HomeNewsDonald Sutherland Dies at 88: The Great Unsung Actor of the 1970s

Donald Sutherland Dies at 88: The Great Unsung Actor of the 1970s

Initially, he was a Hippie Nation ambassador, a force of irreverence equipped with a keen wit and a don’t-worry grin. Donald Sutherland rose to prominence in war films in the late 1960s, coinciding with the rise of Flower Power and the heightened tensions in Vietnam. It’s amazing to think of that information today, considering the 6 decades of tremendously diversified work the late, great actor left behind when he died Thursday at the age of 88.

The one uniting feature between his peacenik heroes is that period pieces depict fascists, mourning dads, flirting college professors, whistleblowers, space cowboys, and dystopian rulers with the same degree of excellence.

While Sutherland would appear in a touring performance known as FTA (Fuck the Army) during the height of the counterculture’s radicalization phase, he spent a significant amount of time as a guy in uniform in one of the most conservative genres available.

However, how those films employed this smirking, somewhat zonked young guy was a stroke of brilliance. There’s no better location to undermine than from inside. The Dirty Dozen, a 1967 film starring Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, and dangerously high testosterone levels, is the ultimate he-man WWII romp.

Sutherland’s Vernon L. Pinkley, like the other recruits, is a criminal picked for a suicide mission, for what does a felon have to gain except his freedom and nothing to lose but his life? This specific member of the Dozen is quite dull. However, the group’s commander chooses Pinkley to pose as a general in an effort to deceive the military hierarchy. He declines the offer. Except for the soldier, this is not a request. Pinkley, still dressed as a grunt, plays along under pressure and pretends to examine the men.

And here is where you first see why Sutherland, who has already spent a solid five years performing minor roles in TV series and low-budget horror films, will become not just a big actor, but a star in the coming years. He shuffles toward the privates’ line, but not before looking over his shoulder and giving his fellow Dirties a strange, tongue-out expression.

Then, in a few steps, Pinkley morphs from the runt of the litter to a rough parody of an officer and a gentleman. He raised his head and placed his hands behind his back. He wonders aloud if these boys can really fight.

Where are you from, son? Madison City, Missouri, sir, said one soldier. Pinkley shook his head. “Neverrrr heard of it,” he replies, marching forward. There was a person criticizing everything holy about both the Greatest Generation’s heritage and the modern Army, standing in for every child who was frightened about their draft number and asking, “What are we fightin’ for?” He was the fly in your father’s war film ointment, and he would play a similar anachronism in Clint Eastwood’s men-on-mission comedy Kelly’s Heroes (1970) a few years later.

But it was that same year’s M*A*S*H that solidified him as a proto-gross-out comedic hero, a sex icon, and a true above-the-title actor. His Hawkeye Pierce and Elliott Gould’s Trapper John M.D. make an excellent double act, using macabre humor, pranks, and the odd happy-hour interlude to celebrate life in the face of death.

The film was set during the Korean War, but, you know, nudge, wink. The film struck a chord, and Sutherland was a key figure in making that chord reverberate. Welcome to New Hollywood. At the studio entrance, please check your manners and your naïve confidence in institutions. M*A*S*H would usher in a decade of American cinema that Sutherland would help define, even if many who revere the wonderful maverick age like to look first to Method actors like Hoffman, Pacino, and De Niro.

But from the bearded, Christ-like figures he played in films like Alex in Wonderland and Little Murders (and the actual Christ figure in Johnny Got Your Gun) to the white knight savior of Klute to the curly-mopped lead of Don’t Look Now and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Sutherland gradually established himself as one of the era’s major players.

This photo is already legendary, yet even out of context, the hairstyle and stache almost scream “the Seventies.” More significantly, Sutherland was the ideal actor for that period in cinema history because he could be attractive but approachable, hip yet out of touch, sturdy yet lost, and steady yet disillusioned.

As the counterculture faded away, he was seen as the epitome of the Nixon/Ford era’s Sixties hangover, with the bartender joyfully slinging beverages. Sutherland was already portraying authoritative characters by the late 1970s, such as Professor Jennings in Animal House, the college instructor who may get youngsters stoned and has no moral concerns with his pupils about sex but is quick to remind them that they still have to turn in their Paradise Lost papers.

When the odometer rolled into the 1980s, his first significant appearance was in Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning Ordinary People, in which he played not only a grief-stricken father but also one-half of the silver screen’s ultimate repressed WASP parents.

There were still romantic leads and cool cats ahead—we like his German spy in the underappreciated 1981 thriller Eye of the Needle—but Sutherland’s patriarchal phase would begin in earnest now.

Scroll through IMDb, and you’ll see “Dr.,” “Father” (as in priest), and “Sergeant” appear more often before his characters’ names. He’d also position himself as the go-to man when you wanted someone to make an immediate impression. In Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-theorist nocturnal emission JFK (1991), his moniker is just “X,” and Sutherland appears in only one lengthy, dialogue-heavy scene on a bench.

He remains the film’s most memorable character. Throughout his final three decades of acting, he was mostly known as a “character actor.” His roles ranged from teen horror comedies (like the first Buffy the Vampire Slayer film) to sports dramas (like Without Limits), serial killer thrillers (like Citizen X), and even tony literary adaptations (like Pride and Prejudice (2005), in which he transformed Mr. Bennett’s final speech into a cinematic Jane Austen classic—another role he consistently said was his favorite).

When he was allowed to do more, in films such as Six Degrees of Separation (1993) and the FX limited series Trust (2018), you were reminded of how much he had to offer and how deftly he played the emotional scale. A generation will remember him as President Snow, the grandfatherly personification of absolute evil at the heart of the Hunger Games saga. Sutherland, however, always knew how to grab you, no matter how tiny the role or how few lines there were.

He could utilize his distinct baritone to crush your heart or make you involuntarily evacuate your bowels. Sutherland never lost the gleam in his eye that you see in Vernon L. Pinkley’s eye when he chooses to completely commit to duping the US Army. He was an actor whose career ranged from the Pentagon Papers to QAnon, and his permed face became linked with a particular renegade time in cinematic history. It still seems like he never received his due.

Calling him anything else than one of the greatest cinematic performers of all time is, quite simply, incorrect. And, as Donald Sutherland said, he was always willing to go to considerable efforts to get it exactly perfect.

Abubakar is a writer and digital marketing expert. Who has founded multiple blogs and successful businesses in the fields of digital marketing, software development. A full-service digital media agency that partners with clients to boost their business outcomes.

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