What You Don’t Know About Donald Sutherland

Donald Sutherland is one of the most celebrated talents in Hollywood. He’s nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a television show at the 2021 Golden Globes for his role in The Undoing and it’s by no means Sutherland’s first nomination. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association outlined that he was first nominated in 1971 and went on to be nominated seven other times, winning twice. 

The Guardian reported that one of Sutherland’s first film roles was in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors in 1965. He went on to be cast in The Dirty Dozen in 1967, and he starred in the iconic series M*A*S*H from 1970 onward. Since then, Sutherland’s career has included classic hits like Pride and Prejudice, as well as new projects like The Hunger Games. Kiefer Sutherland, one of Sutherland’s five children, is also an actor.

Sutherland gained a lot of recognition as Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H, but he revealed to Rolling Stone that the part was nearly taken away from him; producer Ingo Preminger found him for the role, but when director Robert Altman joined the project Sutherland said, “Altman told Ingo, ‘I don’t want this guy Sutherland, I have my own guy.’ And Inge said, No, he stays. ‘Okay, well then he can’t have first billing!’ No, he gets first billing. That was the beginning of our relationship.”

From that point, Sutherland launched a career that’s spanned nearly six decades. Here are some things you may not know about the actor.

Sutherland had a near-death experience

Sutherland has taken on a lot of dramatic roles in his career, but his life hasn’t been short of high-stakes drama either. In an interview with The Guardian, the actor revealed that he died briefly in Yugoslavia in 1968; Sutherland explained to Smithsonian Magazine that while he was shooting Kelly’s Heroes he contracted bacterial meningitis from the Danube. “Standing behind my right shoulder, I’d watched my comatose body slide peacefully down a blue tunnel. That same blue tunnel the near-dead always talk about. Such a tempting journey. So serene. No barking Cerberus to wake me. Everything was going to be alright,” he recalled. “And then, just as I was seconds away from succumbing to the seductions of that matte white light glowing purely at what appeared to be the bottom of it, some primal force fiercely grabbed my feet and compelled them to dig my heels in. The downward journey slowed and stopped.”

After that, Sutherland was flown to Charing Cross Hospital in England where he recovered for six weeks. Then he was back to filming. “I’d recovered. Sort of,” he continued. “I could walk and talk, but my brains were truly fried. The infected layers of my meninges had squeezed them so tightly that they no longer functioned in a familiar way.”

Sutherland originally wanted to be a sculptor

After spending nearly 60 years in the acting profession it’s hard to imagine Sutherland doing anything else. However, he actually had another passion which he almost pursued.

Rolling Stone reported that artistry runs in Sutherland’s family and he was an avid sculptor. However, he revealed why it never could have worked out. “I knew I never could be a sculptor. I needed the response, I needed an audience … you know, my brother was a poet, and he could do things privately,” he explained. “But me, I needed the theater. I still remember struggling with the idea of what to do, and ended up going to the movies one afternoon — I didn’t even know what was playing. But the credits started, and it was Fellini’s, La Strada. I thought, my god, this is amazing.” Sutherland went on to work with Fellini in Casanova. 

Sutherland didn't know what The Hunger Games franchise was

In 2013, Sutherland was cast as President Coriolanus Snow in The Hunger Games. He went on to star in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Mockingjay Part 1 and 2. He told the The Telegraph that while he wasn’t aware of the book series before going in for the films, the story was one that really impressed him. “My agent sends me these things because I’m 80 and I still like to know what’s going on,” he shared. “I hadn’t even heard of the books, but it became patently apparent to me that this was something. It was the first thing I’d read in years that could become a creative political stimulus for young people.”

The Hunger Games is fantastical and action-packed, but Sutherland told the The Guardian that the political message of inequality behind it is something that should inspire audiences for change. “It just puts things out in the light and lets you have a look at it,” he continued. “And if you take from it what I hope you will take from it, it will make you think a little more pungently about the political environment you live in and not be complacent.”

Sutherland is impressed by these two actresses

During his long career, Sutherland has worked with a number of seriously impressive actors and directors. Notably, he’s played opposite Helen Mirren a number of times. And during an interview with Reader’s Digest, Sutherland revealed that she’s one of two actors who seriously impress him.

Sutherland described The Good Liar actress as “extraordinary” and said, “I’ve worked with two women who, more than anyone else, have impressed me with their genius: Helen Mirren and Jennifer Lawrence. The intelligence, wit, and capability those two have is breathtaking. I love Helen in every respect, in how she conducts herself in a press conference or an interview. Everything about this business, Helen does to perfection.”

Sutherland also praised Lawrence in an interview with The Telegraph in which he said, “she’s a delivery system for truth. She’s the cigarette paper that holds the tobacco in the cigarette.”

Sutherland is passionate about climate change

Alongside his work onscreen, Sutherland’s political activism has been well-documented. New Statesman reported that he’s been firmly anti-war and worked alongside fellow actor and partner at the time, Jane Fonda, to advocate for anti-war efforts. He also campaigned for Barack Obama.

However, in an interview with Reader’s Digest, Sutherland revealed that he feels that climate change and the environmental crisis is currently the most pressing political issue of our time. “I’ll say it three times: climate, climate, climate,” he shared. “I realized it 20 years ago. I started to see jellyfish where jellyfish had never been before. And in the Caribbean, when the water temperature increases by just one degree, that’s massive, because hurricanes feed on hot water. And now they have a President in the United States who doesn’t believe in… oh, never mind.”

Additionally, Variety reported that Sutherland used his platform at the San Sebastian Film Festival to impress how important it is that people focus on how the planet is changing. “I have children, I have grandchildren, and the world that I have left them, and am going to leave them, is not one they’ll be able to live in,” he lamented.

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