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Donald Sutherland, 1935-2024

The actor, who appeared in almost 200 on-screen roles, died after a long illness

Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Image credit: United Artists

Donald Sutherland was one of those actors who means entirely different things to entirely different generations, which is one of the gifts of a long career filled with interesting roles. There are audiences who only know him as President Snow in the Hunger Games movies, as well as those who see his perpetually weary face — it was the eyes, wasn’t it? — think of “important” movies like A Dry White Season, or JFK or Six Degrees of Separation. Yet others will remember him in the movie version of M*A*S*H or Kelly’s Heroes, or even The Dirty Dozen. The list goes on, and on. Again, a sign of a full career.

For me, I always think of Sutherland in two different movies from the 1970s: 1971’s Klute, where he plays the title character — a detective drawn into a mystery surrounding the seeming disappearance of an executive that (of course) proves to be more morally grey and complicated than it first appeared — and 1978’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which his Matthew Bennell ends up being one of the few humans to survive an under-the-radar alien assault… well, until it’s too late, of course. (Can you spoil a movie that’s almost half a century old? Sorry.)

In both performances, Sutherland is magnetic and complicated; he’s cynical and emotional and at once beaten down by the world and somehow standing aside from it, raging against what’s happening in his own way. He carries the weight of both movies somehow effortlessly, as if he isn’t even aware of because of everything else he’s dealing with, but you can’t look away from him when he’s onscreen — even when Jane Fonda is giving the performance of her career opposite him in Klute. (It’s a very good movie; if you haven’t seen it, you really should.) There’s an intelligence and humor in everything Sutherland does onscreen in these movies, and in everything else he appeared in. For a career that lasted more than 60 years — his first television credit was in 1962, his final movie credit will be in an upcoming film called Heart Land — that’s a pretty impressive claim to make.

He kept busy until his death; acting, but also writing; his much-anticipated memoir Made Up, But Still True is scheduled for a November release, with publisher Crown describing it as “an unfiltered account of his life that is deeply insightful, emotional, and often very funny,” filled with “surprising candor and powerful, lyrical prose.” Of course it is; what else would anyone expect from Sutherland, a man whose stare and very presence could overwhelm lesser men so easily.

Donald Sutherland died aged 88, after what was reportedly a long illness. It’s clear that movies will be lesser without his presence, but with somewhere in the region of 200 acting credits to his name, fans and newcomers alike will be able to find new things to appreciate in his work — and unseen work in general — for some time to come.

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Graeme McMillan: Popverse Editor Graeme McMillan (he/him) has been writing about comics, culture, and comics culture on the internet for close to two decades at this point, which is terrifying to admit. He completely understands if you have problems understanding his accent.
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