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MOVIES : Service With a Sneer : No one plays a villain quite like Donald Sutherland, who’s almost as scary as ‘Outbreak’s’ killer virus. His secret: You have to remember that bad guys are people too.

<i> Lawrence Christon is a Times staff writer. </i>

As he tells it, Donald Sutherland was jet-lagged and bone-tired from the high- speed shooting schedule of HBO’s “Citizen X” in Budapest when the call came from Dustin Hoffman in California: We need you.

“I came late, very late,” he says, referring to the plea from the makers of “Outbreak” to join their cast as a general who would destroy a town in order to save the world from a hideous viral epidemic. “I gave Dustin every conceivable excuse, but he rebutted them all.”

“Outbreak” was being made by Hoffman’s production company, and apparently there was trouble wrestling down a script. Sutherland arrived to help create just the heavy they needed, not an unhinged Captain Queeg but a figure more terrifying for his icy rationality and an unblinking righteousness.

“We needed someone who could play a very special, complex character, not just a bad guy,” said director Wolfgang Petersen. “We needed someone with intelligence and credibility, and a sense of humor. I’ve watched Sutherland for 25 years. He has an enormous presence on the screen. Dustin and I really wanted him, and as it turns out, he came with a lot of ideas of his own we wound up using.”

The past couple of years have been interesting for Sutherland; his last four roles have formed a kind of parallelogram of characters in which each refers to the other, but from different angles. All are of an age and station. The steely contemptuousness of “Outbreak’s” Gen. McClintock contrasts with the political suavity of “Citizen X’s” Col. Fetisov, who must be careful not to wince at a powerful apparatchik’s contention that “there are no serial killers in Russia. They are a product only of the decadent West.”

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His corporate honcho Garvin in “Disclosure” greets the day with Volpone-like glee, seeing gold in sunlight with a carnivore’s pearly smile. His portrayal of Flanders Kittredge in “Six Degrees of Separation” is almost frightening in the nervous accuracy with which he captures a professionally charming, upscale New Yorker who lives through the eyes of other people. We don’t know whether to laugh at his empty bonhomie or groan over his pathetic smugness. Or console his timorous humanity.

That we can’t be sure is a tribute to Sutherland’s skill at keeping us off balance.

“You have to see people the way they see themselves,” he says, by way of describing his work ethic and answering an old charge that he’s “complex and temperamental.”

“That’s why, when people say that Flan is such an (expletive), or that Garvin is smarmy, I’m a little taken back,” Sutherland says. “ They certainly think they’re doing the right thing, by their own lights. In McClintock I hope a certain arrogant wit comes through, and a contempt for people incapable of seeing through a morass of sentimentality that oversimplifies complex issues. That’s why I never see the pictures I’ve made. I don’t worry, but the characters go crazy. They’re fighting for their lives.”

A great many of those lives are of course memorable. His loopy Hawkeye in Robert Altman’s film “MASH,” for example, in which his watery eyes and vulpine grin suggest wider margins of anarchy than might be apparent to the most gimlet-eyed among Army brass. Or the astonishing patience with which he caught the hard curves Jane Fonda threw him in “Klute.” Or the terrible perplexity of Calvin Jarrett in “Ordinary People” in realizing decency wasn’t always enough to hold your family together, or even get you through.

Sutherland can play crazy (“The Dirty Dozen”), he can play sane among the crazies (“The Day of the Locust”); he can play romantic (“Casanova”); brutal (“1900"); stoic (“Bethune”) and morally incensed (“A Dry, White Season”). He’s fooled people who should know better. Up for the lead in “Same Time, Next Year,” he overheard the film’s producer say, “Donald Sutherland doesn’t do comedy.”

(Every actor’s memory is embedded with splinters of rejection. This last goes along with that of the English director who once told him, “The role we’re casting is that of a guy who lives next door. You don’t look like you’ve ever lived next door to anyone.”)

The Hollywood veteran in Hoffman probably knew he wouldn’t have to drill far before he hit the nerve especially raw among actors: insecurity. Sutherland owns up to it. “I’m on a schedule where I make 2 1/2 films a year, every year, with time off in the summer for my family. If I’m not working in America, I’m working in Europe, or Canada. You never know. After I did ‘Ordinary People,’ I wasn’t offered a job for a year.”

Sutherland’s 30-plus-year career has produced 84 film performances, a rock-solid reputation for exemplary work and a presence that has moved into the culture like a whisper in the night. Thirty years seems like forever in the postmodern world; Volvo and the Cigna health-care company are two current commercial TV sponsors who have taken advantage of Sutherland’s avuncular, lived-in voice to sell an underlying theme for their products: reassurance.

Sutherland was in town recently (he has homes in Montreal and Vermont and an apartment in Paris), and within a few moments it was clear he hadn’t been coy over the phone from Budapest. He had arrived at his hotel, after a midday meeting with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., wearing a dark suit with white shirt and tie, and a long overcoat draped over his shoulders. A heavy, lingering cold was taking its effect on him; that and fatigue pulled his lean frame into a forward, quixotic tilt.

Up in his room, he changed into a cardigan and fleece-lined bedroom slippers--an outfit that begged for a rocking chair--before surrendering to a series of coughing jags that left him lightheaded. Sutherland is 6-foot-4 and somewhere near 200 pounds. To see a big man in pain is an unnerving thing.

Fortunately, conversation perked him up. At 59, he’s a genial and amusing raconteur with an urbane polish common to the old-money rich and the diligently self-invented--though, of course, it’s an actor’s luxury to be able to invent himself over and over again.

He’s a constant reader in history and art; his conversation is sprinkled with references to economist John Maynard Keynes and anecdotes about artists, like the time Pierre Bonnard stole into the Louvre with a paint box to add a finishing touch to one of his paintings on a wall, and was thrown out by a museum guard (“ ‘I don’t care who you are. Get the hell out!’ ”).

Mostly, he talked about the only life he’s ever known outside of family life: the actor’s.

“I knew I wanted to be an actor before I even knew what acting was, and I’m still lucky to have a talent that gives me something when I reach for it--though I’ve been conscientious about what can happen if you’re not careful.

“Forty years ago I first read ‘Waiting for Godot.’ It was as if each word had been written in my own blood. It was a series of exploding epiphanies, the most familiar thing I’d ever read. The story was going around that Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness were offered the lead roles, but wouldn’t do them until they could ask the playwright, ‘What’s the play about?’ ‘Who’s Godot?’ I knew then if you don’t understand, that’s it. I vowed I’d never let myself get out of touch like that, I’d always pay close attention to what was going on around me and what people were saying.”

The question of awards came up, as in paucity of. Has he won any?

“Not one,” he said, his expression sharpening (he did win a best actor Genie, Canada’s equivalent of the Oscar, for his 1983 role of a heart surgeon in “Threshold,” but apparently he considers it beneath mention). Then he wryly added, “My career has been all downhill since the age of 11. I did my first play, ‘The Male Animal,’ at Toronto University’s Hart House theater. The audience laughed and applauded when I came on, they applauded when I went off, and they applauded when I came on again. I’ve never had it as good since.”

He paused and smiled. “Dustin says you should save one moment in every performance where you really overdo it, so people can say, ‘Ah! That’s acting!’ ” He also recalled a Samuel Goldwyn address to the Screen Actors Guild in which Goldwyn said, “I’ve discovered that the secret to good acting is honesty. Once you learn to fake that, you’re in.”

Sutherland does not subscribe to either of those theories. Kiefer Sutherland recalls a single bit of advice he got from his father once he set out on his own acting career: “If you ever lie in your work, you’ll get caught and you won’t work again.”

Donald McNichol Sutherland was born in St. John, a small fishing village in New Brunswick, Canada, on July 17, 1934. “The town only had 5,000 people in it,” he recalls. “And that was when the train was in.” Three of his four siblings have died; his remaining brother, a veterinarian surgeon, is a stroke victim. His mother was a mathematician. His father was a gifted salesman who could sell anything--tea, ham, tobacco, water wells, mobile homes.

Though his father’s oft-quoted line, “Keep your mouth shut, Donnie, and people will think you have character,” would suggest a certain friction between them, they were in fact close. Frederick Sutherland moved to Las Vegas some time after his son’s career had begun to take off.

“I was in a newsreel I knew my father would see in a movie house,” Donald says. “I turned to the camera and said, ‘Hi, Dad!’ When my father saw it, he stood up in the theater, applauded and yelled at the screen, ‘Hi, Donnie!’ He put me through engineering school at the University of Toronto, but I wasn’t cut out for it. When I told him I wanted acting, he didn’t try to discourage me.”

Sutherland went to England in 1956 for one of the greatest acting educations in the world, enrollment at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, followed by a lengthy tour of the provinces. He returned to London to do stage work, then went into television, and in 1964 made his first movie, “The Castle of the Living Dead.” It was not an auspicious start and was followed by similar gems such as “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” and “Die! Die! My Darling!”

He came to the United States in 1967 for “The Dirty Dozen” and stayed to branch out in television and movies (trivia buffs will remember his vox ex machina in Ken Russell’s “Billion Dollar Brain”). He worked steadily in a variety of undistinguished films (“Joanna,” “Split,” “Lawrence”). Of the five movies he made in 1970, “MASH” was the one that turned it around for him.

Sutherland is an exception to the broadly general rule that good actors tend to develop their best work among familiars--particularly directors (think of early Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, or Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni). He has a novel explanation for this:

“It’s characters who make pictures. Essentially my job is to provide information about them. My first concern is that I’ve been correctly cast. After that, it’s my job to express the director’s image, and make sure our channels of communication are open. Your best work comes in relation with other actors, but the director is the key to it all. I’ve often described that relationship as sexual. I’m his concubine. Once the movie is over, it’s like an estrangement sets in. The relationship is over. I can’t go back to it.”

All deference aside, Sutherland is enough of a pro to set some of his own conditions. “If I’m doing a full-length role, I have it in my contract that I film my character in the middle of the story. If you do the middle, you can make errors while you’re zeroing in. When you do the beginning of a film there can be no hiccups, no bad decisions, because that’s the first time people see you. First impressions carry.”

If, on the other hand, he has a small role, he shows up for work after an arduous preparation: It took him over a month to get ready for his single scene in “JFK.”

Sutherland’s reputation as a bristling political animal has died down from the Vietnam War period when, with Jane Fonda and other anti-war activists, he formed the Free Theatre Associates as an alternative to Bob Hope’s USO tours. “It was a gesture,” he says, dismissing it.

Still, he views the tabloid mentality that has descended over American cultural and political life as a grim portent. And in Budapest, he realized an actor can walk away from a role, but he can’t step out of history.

“When you’re a well-known actor, you become part of the fabric of people’s cultural expectation,” he said. “When you’re from the West, you’re part of their dream. It was strange to be in a situation where a country that’s moved from a socialist system to a quasi-free economy runs into problems it didn’t anticipate, like no pensions, no apartments, no steady work. They see the affluent West, but they don’t see 30 million under the poverty line. Then they look at you as though you’re partly responsible.”

He shrugged. “So, it’s a political life whether you like it or not. You do have social responsibilities. But I think you fulfill your responsibilities best in your work.”

A nother top priority is family. Sutherland has been married twice, first to Lois Mary Hardwick in 1959, then to Shirley Jean Douglas (daughter of former Saskatchewan premier Thomas C. Douglas) in 1966. Both ended in divorce. His constant companion since 1974 has been French Canadian actress Francine Racette (“an exhilarating woman, so luminous, illuminating and practical”).

He has five children. Kiefer Sutherland came from the Douglas marriage.

“I lived in Canada with my mother and never saw Donald’s films early on,” Kiefer Sutherland said. “We didn’t even have video. So it wasn’t until later that I realized how much of a success he’d become and how, from the beginning, he had such a clear vision of what he wanted. He was willing to play an awkward sensibility, or whatever he felt about himself, at a time when everyone else still wanted to look good. And the different work he’s done--he’s one of the most talented actors alive.

“I went into acting through my mother, who’s a talented actress in her own right.

“When I was 15, I read with him in an audition for ‘Max Dugan Returns.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Is this something you want to do?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He told me he thought I’d be good. That was one of the first times I was able to say to myself, ‘OK, I’ll go with this.’ ”

“Experience doesn’t have to do with time,” Donald Sutherland said. “Experience has to do with the clarity of your response to it. The characters I’ve played have given me a terrific life. It’s a lovely job, you know. A really lovely job. It’s biting into a grape.”


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