Donald Sutherland’s 10 greatest roles

Sutherland in Don't Look Now, 1973
Sutherland in Don't Look Now, 1973 - Ronald Grant Archive

RIP the great, great Donald Sutherland. He was one of those actors who seemed as if he would go on forever; his death at the age of 88 was not unexpected – he had been suffering from a long illness – but his presence in both cinematic classics and undistinguished B-movies alike was at the very least welcome, and at best electrifying.

Somehow, he never won an Oscar, nor was even nominated for one, but Sutherland had a remarkable range that encompassed everything from broad comedy to high tragedy. He was often cast in villainous roles, which he had a great talent for, but he was equally good at conveying warmth and sensitivity, particularly as he grew into his status as a much-beloved character actor.

He will be much missed, but here are ten of the roles that he will be remembered for as long as cinema – in whatever form – exists.

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Sutherland began his career in 1963 and was initially best known for his appearances in horror B-movies. He had his first big break in Robert Aldrich’s men-on-a-mission war film The Dirty Dozen, playing the supporting role of Vernon L Pinkley, one of the stupidest and least able of the dozen, who nevertheless proves his heroic prowess when it counts in the climax, sacrificing himself while killing as many Nazis as he can in the process.

Although the role is nominally comic relief, Sutherland brings a warped charisma to the part that sees him ably steal scenes from his more famous co-stars, even if Lee Marvin’s exasperated expressions at his lunacy seem to reflect both off-screen irritation with the actor as well as his on-screen sternness.

M*A*S*H (1970)

The actor’s breakthrough role came in another war picture, this time dealing with the farcical exploits of surgeons in the Korean War, again directed by Robert Altman. As the womanising, suave “Hawkeye” Pierce, Sutherland was given considerably more to do than in The Dirty Dozen, even if it’s quite clear that Pierce would have been appalled at doing anything so grotesque as getting involved in the fighting.

During filming, Sutherland and his co-star Elliott Gould were perpetually at loggerheads with Altman, disliking his free-wheeling, chaotic style of filmmaking, and although Gould and the director reconciled and collaborated on several more occasions, Sutherland never worked with him again. In retrospect, this is an enormous pity, as Altman proved a hugely able conductor of Sutherland’s rangy, half-goofy, half-knowing charisma, and it would have been wonderful to see them make more films together.

Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould in M*A*S*H
Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould in M*A*S*H - Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Klute (1971)

If films such as M*A*S*H and Kelly’s Heroes had established Sutherland as one of Hollywood’s most beloved comic actors, then he got a real chance to stretch himself in Alan J Pakula’s superb noirish thriller, in which he stars opposite Jane Fonda as a detective helping a sex worker try and discover which of her former clients is stalking her. The procedural aspects of the film are engaging enough, but what elevates this from enjoyable to unforgettable is the electrifying relationship between Fonda and Sutherland, which verges on a romance but never quite turns into one, and the chemistry between the two on screen is extraordinary. Unsurprisingly, it soon turned into an offscreen entanglement, too, their relationship lasting two years.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Everyone has their favourite Donald Sutherland picture, and this is mine. Nicolas Roeg’s unforgettably chilly and tragic horror film has scenes that have long since passed into cinematic iconography (the famous love scene between Sutherland and Julie Christie, which was always rumoured to have turned into real lovemaking; one of cinema’s nastiest twist endings) but it’s anchored by one of the actor’s most humane and restrained performances. Not only does he convey the sheer tragic enormity of losing a child in an accident, but he responds to the Venetian-set, potentially supernatural shenanigans, with a mixture of doubt and stoicism that makes him a deeply sympathetic and wholly likeable lead.

Don't Look Now
Don't Look Now - Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)

Sutherland spent much of the Seventies in high-profile leading roles, so his return to broad comedy for John Landis’s uproarious campus farce was welcomed by those who wanted to see him in a more unrestrained vein again. As the dope-smoking literature academic Professor Jennings, he is not only the epitome of a lecherous lecturer, but manages to steal scenes from the ferociously talented young comedians who co-starred alongside him.

Sutherland was hired because Universal, the studio behind the picture, demanded that Landis cast a name actor, and he was offered either an upfront fee of $25,000 or a 2% share of the profits. Sutherland had little faith in the film’s success and so took the upfront payment, but had he taken the profit share, he would have made between $15 and $20 million, making this one of the worst business decisions ever made by an actor.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

As with Don’t Look Now, it’s the final twist from the horror remake Invasion of the Body Snatchers that most people remember: the revelation that Sutherland’s protagonist Matthew Bennell has been taken over by the pod people, as he points at Veronica Cartwright’s character and emits a high-pitched scream. Yet the rest of the film is just as good, and disturbing, being a proper Seventies wallow in palm-sweating paranoia and uncertainty, where the sci-fi elements feel only like a heightened version of what was going on in the real world every day. Sutherland was cast because Mike Medavoy, head of United Artists, had liked him in Don’t Look Now, but wanted him to look as similar as he did in the earlier film. To this end, he had to have his hair put in curlers every day before filming, so as to recreate a version of his earlier appearance.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Invasion of the Body Snatchers - Sunset Boulevard

JFK (1991)

With a couple of exceptions – such as his appearance in the Oscar-winning Ordinary People and his lead in the apartheid drama A Dry White Season – the Eighties were a largely useless decade for Sutherland on screen, as he was seldom cast in the roles that he merited. He rebounded spectacularly in a brief but unforgettable cameo in Oliver Stone’s operatic conspiracy thriller JFK in which he played an anonymous establishment character only billed as “X”. His character appears in a single scene, opposite Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison, and delivers a stunningly acted, almost hilariously paranoid monologue in which he raises the stakes immensely for Garrison’s investigation into Kennedy’s assassination by telling him what’s really going on. It began a lucrative second act for Sutherland in character roles, whether villainous or plain mysterious, but this is the best of the bunch.

Without Limits (1998)

It may be less well known than many of the pictures on this list, but Robert Towne’s inspirational sports drama, focusing on the relationship between Billy Crudup’s long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine and Sutherland’s coach Bill Bowerman (who went on to found Nike), deserves more recognition. By now, Sutherland had settled into the avuncular period of his career, but he brilliantly conveys Bowerman’s passion for the sport, his half-antagonistic, half-supportive relationship with his protégé and the sheer commitment with which he approached his often thankless task. His performance is up there with Ian Holm in a similar role in Chariots of Fire – there is little higher praise – and he was deservedly nominated for a Golden Globe, which, alas, he did not win.

Billy Crudup and Donald Sutherland
Billy Crudup and Donald Sutherland - Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Joe Wright’s overrated Jane Austen adaptation has one ace up its frilly sleeve, and that is Sutherland’s wonderfully rich and humane performance as Mr Bennett. Most of the film cannot compare to the legendary BBC adaptation, but for my money Sutherland is richer, more poignant and funnier than even Benjamin Whitrow’s superb appearance in the television drama, bringing every conceivable ounce of nuance and wit to the part.

The American version of the film insisted on adding a redundant romantic scene between Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen at its conclusion, but the picture proper ends with a wonderfully warm and witty scene in which Sutherland, wryly reflecting on the matrimonial antics of his family, declares “If any young men come for Mary or Kitty, for heaven’s sake, send them in. I’m quite at my leisure.”

The Hunger Games (2012 – 2016)

Sutherland was very good at playing villains, even in films that didn’t deserve him, but it was in the four-film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games books that he truly excelled. As the superbly named President Coriolanus Snow, the despotic ruler of Panem, Sutherland, in his last major roles in cinema, conveys a mixture of brutality, intelligence and realpolitik, giving the sometimes tedious romantic entanglements that Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss is embroiled in a weight and gravity that the films do not really merit. Every time that his white-bearded tyrant appears on screen, the pictures become more compelling, and Sutherland brings a wry, seen-it-all quality to his acts of villainy that makes them all the more chilling in their monstrousness.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II - Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo