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Donald Sutherland: Hollywood’s dark chameleon

Agence France-Presse

With his towering height and a brooding expression that veered from menacing to hilarious and heartbroken, Donald Sutherland was Hollywood’s chameleon, equally at home in war, love, horror – or playing for laughs.

In a dense filmography spanning six decades, he stood out for his unusual – even odd – looks and an incredible range of roles, working alongside several of the greatest directors of his time.

The enigmatic actor whose lengthy career encompassed films including “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Hunger Games,” has died, his son said Thursday. He was 88.

“With a heavy heart, I tell you that my father, Donald Sutherland, has passed away,” actor Kiefer Sutherland (best known for the drama series “24”) wrote on X.

The elder Sutherland had a distinctive look – and piercing eyes – that brought a depth and mystery to the huge range of roles he inhabited over more than half a century on the big screen.

One of Canada’s most famous sons, he played dashing leading men as well as antiheroes and villains, most recently making a name among a new generation of fans as the evil President Snow in “The Hunger Games” franchise.

“I personally think one of the most important actors in the history of film. Never daunted by a role, good, bad or ugly. He loved what he did and did what he loved, and one can never ask for more than that. A life well lived,” wrote Kiefer Sutherland.

Reaction to the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winner’s death was swift, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hailing his unique talents.

“I had the opportunity when I was much younger to meet Donald Sutherland, and even as a young man who hadn’t had a full exposure to the depth of brilliance of Donald Sutherland, I was deeply, deeply star struck,” he told a press conference.

“He was a man with a strong presence, a brilliance in his craft, and truly, truly, a great Canadian artist, and he will be deeply missed.”

US President Joe Biden paid tribute to a “one-of-a-kind actor who inspired and entertained the world for decades.”

“Canada’s greatest export,” Britain's Daily Telegraph once called him.

“One of the most versatile film and television actors of the century,” Variety said.

Ron Howard, who directed Sutherland alongside Robert De Niro and Kurt Russell in action-thriller “Backdraft,” called him “one of the most intelligent, interesting, and engrossing film actors of all time.”

“Incredible range, creative courage and dedication to serving the story and the audience with supreme excellence,” he wrote on social media.

British actor Helen Mirren, who starred with Sutherland in 2017’s “The Leisure Seeker,” said he was “one of the smartest actors I ever worked with,” Variety reported.

“He had a wonderful enquiring brain, and a great knowledge on a wide variety of subjects. He combined this great intelligence with a deep sensitivity, and with a seriousness about his profession as an actor. This all made him into the legend of film that he became. He was my colleague and became my friend. I will miss his presence in this world.”

Rob Lowe said Sutherland had been “one of our greatest actors.”

“If you want a master class in acting, watch him in ‘Ordinary People’,” he wrote on social media, referring to Robert Redford’s multi-Oscar-winning directorial debut in 1980 about the disintegration of a wealthy family.

“Barry” and “Happy Days” actor Henry Winkler called Sutherland “singular,” an adjective also chosen by “The Batman” director Matt Reeves.

“Such a beautiful, soulful, and singular actor. His performances have meant so very much to me...and to the world. One of the all-time greats,” he wrote on X.

‘Unattractive, not ugly’

Born on July 17, 1935 in New Brunswick, northeastern Canada, Donald Edward McNichol Sutherland was a sickly child, suffering from hepatitis, polio and rheumatic fever. “One leg’s a little shorter, but I survived,” he told Esquire magazine in 2011.

As an adult, he shot up to 6 foot 3 inches, but was long aware that not everyone would consider him handsome. “Unattractive is a gentler way of putting it,” he responded when asked by CBS whether he considered himself ugly.

After working as a part-time DJ for local radio as a teenager, he graduated from the University of Toronto in drama and engineering. Opting to pursue the theater against the wishes of his parents, he moved to London when he was 22 and later to Scotland.

He appeared in his first feature in 1964, the Italian gothic horror “The Castle of the Living Dead.” Small television roles followed, including on cult British series such as “The Avengers” and “The Saint.”

1970s hits

After what he called a “meandering” start to his acting career, Sutherland came to prominence in Robert Aldrich’s “The Dirty Dozen,” where 12 convicts are tasked with carrying out what appears to be a suicide mission in occupied France.

Starring alongside luminaries such as Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin and Telly Savalas, Sutherland’s impish charm caught the attention of producers of “M*A*S*H.” Though set in the Korean War, the 1970 film was widely seen as a sophisticated satire on the Vietnam War.

His casting opposite Elliott Gould turned Sutherland into a household name in 1970s America, and opened the door to a durable career that would see him work with some of the biggest names in show business.

They included Jane Fonda, with whom he starred in 1971’s “Klute,” in which he played a detective who falls for the call girl he is supposed to be protecting. Fonda won an Oscar for her performance, which she credited to her intense feelings for Sutherland, with whom she was in a relationship at the time.

Their off-screen chemistry brought Sutherland into her pacifist orbit, and he became active in anti-Vietnam War circles. The pair put together a traveling revue, which irked the US government and landed them both under FBI surveillance.

Sutherland, an Emmy and Golden Globe winner, received an honorary Oscar in 2017, although he was never nominated for a competitive Academy Award. He was given a star on Hollywood’s storied Walk of Fame in 2011, saying at the ceremony that the honor meant more to him than a fancy gravestone.

“Getting old,” he said in Esquire in 2011, “is like having a new profession, except it’s not a profession of your own choosing.” And death will be “a lonely little journey,” he said.

Sutherland left five children from three wives, all of whom have worked in the film or television industry in some way.

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