Donald Sutherland (1935-2024): The greatest actor never nominated for an Oscar

A versatile genius, Sutherland crafted a seven-decade career spanning 200 roles where he played the sinister, the romantic, the offbeat, and beyond.

Published : Jun 21, 2024 17:46 IST - 5 MINS READ

Donald Sutherland appears at the premiere of the film ‘The Burnt Orange Heresy’ at the 76th edition of the Venice Film Festival, in Italy, on Sept. 7, 2019.

Donald Sutherland appears at the premiere of the film ‘The Burnt Orange Heresy’ at the 76th edition of the Venice Film Festival, in Italy, on Sept. 7, 2019. | Photo Credit: ARTHUR MOLA/AP

With the passing away of Donald Sutherland, the world of cinema has lost one of the most charismatic and intriguing icons. Universally considered the greatest actor never to have been nominated for an Academy Award in spite of innumerable brilliant performances, Sutherland was nevertheless one of the most enduring stars of cinema, whose appeal showed no signs of diminishing even after seven decades in the industry.

With around 200 roles under his belt, ranging from Federico Fellini’s Casanova (1976) to Hawkeye Pierce in Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) to President Snow in The Hunger Games film series (from 2012), Sutherland was one of the most versatile actors of his generation, who could seamlessly slip into any role that he was given to him and make it his own. He was 88 when he passed away from a prolonged illness.

Feline suppleness

Though not conventionally handsome, Sutherland had a striking screen presence that made it impossible for the audience to take its eyes away from him. In an age of dark, brooding leading men, spawned by Marlon Brando’s method tradition, Sutherland exuded a quirky charm that could easily assume a menacing form, or take on a gentle aspect, or project cold ruthlessness. At 6’4”, his laconic presence hinted at a feline suppleness and power, and somewhere behind the roguish twinkle in his eyes there was always a glint of uncompromising purpose. These subtle complexities that he projected effortlessly made characters such as Liam Devlin in The Eagle Has Landed (1976), Sergeant Oddball in Kelly’s Heroes (1970), and Hawkeye Pierce in Mash, such memorable figures, even though they were not the main protagonists.

Never one to allow himself to be typecast, Sutherland took on a staggering variety of roles in his career, ranging from the sinister to the romantic to the offbeat. He adeptly handled practically all genres: comedy, drama, action, war, fantasy, even horror. From the dope-head Dave Jennings in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) to the gentle and helpless Calvin Jarrett in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980) to the psychotic fascist leader Attila Mellanchini in Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic, 1900 (1976), Sutherland repeatedly proved himself to be a fearless artiste, who was not afraid to take on roles that would have a harrowing effect on his own psyche. In fact, after seeing his performance as Attila Mellanchini, Sutherland was so disturbed, that he was not able to see 1900 again for a long time.

Also Read | ‘All We Imagine as Light’ by Payal Kapadia scripts history with groundbreaking Grand Prix win at Cannes 2024

Sharing the news of his father’s death on X, Donald’s son, actor Kiefer Sutherland said, “With a heavy heart, I tell you that my father, Donald Sutherland, has passed away... 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.” Veteran actress Helen Mirren wrote: “Donald Sutherland was one of the smartest actors I ever worked with. 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.”

Bit roles

Born on July 17, 1935 in the seaport town of St. John in Canada, Sutherland graduated with a double major in engineering and drama from Victoria University before he enrolled at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in 1957. Initially he worked through small parts in British films, and supporting roles in horror movies like the Christopher Lee starrers Castle of the Living Dead (1964) and Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), and Die! Die! My Darling! with Tallulah Bankhead. He did bit roles in popular television series such as The Saint starring Roger Moore, and The Avengers, before he got the role of Vernon L. Pinkley in The Dirty Dozen. The multi-starrer hit war movie featuring established stars such as Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Trini Lopez, George Kennedy and others, turned out to be the break that Sutherland needed on his way to superstardom.

Though a number of hits followed, including MASH and Kelly’s Heroes, Sutherland did not shy away from unconventional roles such as Alex Morrison in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970) or John Baxter in the horror film Don’t Look Now, directed by Nicolas Roeg.

Also Read | Milan Kundera (1929-2023): Explorer of life, death, and the unbearable lightness in between

Even as he entered middle-age, there was no dearth of roles for Sutherland. He starred opposite Marlon Brando in the anti-Apartheid A Dry White Season (1989); he was the depraved Warden Drumgoole, with a personal vendetta against Sylvester Stallone in Lock up (1989); he was the mysterious X in Oliver Stone’s JFK; Buffy’s trainer Merrick in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992); and the iconic villain President Snow in the Hunger Games trilogy.

In fact, till the point he fell ill, he never stopped working in both television and cinema. In 2022 he acted in two movies and a television series; and in 2023, he played the role of Judge Wren in Miranda’s Victim, gave his voice to Albino Crocodile in the animation film Ozi: Voice of the Forest, and appeared in eight episodes as Judge Parker in the Western series Lawmen: Bass Reeves.

Donald Sutherland was married three times, and has five children, including actors Kiefer, Rossif and Angus. His granddaughter Sarah Sutherland is also an actor.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment