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Donald Sutherland, a subtle and sardonic star, has died at 88

Donald Sutherland, who starred in more than 200 movies and TV shows, died Thursday in Miami, Fla., after a long illness. He was 88.

"He loved what he did and did what he loved, and one can never ask for more than that," his son Kiefer Sutherland wrote on X. "A life well lived."

Sutherland's often cynical, subversive presence had been a mainstay in American cinema for seven decades. During his long career, which kicked off during the Vietnam War, he acted alongside dozens of Oscar winners. But Sutherland himself was never nominated for one, although the Academy presented him with an honorary Oscar in 2017.

"I wish I could say thank you to all the characters I've played," Sutherland said during his acceptance speech. "Thank them for using their lives to inform my lives."

At first, the Canadian actor spent a lot of time playing American soldiers. In his breakout role, in 1967's The Dirty Dozen, Sutherland played a convict turned soldier sent on a suicide mission ahead of Operation D-Day.

Donald Sutherland pictured in the 1970s.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Getty Images
Donald Sutherland pictured in the 1970s.

Impressed by his performance, director Robert Altman cast Sutherland in the 1970 film M*A*S*H, where he played wisecracking combat surgeon Hawkeye. That same year, Sutherland played a rogue tank commander named Oddball in the movie Kelly's Heroes. All of these movies were released as the Vietnam War raged in the background.

Despite playing so many soldiers, Sutherland was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. In 1971, He performed in a traveling roadshow opposite Jane Fonda in front of U.S. military soldiers. It was a leftist response to Bob Hope's pro-war USO tour.

The show consisted of skits, songs and interviews with soldiers. It was made into a documentary, F.T.A., in 1972.

Sutherland and Fonda, who were in the midst of an affair at the time, were put on National Security Agency watchlists for two years because of their anti-war activities.

Sutherland's political activities did not adversely affect his career. He ascended to leading roles, including as a sullen police officer in Klute, an aspiring artist in The Day of the Locust, and grieving fathers in Ordinary People and Don't Look Now.

Sutherland was probably most well known for his portrayal of off-kilter authority figures; over the years, he played doctors, sadistic prison wardens, and paranoid government figures, as in Oliver Stone's film JFK. A new generation of fans, including actress Jennifer Lawrence, embraced his bone-chilling portrayal of the tyrannical President Snow in The Hunger Games film franchise.

Donald Sutherland as Harry McKenna in <em>The Mechanic. </em>
/ CBS Films
CBS Films
Donald Sutherland as Harry McKenna in The Mechanic.

"Donald is the most committed, professional, kind person I have ever met," Lawrence said at the 2017 Governers Awards that gave Sutherland his honorary Oscar.

Sutherland's children followed in his footsteps, including his son, actor Kiefer Sutherland. The elusive Oscar aside, he won other awards, including Emmy and Golden Globe awards, but Donald Sutherland's subtle, dry performances went beyond easy approbation. They made audiences amused and uncomfortable, exactly as intended.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Mansee Khurana
[Copyright 2024 NPR]