Donald Sutherland, magnetic Hollywood star whose work ranged from Don’t Look Now to The Hunger Games – obituary

Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now: he believed the actor's job was not to argue, but to be manipulated
Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now: he believed the actor's job was not to argue, but to be manipulated - Ronald Grant Archive

Donald Sutherland, the Canadian-born actor who has died aged 88, was one of Hollywood’s busiest and most versatile stars, capable of playing everything from comedy to Grand Guignol, and gaining a new audience as the monstrous dictator in the Hunger Games film franchise.

Sutherland, who appeared in over 100 films, was one of the most distinctive looking men ever to make it as a leading Hollywood star. A rakish, loose-limbed 6 ft 4 in, with big ears, a toothy grin, prominent pale blue eyes and a hang dog expression, he might have been called ugly in conventional terms.

At the same time, though, he exerted a brooding sexual magnetism which many women found irresistible, and his lugubrious baritone voice was as instantly recognisable as James Mason’s.

He was respected by his peers and by directors for his willingness to accept direction, and for his ability to bring his artistic intelligence to bear on absorbing a director’s wishes. He believed that the actor’s job is not to argue, but to be manipulated, an unusual view in Hollywood, where stars traditionally behave like autocrats.

Yet at the same time Sutherland was no cipher. Laid-back and likeably eccentric, he always insisted on a no-nudity clause in his contracts, on the grounds that he did not want the sight of his penis to destroy an audience’s suspension of disbelief.

In M*A*S*H (1970) with Elliot Gould
In M*A*S*H (1970) with Elliot Gould - Alamy

Sutherland’s easy charm was best expressed in the character of Hawkeye Pierce, the oddball iconoclast in Robert Altman’s Korean war satire M*A*S*H (1970), the film which catapulted him to stardom. Interestingly, Sutherland did not consider he had made the best of Altman’s light-touch directing style, as he had not yet learnt his place as an actor, and insisted on playing the part his own way.

His perception of the actor’s role was changed by the British director Nicolas Roeg, for whom he worked in his adaption of Daphne du Maurier’s eerie horror tale Don’t Look Now (1974). Sutherland had read the story and agreed to do it, but suggested to Roeg that it should have a happy ending. “Do you want to do it or not?” Roeg demanded brusquely. “Because that’s the film.”

Sutherland went on to give one of his most memorable performances as the bereaved father haunted by visions of his recently drowned daughter. The film was particularly memorable for a torrid sex scene between Sutherland and his co-star Julie Christie, which was so realistic it left audiences wondering whether the two had become carried away and had actually done the deed.

In fact, the scene was a very good example of Sutherland’s ability to take direction. As he recalled later, the two barely knew each other when they had to walk naked on to the set and lie on the bed: “The director said: ‘Right, Julie, pull your knees up to your shoulder. Donald, take your mouth and slide it down the inside of her left thigh.’ It went on like this for 12 hours. Neither of us could speak afterwards.”

Sutherland and Jane Fonda in Klute, 1971
Sutherland and Jane Fonda in Klute, 1971 - Rex

Sutherland worked for some of the greatest directors of the 20th century, including Federico Fellini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Louis Malle, John Schlesinger and Robert Aldrich.

Among other performances, he played the psychopathic private who impersonates a general in The Dirty Dozen; the star-struck clerk, Homer Simpson, in Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust; a fascist foreman in Bertolucci’s 1900; the title role in Fellini’s Casanova; the father struggling to keep his family together in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980); and an Afrikaner teacher who sees the light in A Dry White Season (1998).

Yet Sutherland’s very versatility sometimes counted against him, and his name was conspicuously absent from the lists of Oscar nominations. His failure to build up a consistent image meant that he never had an identifiable following. Because no two of his roles were alike, audiences never knew what to expect when he was cast and formed no clear view of his personality.

In Don't Look Now Sutherland played a  father haunted by visions of his drowned daughter
In Don't Look Now Sutherland played a father haunted by visions of his drowned daughter - Vin Mag Archive Ltd

Donald Sutherland was born on July 17 1935 at St John, New Brunswick, and was raised in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, where his father ran the local bus, gas and elctricity company. As a child he suffered frequent bouts of ill health: he contracted polio when he was two and was confined to bed with rheumatic fever for a year at the age of 11.

Sutherland never visited the theatre as a child and at first he wanted to be a sculptor. But he was soon showing his potential as a performer, becoming Canada’s youngest disc jockey aged 14 and winning local acclaim for his vivid radio portrayal of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

He still harboured ambitions to become a sculptor, though his father advised him to get a profession to fall back on and he entered Toronto University to study Engineering. His first taste of theatre came via a variety of roles in campus productions: his performance in The Tempest brought the attention of a Toronto Globe and Mail critic, who suggested to Sutherland that he consider an acting career.

By the end of his time at the university, he was so involved in acting, he failed his exams in accounting and statistics. He transferred to Victoria College and graduated in English.

With Julie Christie in Don't Look Now
With Julie Christie in Don't Look Now - alamy

Sutherland admired the versatility of British actors such as Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness and decided to train in Britain, rather than in America, believing that British acting schools instilled better discipline. He arrived in London in 1952 to study at Lamda, but found it “snobby and unwelcoming” and left a year later, after his voice coach advised him to become a lorry driver.

He then auditioned for the Perth Repertory Theatre and was taken on as their second lead, beginning an apprenticeship in British rep which took him all round the country. By 1961 he was appearing in television shows like The Saint and in 1963 he made his West End stage debut in August for the People with Rex Harrison and Rachel Roberts.

The following year he was cast in his first significant film role, Il Castello dei Morti Vivi  (Castle of the Living Dead), an Italian horror movie directed by Warren Keifer, in which Sutherland had an early chance to demonstrate his versatility by playing a dual role as a young soldier and an old hag.

His performance in this otherwise unedifying piece was enough to convince various casting directors of his potential – at least for horror movies – and, after moving to America, Sutherland was soon appearing in a number of second-rate examples of the genre, including Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and Die! Die! Darling! (both 1965).

A move into more respectable fare came in 1967, when Robert Aldrich cast him as a slow-witted killer in the highly successful The Dirty Dozen. By the early 1970s, Sutherland had become an established star, thanks to his leading roles in Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Start the Revolution Without Me (1969) and M*A*S*H (1970).

As Mr Bennett opposite Keira Knightley's Lizzie in the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice
As Mr Bennett opposite Keira Knightley's Lizzie in the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice - Everett Collection/Rex Features

In 1971 he enhanced his reputation for versatility with a portrayal of a small town private detective in Alan J Pakula’s Klute, from which his co-star Jane Fonda walked away with an Oscar for Best Actress.

By this time, Sutherland had become something of an idol for younger audiences, due to the kind of roles he took on and to his vociferous opposition to the Vietnam war. He had begun an affair with Jane Fonda during the filming of Klute and together they roamed the world, denouncing the war. In 1972 they made the anti-war documentary FTA. Sutherland continued his mainstream Hollywood work, enjoying success with Don’t Look Now  in 1973 as well as The Day of the Locust (1974) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976).

In 1978, he won a permanent place in the hearts of ageing hippies with his portrayal of a pot-smoking, metaphysics-spouting college professor in National Lampoon’s Animal House. Sutherland had been so convinced the film would be a failure that, when offered a percent of the gross profits or an upfront payment of $40,000, he took the upfront payment. Had he taken the gross percentage he would have earned $30-40 million. It was the sort of bad judgment that would be repeated on several occasions during his career.

Sutherland (1981): laid-back and likeably eccentric
Sutherland (1981): laid-back and likeably eccentric - Jean-Louis URLI

After the critically acclaimed Ordinary People (1980), in which almost the entire ensemble got Oscar nominations except for Sutherland, he entered a relatively unremarkable phase of his career, appearing in one forgettable film after another. He turned down starring roles in Deliverance and Straw Dogs because he did not agree with the violence, though he later admitted he had been wrong to do so.

In 1989, however, he won ecstatic reviews for his role in A Dry White Season and his title role in Bethune: The Making of a Hero.

In the 1990s, he was the informant who cried conspiracy in JFK (1991), a Van Helsing figure in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), a wealthy New Yorker who gets taken in by con artist Will Smith in Six Degrees of Separation (1993), and a general in the virus thriller Outbreak (1995).

The same year, he won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his role in the television drama Citizen X. In 1998, he earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as the track coach in Without Limits, Robert Towne’s film based on the life of the runner Steve Prefontaine. He won another Golden Globe in 2003 for the Vietnam-themed TV movie Path to War.

In 2000, he enjoyed further critical and commercial success with Space Cowboys, a good-natured adventure in which he teamed up with Tommy Lee Jones, Clint Eastwood and James Garner as geriatric astronauts who get another chance to blast into orbit.

As President Snow in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)
As President Snow in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015) - Alamy

Sutherland continued working into old age, his President Snow adding a silky, sinister presence to four instalments of the Hunger Games film series (2012-15); and last year he lent gravitas to the acclaimed Paramount+ Western miniseries Lawmen: Bass Reeves as “Hanging” Judge Parker.

Sutherland made his Broadway debut in 1981 in Lolita and appeared in 2000 at the Savoy Theatre, London, as a reclusive Nobel Prize-winning author in Enigmatic Variations, a translation by his son Roeg of a play by the French writer Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. Neither play was a critical success, however.

In the 1970s he had turned down an offer to act in and invest in La Cage aux Folles which went on to be a spectacular Broadway hit. The decision was one which, he freely confessed, made him feel “very stupid for a long time”.

He was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 2017.

Sutherland enjoyed expensive wines, but only drank claret after finding that Burgundy turned him “into Oliver Reed”. He became a crusading non-smoker after discovering that he was allergic to smoke. He was devoted to his (third) family and to his Jack Russell, Ruby.

Sutherland was married three times, first, in 1959 (dissolved 1966) to Lois Hardwick, a Canadian actress whom he met during his time in Britain; secondly, in 1966 (dissolved 1971) to Shirley Douglas, another Canadian actress and daughter of Tommy Douglas, the leader of Canada’s centre-left New Democratic Party; and thirdly, in 1990, to Francine Racette, a French-Canadian actress whom he had lived with since 1972.

He had a daughter and a son by Shirley Douglas and three sons by Francine Racette. All his sons (Angus Redford, Rossif, Roeg and Kiefer Sutherland, the actor) were named after film directors.

Donald Sutherland, born July 17 1935, death announced June 20 2024