before playing the Bennett family patriarch in the lively adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice” (2005). While Sutherland maintained a steady supporting presence on the big screen, his fate on “Commander in Chief” suddenly became uncertain in early 2006. Though critically acclaimed, the show steadily lost its audience over the course of its first and only season because of faulty scheduling and a revolving door of showrunners who continually changed the series’ tone and direction.

By May 2006, when ABC pulled the series from the lineup for the all-important sweeps, Sutherland expressed deep disappointment with the show’s inevitable cancellation and the diminishing of his character into a cartoonish villain through clever editing. Despite a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the 2006 Golden Globe Awards, Sutherland was not seen playing Speaker of the House the next fall. Meanwhile, Sutherland had a small and rather clandestine role as a mysterious colonel who keeps a watchful eye on an international arms dealer (Nicolas Cage) on the verge of a breakdown in the under-appreciated “Lord of War” (2005). After appearing as part of the ensemble cast in “American Gun” (2005), a series of interwoven stories commenting on the proliferation of guns in America and their impact on society, Sutherland played the patriarch of an early-19th century family terrorized by an evil spirit in “An American Haunting” (2006).

After a co-starring role in “Reign Over Me” (2007), a compelling drama about two former college roommates (Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler) coping with life after 9/11, Sutherland played a billionaire with a mega-yacht who is convinced by a good-natured surf bum (Matthew McConaughey) to join him on a treasure hunt for several chests of gold in “Fool’s Gold” (2008). Back on television, he was delightful as the patriarch of a wealthy, but dysfunctional Manhattan family whose secrets are protected by an idealistic young lawyer (Peter Krause) in “Dirty Sexy Money” (ABC, 2007- ). Sutherland earned plenty of critical kudos and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television.


* University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, engineering, drama, 1956
* London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, London, England


* 1949 Became Canada s (Nova Scotia) youngest radio announcer and disc jockey at age 14
* 1952 Made stage debut in The Male Animal at the Hart House Theatre in Toronto
* 1958 Moved to England to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art
* 1960 Began acting in British TV and repertory theater
* 1963 London stage debut, August for the People
* 1964 First significant film role, Il Castello dei Morti Vivi/Castle of the Living Dead
* 1966 US TV debut in the ABC series Court Martial
* 1967 Breakthrough supporting role, The Dirty Dozen with Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson
* 1968 Received strong notices as a flamboyant wealthy young man in Joanna
* 1970 Portrayed a prototypical hippie in the WWII comedy-drama Kelly s Heroes
* 1970 Soared to stardom as the original Hawkeye Pierce in Robert Altman s M*A*S*H
* 1971 Delivered an outstanding performance as detective opposite then-girlfriend Jane Fonda in Klute
* 1971 Played Jesus Christ in Dalton Trumbo s Johnny Got His Gun
* 1971 Reteamed with Elliott Gould (from M*A*S*H ) for Alan Arkin s Little Murders
* 1972 Feature debut as co-producer and co-writer for the anti-Vietnam war film F.T.A. ; featured a series of anti-war skits and songs (with Fonda) performed outside army bases
* 1973 Executive produced Steelyard Blues (also starred with Fonda)
* 1973 Starred opposite Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg s Don t Look Now
* 1974 Re-teamed with Gould in S.P.Y.S.
* 1975 Evoked pity as the hick in love with an aspiring, selfish would-be starlet (Karen Black) in John Schlesinger s The Day of the Locust
* 1976 Delivered a romantic turn as the title role of Fellini s Casanova
* 1976 Played a bestial fascist in Bernardo Bertolucci s 1990
* 1978 Delivered arguably his best performance since Klute as scientific-minded public health inspector confronting unspeakable horrors in Phillip Kaufman s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers
* 1979 Teamed with Sean Connery for the stylish The Great Train Robbery
* 1980 Came to see the falseness of his life as he struggled to overcome the death of his son in the Academy award-winning Ordinary People co-starring Mary Tyler Moore and Timothy Hutton; Robert Redford s directorial debut
* 1981 Broadway debut as Humbert Humbert in Edward Albee s stage adaptation of Lolita
* 1981 Founded McNichol Pictures Inc. (also president)
* 1981 Played a German agent in the thriller, Eye of the Needle
* 1983 Appeared in Max Dugan Returns along with son Kiefer in his film debut (also debut of Matthew Broderick)
* 1983 Returned to TV after a 15-year absence in the CBS movie John Steinbeck s The Winter of Our Discontent
* 1987 Portrayed middle-aged Paul Gauguin in Wolf at the Door ; also provided voice of Gauguin in PBS Paul Gauguin: The Savage Dream (1989)
* 1989 Cast as a teacher in the South African apartheid drama A Dry White Season
* 1991 Cast as a mad firebug in Ron Howard s Backdraft
* 1991 Played a mysterious Washington intelligence officer in Oliver Stone s JFK
* 1992 Mentored Kristy Swanson in the feature, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
* 1993 Offered a captivating performance as a snobbish but charming, upscale New Yorker living through the eyes of other people in Six Degrees of Separation ; film is based on a 1990 play by John Guare
* 1994 Narrator for The Learning Channel s Great Books series
* 1994 Portrayed a corporate honcho in Barry Levinson s adaptation of Michael Crichton s Disclosure
* 1995 Came aboard Outbreak late to play the icy General McClintock
* 1995 Offered an award winning performance as Colonel Fetisov in the HBO movie Citizen X
* 1996 Second film with son Kiefer, as the alcoholic mentor of Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) in A Time to Kill
* 1997 Cast as a coldly manipulative CIA agent in The Assignment
* 1998 Played University of Oregon track coach, Bill Bowerman in Robert Towne s Without Limits about track sensation Steve Prefontaine
* 1998 Stalked the hidden enemy in the supernatural thriller Fallen
* 2000 Acted on stage in Enigma Variations
* 2001 Had lead role as an Irish thief who plans to rob an airport terminal in the A&E original The Big Heist
* 2001 Starred as a painter in the Off-Broadway play Ten Unknowns by Jon Robin Baitz
* 2003 Cast in Anthony Minghella s war epic Cold Mountain
* 2003 Had memorable role in F. Gary Gray s remake of the Italian Job
* 2005 Cast as Speaker of the House, Nathan Templeton in Rod Lurie s ABC drama Commander in Chief ; earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor
* 2005 Cast as the patriarch in Joe Wright s adaptation of the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice
* 2005 Co-starred with Mira Sorvino in the Lifetime movie Human Trafficking ; earned Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for Best Actor in a TV movie
* 2006 Co-starred with Colin Farrell in the Robert Towne-directed adaptation of Ask the Dust
* 2006 Played a Virginia firearms-shop owner in Aric Avelino s film debut American Gun
* 2007 Cast as Patrick Tripp Darling III on ABC s Dirty Sexy Money ; earned a Golden Globe (2008) nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Series
* 2007 Played an aging aristocratic billionaire in Griffin Dunne s Fierce People
* 2008 Played multi-millionaire Nigel Honeycut in Fool s Gold
* 2009 Lent his voice to the animated feature, Astro Boy
* Acted with the Perth Repertory Theatre in Scotland
* Played Scrooge in a radio production of Dickens A Christmas Carol

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