A Tribute to Donald Sutherland: One Canadian Journalist Recalls Time Spent with the Beloved Acting Legend

Donald Sutherland

Donald Sutherland appears at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills in 2017. Sutherland died at age 88 on Thursday. Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File/Getty Images

The first time I met Donald Sutherland, 37 years ago, he wasn’t expecting me. Which is odd, because I had travelled halfway around the world to talk to him, on assignment to write a cover story for Maclean’s magazine. He was on location in China, making a film about Canada’s Norman Bethune, the battlefield surgeon who became a heroic martyr of Mao-Tse-Tung’s revolution. 

By the time I found him, a few hours from Beijing in a village amid the peaks of Mount Wutai, Chinese Buddhism’s most sacred site, Donald was eating dinner with the cast and crew. As I was introduced, he fixed me with an imperious gaze and asked what I was doing there. I said I’d been invited by the film’s Canadian producers, who had apparently neglected to inform him. Given Sutherland’s intimidating reputation for not suffering fools gladly, this could have gone terribly sidewise. But thankfully we clicked. And in the days that followed, as he turned on voracious charm and penetrating wit, he proved to be the most richly engaging actor that I’ve encountered in some four decades of interviewing movie stars.

Sutherland, who died at 88 in Miami Thursday after a prolonged illness, was in a class of his own. “Towering” may be the most frequent adjective to grace his obituaries and, at 6’4”, he was literally that. But he also brought an outsized magnificence to whatever he did.  He was effortlessly larger than life, onscreen and off.  He didn’t look like a movie star. He famously said he failed his first movie audition because the part called for “a guy-next-door sort” and the producers told him, “You don’t look like you ever lived next door anybody.” But he became a star, and even a leading man, in a rush of boldly subversive films during the early seventies – as the  impetuous Hawkeye in MASH, a detective who falls for Jane Fonda’s call girl in Klute, and a grieving father grappling with sex, death and Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now. 

Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, in a scene from MASH, 1972. Photo: FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

 

Born in New Brunswick, Sutherland was also by far the most famous Canadian actor of his generation. Though he would have houses in Los Angeles, Miami and Paris, he told me his heart lay in his house in Quebec’s Eastern Townships where he and his wife Francine Racette liked to spend their summers. Scorning the notion of dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship, he wore his national identity with a sense of duty and pride,  and was thrilled to be commemorated last year on a Canadian postage stamp. He also starred in a number of Canadian movies – most significantly Bethune: the Making of a Hero (1990), which marked China’s first co-production with the West, and was at the time the most expensive, ambitious and tormented production this country’s film industry had ever seen.

When I showed up that evening in China, the crew was near the end of a gruelling and chaotic shoot in far-flung locations, troubled by friction with Red Army guardians of Bethune’s image, a brutal heat wave, food poisoning and shortages of drinking water. Not to mention a bitter feud among the filmmakers – with the film’s writer and its Canadian producers at war with their star and the film’s director, Phillip Borsos. Hence the confusion around my sudden appearance on set.

But by this point, Sutherland, who had previously played Bethune in three TV productions, was so thoroughly entrenched in the role that his character’s adversity and his own had become almost synonymous. He shed 50 pounds for the role. During the third week of the shoot, he fell off a camel and injured his back and was still wearing a rigid corset for the pain.  I remember talking to him in the austere high-ceilinged guesthouse where he was staying at the location, and how he was tickled by the fact that in Bethune’s day it was the home of Mao’s right-hand man, Lin Piao. And he talked about his feud with the screenwriter, Ted Allen, as if a vital political truth depended on it. Allen argued that Bethune should undergo a transformation, from arrogance to sainthood, by the end of the film. Sutherland disagreed. “Bethune doesn’t change,” told me. “He is like a Giacometti sculpture. Things just get shaved off. Within him is a fine, bright, white iron rod.” And in Sutherland’s ice-blue eyes, his scary and seductive gaze, you could almost see it burning.

Like a warrior mired in the thick of history, Donald may have been resigned to his fate but he hadn’t surrendered his sense of humour. When he’d signed up for this underfunded, ill-organized Canadian epic for half his usual fee, he knew what he was in for. But felt he had no choice “because I’ve got a maple leaf stuck up my ass. Like Bethune I feel resentfully and proudly Canadian.” Summing up the experience, he said, “It’s like having your leg cut off. I had to do it but I’ll miss the leg.”

The Canadian postage stamp released last year to honour Sutherland’s career. Photo: Canada Post

 

Sutherland was a brilliant and incomparable actor. But he seemed much more that. He forged characters from the inside-out with a writerly intelligence, as a kind of actor-auteur who writes on his feet.

“Donald is a perfectionist who adores detail,” Borsos observed while directing him in Bethune. He is able to compute many different possibilities of performance very quick­ly. And even though he works in a very structured way, he’s one of the very great improvisational actors.”

Offscreen he was a silver-tongued raconteur, a writer who compulsively wrote aloud, carving turns of phrase on a dime. When I asked him about his ex-wife Shirley Douglas, without missing a beat he said, “I was pretty overwhelmed by Shirley. It was like flagging a bus and getting run over.”

Even though he didn’t direct movies or write screenplays, Sutherland went routinely beyond the call of duty. When he worked with directors he admired, he would devote himself to their vision like an accomplice in some cinematic crime of passion. “When I’m acting,” he told me, “I feel I’m the director’s concubine. I am there to satisfy him.” And nothing could be more personal than naming his four sons – Kiefer, Roeg, Rossif and Angus Redford – after beloved directors he had worked with. Among his children, Kiefer Sutherland is the one who has achieved a level of fame close to his father’s. But it’s doubtful that any actor of Kiefer’s generation could achieve the kind of legendary status that Donald acquired in an era of ground-breaking cinema when movies mattered, and a character actor could be a leading man.

Donald and his son Kiefer pose for a portrait in Los Angeles to promote the 2015 film Forsaken – the first and only time they starred on screen together. Photo: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP, File/The Canadian Press

 

I got the news of Donald’s death hours after I’d dispatched the final draft of a cover profile of Kiefer Sutherland for the August-September print issue of Zoomer. During several hours of interviews with him, he talked fondly of his father. I now assume Kiefer knew his dad was dying, but he didn’t mention it.  He did, however, talk about his teen years of growing up Toronto with his mother, Shirley Douglas, after she and Donald had divorced, and how he first got to know has dad by watching his films, which had been off limits to him as a boy because they were mostly restricted. 

“By the time I was 18,” he said, “with videotapes, I got to see Bertolucci’s 1900, Fellini’s Casanova, Don’t Look Now, The Dirty Dozen, The Eye of the Needle, Klute . . . and that kind of success made me feel very small.”

Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda between takes on set of ‘Klute’, 1971

 

Over the years, Kiefer saw his father infrequently, at Christmas or in summer. But he stressed several times the they were not estranged. “We just didn’t see each other. To make matters worse, every time I moved somewhere, he moved somewhere else. I moved to Los Angeles; he moved to New York. I moved back to New York; he moved to France. Honestly, it was just circumstantial, but it was uncanny. My dad’s not young so I think there’ll be a regret that we both share, that we wish we had spent more time together.”

Donald and I fell out of touch over the years. My last in-depth interview with him took place in 1998, at a beach house on the Santa Monica coast of Los Angeles. Like all my sessions with him, the interview turned into an open-ended conversation. He fished historical references and literary quotations out of the air, and sometimes out of the bookshelves lining the walls. At one point, for the photo shoot I think, we took a walk over the long stretch of sand between his house and the Pacific Ocean.  I can’t recall who started it, but one of us began reciting T.S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.  We traded lines back and forth until his memory of the poem overtook mine. We were doing it just for fun, but I felt the quiet thrill being “onstage” with one of the greatest actors alive, walking toward the surf.

“I grow old . . . I grow old . . . 

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled . . .”

Donald was well-rehearsed for death. He has portrayed a lot doctors, aside from Bethune. And in China, our talks would often slide into discussions of mortality.  While filming Don’t Look Now, he said, he was obsessed by death and his own near-death experience there two years earlier, from spinal meningitis, lying in semi-coma trying to move his fingers. “It’s true what they say about the blue tunnel,” he told me. “It’s like heading very slowly and beautifully down a chute. I survived but I’ve never slept much since. Staying alive didn’t necessarily seem to be the right choice.”

The evening after Donald’s death, I spoke to a mutual friend who had heard from him recently, telling her that he was dying and offering the final lines from that T.S. Eliot poem as a last goodbye:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

But Donald Sutherland’s story is not done. An actor whose long reach extended into the wilds of history and poetry, revolution and eros, has more in store for us. 

With his memoir, Made Up But Still True, due for release in the fall, the actor is about to play his final role, as the writer he always was.

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