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Donald Sutherland, illustrious Canadian actor, dead at 88 | CBC News

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Donald Sutherland, illustrious Canadian actor, dead at 88 | CBC News

Donald Sutherland, the towering Canadian actor whose acclaimed career spanned more than six decades, has died at the age of 88.

His son, actor Kiefer Sutherland, confirmed his death on Thursday.

“With a heavy heart, I tell you that my father, Donald Sutherland, has passed away,” read the post on X. “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.”

A magnetic screen star whose chameleon-like penchant for unconventional characters would sustain him throughout a seldom-interrupted career, Sutherland starred in acclaimed titles of the 1970s and ’80s, including M*A*S*H, Klute, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Ordinary People.

His role as President Snow, the quietly sadistic antagonist in The Hunger Games franchise, made him a recognizable face among a new generation, as did his role in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice.

A grey-haired actor in a tuxedo with a bow tie is seen on a red carpet.
Donald Sutherland is seen at the screening of the film Cafe Society at the Cannes film festival on May 11, 2016. (Thibault Camus/The Associated Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Sutherland “will be deeply missed.”

“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 starstruck. He was a man with a strong presence, a brilliance in his craft and truly, truly a great Canadian artist,” Trudeau said at a news conference in Westville, N.S. 

“My thoughts go out to Kiefer and the entire Sutherland family, as well as all Canadians who are no doubt saddened to learn [of his death], as I am right now.”

Early beginnings

Born Donald McNichol Sutherland on July 17, 1935 in Saint John, N.B., he and his parents lived just outside of the city until he was six years old, then relocated to Bridgewater, a town on Nova Scotia’s south shore. He spent much of his childhood bedridden with various ailments, including polio and scarlet fever.

During a 1970 interview with CBC, the actor referred to himself as a “blue-noser” — an affectionate moniker for the people of Nova Scotia — noting his sense of humour was melded by his upbringing in the province. He maintained a strong Canadian identity throughout his life.

“I have a kind of umbilical tie to the country,” he said, likening his connection with Canada’s natural beauty to that of the Group of Seven, the country’s founding school of visual artists. 

WATCH | Sutherland on the set of Alex in Wonderland in the ’70s: 

Actor Donald Sutherland on CBC’s Telescope in 1970

The famous actor looks back on his formative years in Canada, his career path and the tremendous impact of his film MASH. Aired on Sept. 15, 1970.

Sutherland’s first job at 14 years old was as a news broadcaster and disc jockey for Bridgewater’s local radio station, CKBW. Sutherland also held an early interest in sculpture that was usurped by the passion for acting that called to him in his later teen years. 

While studying at University of Toronto’s Victoria College, Sutherland began performing with the Hart House Theatre, an incubator of Canadian stage talent. After completing a dual degree in engineering and drama, he chose to dedicate himself to the latter, moving overseas to attend the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

He worked in the theatre and on small television productions in Canada and Europe from the late 1950s well into the ’60s, when he made his film debut opposite British actor Christopher Lee in 1964’s Castle of the Living Dead.

Breakout success and major roles

A walk-on role in 1967’s The Dirty Dozen gave Sutherland foothold in Hollywood, where he broke out further in 1970 with a pair of war pictures that teased his dramatic and comedic range: World War II heist film Kelly’s Heroes and Robert Altman’s movie adaptation of the book M*A*S*H.

His latter portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce — a mischievous, newly deployed surgeon to a mobile field hospital in South Korea during the Korean War — made him a household name and a recognizable face. Sutherland later recalled an interaction he had with a woman in New York shortly after M*A*S*H opened.

“She said hello; I said hello. She said, ‘How are you Don?’ And I said I’m fine. And then she gave me a kiss on the mouth and I said, ‘I don’t know you!’ And she said, ‘No, I know — but I saw your film and it was terrific.'” 

A man is pictured in the 1970s.
Canadian film star Donald Sutherland around 1975. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Sutherland’s peculiar brand of handsome — a spindly 6’4″ frame, with blue eyes framed by arched eyebrows on a long, lean visage, and a curled lip that protected a dreamy smile — would serve him well during the ’70s, when unconventional-looking actors were in fashion.

During the ’70s and ’80s, Sutherland excelled with a stretch of his most iconic roles.

His 1971 turn in Klute saw him transformed into a novice, small-town detective investigating a New York City executive’s disappearance linked to gruesome serial murders working closely with a call girl, played by Jane Fonda. The film became one of the finest neo-noirs of the period.

In 1973, Sutherland starred in the experimental Italian horror film Don’t Look Now, centring around a couple who move to Venice after their young daughter dies, only to be tormented by a pair of elderly sisters who insist that the child is sending them messages from the other side of death.

In 1980’s Ordinary People, he again played a father trying to keep his family together in the wake of their eldest son’s death.

The 1978 sci-fi horror Invasion of the Body Snatchers — a remake of the 1956 original — saw Sutherland as a health inspector where he and co-star Brooke Adams uncover a vast alien plot to assume human bodies as hosts and render the world completely devoid of emotion. In the film’s unforgettable final scene, Sutherland created one of the most indelible, haunting moments of 20th-century cinema.

A grey-haired actor in a suit poses on a red carpet.
Donald Sutherland poses at the premiere of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 in Los Angeles, on Nov. 17, 2014. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Though he found international success, the actor maintained a professional and personal connection to Canada throughout his life. He narrated two documentaries for the National Film Board in the ’80s, lent his voice to the 2015 Canadian animated film Pirate’s Passage and returned to Toronto theatre — where he got his start — in the early 2000s. He was awarded a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2000.

“I’m a Canadian. The thing about Canada is that you go from east to west, from Nova Scotia to Vancouver. I go away, I will go and live in Paris or I will go and live in London or whatever — [and] even in the United States — but my humour, what I am as a person is here, is rooted here,” he said during an interview with CBC News in 1985.

A grey-haired man in a dark suit sits with an ornate medal around his neck at a ceremony.
Actor Donald Sutherland reacts after being invested as a Companion of the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Nov. 21, 2019. (Chris Wattie/The Canadian Press)

The Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning performer was named a companion of the Order of Canada in 2019, the highest of the three levels of the honour — a promotion within the order for him after awarded Officer of the Order of Canada in 1978. He was also awarded the degree of Commander of the Order of the Arts and the Letters by France in 2012.

Although Sutherland played the lead in many an Oscar-nominated film, he was famously never nominated for one himself, instead receiving an honourary Academy Award in 2017 at age 82. 

‘We felt like we were talking to a Quebecer’

A passionate Montreal Expos fan, Sutherland made his home with wife, Francine Racette, in Georgeville, a village in the Eastern Townships.

Sutherland’s children and grandchildren would follow him into the entertainment business, three of them named for directors who worked with their father. 

“They’re good, so I’m very happy for them,” Sutherland said of his sons and their acting careers, speaking to Maclean’s magazine in 2000. “It’s a difficult life, but it’s also a very rewarding and wonderful one. I’ve been very happy, so I’m happy for them in that respect.”

WATCH | Sutherland says honourary Oscar like getting ‘a kiss on the cheek’: 

‘Like a kiss on the cheek:’ Donald Sutherland on his honorary Oscar

Actor Donald Sutherland, at TIFF for his new road trip movie The Leisure Seekers, shares what it means to be named an honorary Oscar-winner.

Sutherland was married three times: first to former child actress Lois Hardwick from 1959 to 1966.

His marriage to actress Shirley Douglas, daughter of Tommy Douglas, lasted from 1966 to 1971. The couple had two children — son Kiefer and daughter Rachel.

Sutherland had three sons — Roeg, Rossif and Angus — with his third wife, Racette, a Canadian actress.

The actor acquainted himself with a younger generation of moviegoers as a dying patriarch in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, but especially as President Snow in The Hunger Games franchise from 2012 to 2015. 

WATCH | Sutherland on his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: 

Donald Sutherland’s star

CBC’s Keith Boag reports on Canadian actor getting a star, right next to son Kiefer, on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Even in his twilight years, he was still working on select projects, including the 2020 HBO series The Undoing and the 2019 science fiction drama Ad Astra. His portrayal of Judge Laurance T. Wren in the 2023 period drama Miranda’s Victim, an account of the landmark legal case that gave rise to Miranda Rights, was Sutherland’s final film role.

When he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2011, he said he had no intention of retiring.

“Retirement for an actor is death,” he told The Hollywood Reporter at the time. “My work will continue until I die.”

Sutherland is survived by his five children — Kiefer, Rossif, Angus, Rachel and Roeg — his grandchildren and his wife, Francine. 

WATCH | Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recalls being ‘deeply starstruck’ by Sutherland: 

Trudeau ‘deeply starstruck’ when he met Donald Sutherland as a young man

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reflects on meeting late Canadian actor Donald Sutherland who has died at age 88.

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