Classic Hollywood: Donald Sutherland’s mark on Hollywood


Donald Sutherland was as happy as a kid in a candy store when he received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame two weeks ago — right next to his “24” star son Kiefer’s marker. The day after the event, the 75-year-old veteran of such films as Robert Altman’s 1970 “MASH,” Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 “Don’t Look Now,” Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1976 epic “1900,” Federico Fellini’s 1976 “Casanova” and, let us not forget, 1978’s “Animal House,” is still glowing.

“When you get to be my age … just think about it,” says Sutherland, relaxing in his publicist’s West Hollywood office. “It is getting a marker. It is putting something down. I was charmed by it and delighted that they did it and put it next to Kiefer’s. This is a marker I can actually come and visit, as I intend to.”

Sporting a bushy gray beard and longish white hair, the 6-foot-4-inch Sutherland is in reflective, friendly mood as he sips tea. The memories flood back as he talks about his five-decade career, starting with the first time he came to Hollywood in 1967.


The Canadian-born Sutherland was working in London when he got a call saying, “If you can get yourself over here, you will have a job.” That job was a costarring role in the 1968 thriller “The Split” with Jim Brown and Gene Hackman.

“We had no money,” says Sutherland, who was married to actress Shirley Douglas at the time. So he called Christopher Plummer, who was working in Stratford, Canada; Sutherland had just worked with him on the film “Oedipus the King.”

“I woke him up,” Sutherland recalls. “He loaned me $1,500. Incredible. We were on a Boeing 707 — Shirley, her son Tom. Kiefer and [his twin] Rachel were probably 3 or 4 months old. I had a raincoat on and I was holding Kiefer, and when we were landing in Los Angeles, he threw up all over me.

“We were working through customs and the customs guy looks at me and said, ‘How long do you plan to spend in the United States?’ I looked at him and said, ‘Maybe a month?’ At which point, Tom cried, ‘You said we were going to live here for the rest of our lives.’”

Even after all this time in the business, Sutherland says he gets nervous during the early days of a production. That took Kevin Macdonald, the director of Sutherland’s latest film, “The Eagle,” which opens Friday, by surprise. “I thought, this is amazing,” says Macdonald. “I thought he would have it down pat. He doesn’t do his first scene in the movie until he’s done at least two or three days’ work.”

Set in AD 140 in the wilds of England, “The Eagle” stars Channing Tatum as a young Roman centurion who attempts to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his father and his legion 20 years before in Caledonia, now known as Scotland. Sutherland plays the young warrior’s wealthy uncle, who nurses the centurion back to health after he is attacked by the natives.


Macdonald was also astonished that Sutherland learned every crew member’s name. “He must study the crew list. If he gets anybody’s name wrong, he is really annoyed. On the last day of filming, he writes a little note to every single person on the shooting crew.”

Sutherland admits, though, that he didn’t do that in the early days of his career. “I was so self-involved,” he acknowledges. “But we are just a team working together. I have an obligation to know everybody. It’s so easy.”

The role that made Sutherland a star was that of the cocky surgeon “Hawkeye” Pierce in “MASH.” It wasn’t Altman who cast him but producer Ingo Preminger. Sutherland says it is all because of Robert Aldrich, the director of the 1967 World War II flick “The Dirty Dozen” with Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Brown and John Cassavetes.

“I was a glorified extra” on that film, he says. “They hired legitimate actors to play the bottom six of the dozen.”

One day during a read-through, another member of the “Dozen,” Clint Walker, stood up and complained.

“He said, ‘Mr. Aldrich, I do not think it is correct or proper for myself as a star in Hollywood representing the Native American people to play this stupid scene where I have to pretend to be a general.’ Bob Aldrich went, ‘You with the big ears, you do it.’ It changed my life. Ingo Preminger saw that movie and said, ‘I would like you to read this script. It is from a book by Richard Hooker called “MASH.’” Then he hired Bob Altman and Elliott Gould. Bob Altman wanted me replaced. He didn’t want a Canadian. He had an actor he wanted. Ingo said no. Then he said, ‘I want Elliott to have top billing.’ Ingo said no. Ingo won everything.”


In one of his first films, 1965’s “Die! Die! My Darling,” Donald Sutherland appeared opposite what legendary actress who originated the role of Regina on Broadway in “The Little Foxes”?

Tallulah Bankhead