Cult Movies: Donald Sutherland - farewell to the late, great star, an in-demand actor long before he was a household name

Ralph pays tribute to the Canadian movie star, whose screen career stretches back further than you might think

Donald Sutherland as 'Oddball' in Kelly's Heroes
Donald Sutherland as 'Oddball' in Kelly's Heroes

THE 1970s and 80s weren’t exactly short of charismatic leading men on the silver screen, but even so, Donald Sutherland just oozed class every time he graced a film.

The Canadian actor, who left us last week at the age of 88, graced quite a few too, in that star-spangled era and far beyond. Any list of his greatest big screen achievements would have to include his breakthrough role as the kooky Vernon L Pinkley in The Dirty Dozen, which in turn landed him the significant part of Hawkeye in MASH and the role of Oddball, a certifiably insane tank commander, nut job and hippy, in Kelly’s Heroes.

From there, he delivered a veritable feast of fine character performances in such seminal offerings as Klute, Fellini’s Casanova and Nic Roeg’s disturbing study of bereavement and bad vibes, Don’t Look Now.

The latter, central role as John Baxter, a father grieving the accidental death of his daughter who takes on a commission to restore an old church in Venice, captures his onscreen magic perfectly.

Donald Sutherland plays a grieving father in Don't Look Now
Donald Sutherland plays a grieving father in Don't Look Now

On the surface, an ordinary man dealing with a devastating family loss, he also displays an otherworldly quality that grows before our eyes as he and his wife begin to experience supernatural occurrences amidst the murky waterways of that strange and sinister setting.

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If he’d only given us that one performance we’d still be talking about him as a unique acting talent. That he gave us so many more marks him out as something truly special.

His was a singular CV that also included scene-stealing turns in everything from JFK to The Hunger Games - but what many a film historian fails to mention is that, by the time he made his first big breakthrough with The Dirty Dozen in 1967, he’d already earned his cult stripes, appearing in seemingly endless episodes of ITC crime serials like Man In A Suitcase and superior spy capers like The Avengers.

Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in Fluke (Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy)
Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in Klute (Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy) (Alamy Stock Photo)

These shows allowed Sutherland to flex his acting muscles in more offbeat ways, letting him go off on tangents and giving him free reign to hone that quirky everyman persona who might just flip into full-blown madness at a a mere moment’s notice.

You can see that strange, enigmatic charm in some of the odd little British horror films he made in the mid-60s like Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors, where he plays a doctor driven to stake his own wife, and also in the rarely seen Hammer thriller Die Die My Darling, where he gets to chew the scenery as a simple-minded handy man at weird old Tallulah Bankhead’s mercy.

You can even see that slightly manic quality in my favourite Sutherland film of the 1970s, Philip Kaufman’s re-boot of ‘50s sci-fi favourite, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

The 1970s update of Invasion of The Bodysnatchers is also coming to Belfast's Beanbag Cinema, courtesy of BFF's Back To The Moviedrome season
Leonard Nimoy, Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum in Invasion of The Bodysnatchers

He plays Matthew Bennell, the seemingly ordinary man caught up in the extraordinary situation of a world that’s falling foul of an alien invasion carried out via a person-by-person take-over of human bodies by slimy pod-born extra-terrestrial replicants.

Strange, paranoid, unforgettable and always believable, it’s a performance to remember in a career littered with them.

Donald Sutherland in Invasion of The Body Snatchers
Donald Sutherland in Invasion of The Body Snatchers