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Canadian acting icon Donald Sutherland dead at 88

Towering actor whose career spanned ‘M.A.S.H.’ to ‘Hunger Games’ won hnourary Oscar in 2017
Actor Donald Sutherland reacts after being invested as a Companion of the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Thursday, November 21, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Wattie

Donald Sutherland, the New Brunswick-born acting legend with the distinct baritone voice and prolific stage and screen career that inspired sons Kiefer and Rossif to pursue the craft, has died.

He died at age 88, Kiefer Sutherland said in a social media post on Thursday.

“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,” the younger Sutherland wrote on X. “A life well lived.”

At six-foot-four, with big blue eyes and a deep, dulcet voice, the elder Sutherland was a striking and unmistakable presence in film, television and radio for more than 50 years.

His varied film roles included snarky surgeon Hawkeye Pierce in “MASH,” Julie Christie’s troubled husband in the thriller “Don’t Look Now,” and a Washington intelligence officer in Oliver Stone’s “JFK.”

On TV, he played the Speaker of the House in “Commander in Chief” and the rich patriarch in “Dirty, Sexy, Money.”

Though he was in more than 100 films, Sutherland was never nominated for an Academy Award. He did, however, receive an honorary Oscar in 2017, as well as two BAFTA nominations, an Emmy Award and two Golden Globes.

He was also an officer of the Order of Canada and won a Genie and a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award.

But in 2023, he told The Canadian Press he didn’t reflect much on his legacy or the breadth of his career: “You know, it’s over or very nearly over, so I guess I really got to get down to thinking about it.”

His memoir, “Made Up, But Still True” is slated for publication by Viking Canada in November.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among those to mourn Sutherland, telling a press conference in Wolfville, N.S., that he met the actor when he was young and was “deeply, deeply starstruck.”

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

As Sutherland worked around the world, he maintained a home in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where he hosted dinner parties for his famous family and celebrity friends.

“I love this country,” Sutherland said when he received the Governor General’s Award in 2000.

“You know, (W.H.) Auden, the English poet, said that a poet’s hope is to be like some valley cheese: local, but prized elsewhere. I kind of feel like that.”

Sutherland was born in Saint John and raised in Bridgewater, N.S. His father, Frederick Sutherland, was a salesman and his mother, Dorothy Isobel, a mathematics teacher. Various reports say Sutherland battled polio, rheumatic fever and hepatitis as a child.

At age 14, Sutherland landed a part-time job as a DJ and news broadcaster for local radio station CKBW. It was the start of a successful side career in multimedia voiceover work — something son Kiefer also pursued.

Sutherland studied drama, engineering and English at the University of Toronto, where he played to audiences at the Hart House Theatre and met his first wife of seven years, Lois Hardwick. His memories of toga parties at U of T’s Gate House residence were said to be the inspiration for the 1978 film “Animal House,” in which he co-starred.

Author Margaret Atwood wrote on social media that she remembered Sutherland from their time at Victoria College at the University of Toronto.

“He was a great actor even then,” she wrote on X.

After getting his degree in 1958, Sutherland attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in England and went on to act with the Perth Repertory Theatre in Scotland and on London’s West End.

Though he left Canada, he stayed in touch with his loved ones back home, he told The Canadian Press in a 2023 interview when Canada Post released a stamp bearing his face.

“The only thing that connects you — at that time, in the late ’40s, early ’50s — was a letter in the post. They became the thread in the fabric that bounded my family together,” he said.

In the early 1960s, Sutherland transitioned from stage to features, including the thrillers “Castle of the Living Dead,” “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” and “Die! Die! My Darling!” He also landed small roles on TV series including “Court Martial,” “The Saint” and “The Avengers.”

In 1966, Sutherland married his second wife, Canadian actress and activist Shirley Douglas, daughter of medicare founder Tommy Douglas. That same year they had twins Rachel and Kiefer, who has become a star in his own right with films including “The Lost Boys” and the TV series “24.”

When Sutherland saw that his son wanted to follow in his footsteps, he gave him one important piece of advice: “I don’t care what you do with your life,” Kiefer Sutherland, quoting his dad, said in a 1998 interview with The Canadian Press.

“Just don’t lie in your work, because they’ll catch you.”

Donald Sutherland’s breakthrough in the United States came in 1967 with the film “The Dirty Dozen,” in which he played an imprisoned soldier during the Second World War. Co-stars included Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson.

Three years later, he further solidified his star status in Hollywood with two more war films: Robert Altman’s Oscar-winning Korean War satire “MASH,” and “Kelly’s Heroes,” alongside Clint Eastwood and Telly Savalas.

The ’70s were a particularly active time for Sutherland with varied roles in two-dozen other projects, including “Klute,” “Fellini’s Casanova,” “Animal House,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Don’t Look Now” and “Steelyard Blues.” The latter two films earned him nominations for a best-actor BAFTA.

Sutherland’s private life also made headlines during that decade.

First came his highly publicized relationship with his “Klute” co-star, Jane Fonda, with whom he also helped form an antiwar road show called the FTA tour (Free The Army). Later, Sutherland married French-Canadian actress Francine Racette, with whom he had three sons: Roeg, Angus and Rossif, star of “Poor Boy’s Game” and “High Life.”

In the ’80s, Sutherland continued to build his resume at a feverish pace, with turns in nearly 20 films including Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People,” for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe, and “Threshold,” which earned him a Genie.

Sutherland eventually won two Golden Globes: in 1996 for his supporting role in “Citizen X,” for which he also earned an Emmy, then in 2003 for the HBO film “Path to War.” That same year he played a minister in “Cold Mountain.”

He also got to work with his actor-sons, sharing the screen with Kiefer in the films “Max Dugan Returns” and “A Time to Kill,” and with Rossif in “The Steal Artist.”

Rossif Sutherland said working with his dad was “a dream.”

“He’s been the reason for which I’ve started a road in this career and he likes to call himself my first fan,” he told The Canadian Press in January 2010.

“He’s the one person that I’ve worked with that gives the impression that I can do no wrong.”

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