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People In Film | Donald Sutherland

Donald Sutherland | The Eagle's Elder Statesman

In Kevin Macdonald's Roman adventure The Eagle, legendary actor Donald Sutherland plays Aquila, a retired general who is the uncle of the hero, Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum). “Uncle Aquila pushes Marcus, and makes him get out of bed in the morning which at that point in the story is the only thing that keeps Marcus going,” says Tatum. “He’s a wise, quirky man – and that’s who Donald Sutherland is, too.” Though a journeyed veteran like his character, Sutherland differs in that he is far from retired and still has a hunger for the challenge of acting. In a recent interview, Sutherland said, “It’s thrilling, it really is a thrilling way to work. I’ve played loads of characters that have nothing to do with [me]. It’s an interesting challenge that titillates and tantalizes me. It’s limitless the creative possibilities with this.”

Donald Sutherland | From Canada to Hollywood

Born in St. John, New Brunswick, in 1935, and then raised in Nova Scotia, Donald Sutherland grew up as far from Hollywood as one could imagine.  And his father, who ran the local gas and electric company, and his mother, who taught mathematics, hardly prepared him for stardom. But by the age of 14, he gained the distinction of being the youngest dj/news reader in Canada, getting a hefty $.30 hour for his work at CKBW. Although he began the University of Toronto with a proclaimed desire to be an engineer, in a few years he moved into acting and studying literature. After college, he moved to England to attend the London Academy of Music and Dramatic. Cutting his professional teeth in Britain, doing stage productions and BBC television shows, Sutherland got his first film role in the low-budget horror flick Castle of the Living Dead playing the double part of klutzy cop and withered hag.

Donald Sutherland | The Quintessential Seventies Star

A year after Castle of the Living Dead came out, Sutherland moved to Los Angeles, picking up various TV roles, before getting his breakout part as one of The Dirty Dozen in Robert Aldrich’s hit military flick. That film caught the attention of Robert Altman who cast him as the martini-guzzling, skirt-chasing, ace army surgeon Hawkeye Pierce in the 1970 zeitgeist comedy M*A*S*H. In many ways, Sutherland would prove the quintessential seventies movie star––quirky, irreverent, but always memorable. When as a teenager he’d asked his mother if he was handsome, she replied quite to the point: “Donald to be perfectly truthful, no. But your face has a lot of character.” And that character kept getting him noticed by great directors. Alan J. Pakula cast him as a straight small town cop (opposite Jane Fonda’s New York city call girl) in the 1971 psychological thriller Klute. For the 1973 horror classic Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, as critic Amy Taubin notes, “maps Sutherland's disintegrating psyche onto the city of Venice, with its labyrinthian alleys, murky canals, and crumbling facades.” Indeed world-class directors used Sutherland expressive face and deep eyes as a conduit for all kinds of characters, often with less than stellar attributes. For the 1975 Hollywood expose The Day of the Locust, John Schlesinger cast him as a sad-sack accountant who captures the pathos of celebrity culture. For Fellini's Casanova, the Italian master choose him to express the shallow narcissism of the title character. And then for his historical epic 1900, Bernardo Bertolucci asked Sutherland to take on the persona of the vicious Fascist farm manager.

Donald Sutherland | The (Anti-)Establishment Guy

As the withdrawn father in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, Sutherland moved away from the quirky leading man into various more establishment parts. Of course, Sutherland never quite fit the perfectly domesticated character. He once quipped, “I was up for a great part but they told me: 'Sorry, you're the best actor but this part calls for a guy-next-door type. You don't look as if you've ever lived next door to anyone'.” Indeed his character as the anti-establishment establishment role was perfected as the pot-smoking professor in John Landis Animal House, a film that was a huge success, much to Sutherland’s chagrin. He’d turned down taking a percentage of box-office gross, losing millions in the process. While in the 80s and 90s, Sutherland never hit the string of hits he experienced in the 70s, he nevertheless made his mark in films Euzhan Palcy’s South African drama A Dry White Season, Oliver Stone's 1991 historical drama JFK and Fred Schepisi’s 1993 Six Degrees of Separation.

Donald Sutherland | An Acting Patriarch

However dysfunctional his cinematic families have been, Sutherland has maintained a strong family life in real life. For almost 40 years, he has been married to French Canadian actress Francine Racette, with whom he has three sons, Roeg, Rossif and Angus Redford. (He also has two children, Kiefer and Rachel, from his previous marriage to Shirley Douglas.) Sutherland and Racette made two movies together in the 1970s (Alien Thunder and The Disappearance), and since then he has continued the tradition of collaborating on projects with family members by acting alongside Kiefer Sutherland in Max Dugan Returns (1983)and A Time to Kill (1996), Angus Sutherland in the TV series Commander in Chief (2005) and Rossif Sutherland in Poor Boy's Game (2007) and The Con Artist (2010).

Donald Sutherland | An Actor who Never Gets Old

At age 60, when most actors would be winding down their careers, Sutherland was getting a second wind. By the mid-90s and into the 21st century, Sutherland became a high-profile character actor in a number of big budget Hollywood productions (from thrillers, like A Time to Kill, The Italian Job, and Outbreak, to sweeping period pieces like Cold Mountain and Pride and Prejudice). In addition TV series, like Commander in Chief and Dirty Sexy Money, turned to him to add that special quirky flavor he perfected in the 70s. One of his most memorable roles of recent years was in playing the lovable Mr. Bennet in Joe Wright's adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (which, like The Eagle, is a Focus Features film). Looking back on the experience of working on that movie, Sutherland said, “It was delicious and they all treated me like Papa. Just wonderful. At 70 years old, it would cheer anybody up.”


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