Donald Sutherland was a fearless actor who brought frightening energy to many roles

The actor, who was born in Canada, never received an Oscar nomination despite starring in groundbreaking films

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 18:  Actor Donald Sutherland arrives at the Los Angeles Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 18, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
Actor Donald Sutherland, who has died at the age of 88. Photograph: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

Donald Sutherland was, until his death on Thursday at the age of 88, everyone’s prime candidate for best living actor never to have received an Oscar nomination. Such things shouldn’t matter. But the argument gave cinema watchers an opportunity to run through the performances that deserved to have been so honoured.

Think of his anarchic turn as Hawkeye Pierce in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H from 1970. How did they ignore his icy cop in Alan Pakula’s Klute from 1971? Everyone else in the cast seemed to get nominated for Robert Redford’s 1980 best-picture winner Ordinary People. Best of all, perhaps, was his 1973 performance as a bereaved father haunted among Venetian shadows in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. One saw the full range there. He could wrap stentorian importance about himself, but there was, even in such harrowing material, always a sliver of sly wit poking through. Sutherland forever seemed to be in on a secret.

Kiefer Sutherland, his son, himself a busy actor, spoke for many who never met the man. “With a heavy heart, I tell you that my father, Donald Sutherland, has passed away,” he wrote on Instagram. “I personally think one of the most important actors in the history of film. Never daunted by a role, good, bad or ugly.”

Donald Sutherland, Hunger Games and Don’t Look Now actor, dies at 88Opens in new window ]

Donald Sutherland, who received the Order of Canada as far back as 1978, was born in New Brunswick to middle-class parents. Plagued with illness as a child, he moved with his family to Nova Scotia at the age of 12. He graduated in drama and engineering from Victoria University in Toronto before making for the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.


“I don’t think anybody of my generation became an actor to make money,” he told the BBC in 2015. “It never occurred to me. I made £8 a week here. When I starred in a play at the Royal Court, I made £17 a week, that was in 1964.”

His first screen roles were in British films and television. He can be seen in the enjoyable anthology Dr Terror’s House of Horror from 1965 and opposite Christopher Lee in the historical shocker Castle of the Living Dead from 1964. His breakthrough came as one of 12 hoodlums sent on a commando raid in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen.

Then came Altman’s M*A*S*H. That film, with its salty language and overlapping dialogue, was among those ushering in a new era for Hollywood. Alongside Elliot Gould, he played an army doctor driven to cynicism by the apparently pointless war in Korea (an unmistakable stand-in for Vietnam).

More challenging work came as American cinema continued to map out its post-classical route, but Sutherland was in a different category to gnarlier talents such as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. He had a restraint and a stillness that, if he wasn’t speaking in his own accent, could easily be mistaken for the product of an English upbringing.

Solid and inhibited opposite Jane Fonda’s freethinking call girl in Klute, he looked to be in total control, but, in a later interview, he revealed he didn’t fully connect with Pakula’s technique. He said Klute “was a film where the director had a specific idea, which I didn’t particularly understand, nor was I particularly interested in”.

Everything came together in Don’t Look Now, a film rich in mystery that, infuriatingly for the cast, generated absurd rumours that a famous sex scene between Sutherland and Julie Christie was “unsimulated”.

Sutherland was never again short of work. He did not have the dashing elan of a matinee idol, but that warm – sometimes frightening – energy found him endlessly satisfying character roles for the succeeding 50 years. He is delightful as a conspiracy theorist in Oliver Stone’s JFK from 1991. In the current century he excelled as Keira Knightley’s dad in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice and as the flamboyantly named President Coriolanus Snow in the Hunger Games films.

Donald Sutherland, who was married three times, is survived by his wife, the Canadian actor Francine Racette, and by five children, among them Kiefer, star of the hit series 24. His granddaughter, Sarah Sutherland, triumphed as the eponymous vice-president’s miserable daughter in the comedy show Veep.

“I haven’t found anything hard about being an actor except rejection,” he told Esquire magazine in 2011. “And I don’t even find that so hard.”