If it hadn't been for Christopher Plummer's generosity, fans the world over might have been denied the magic of Donald Sutherland. The year was 1968 and Sutherland was earning his first decent film notices for a small but impressive part in The Dirty Dozen. His agent urged him to try his luck in Hollywood. Trouble was, Sutherland was dead broke. Plummer supplied the needed cash for the move south, and soon afterward, Sutherland landed the career-shaping role of warfront surgeon Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H.
When M*A*S*H emerged as one of the biggest artistic and popular successes of 1970, critics were quick to herald Sutherland an "overnight" sensation, conveniently ignoring the fact that he'd already been toiling as a professional actor for nearly two decades.
Little in Sutherland's background prepared him for an illustrious life on stage and screen. Born July 17, 1935, in Saint John, New Brunswick, the son of a salesman and a math teacher, he had dreams of being a sculptor. When his father suggested the practicality of developing more marketable skills, Sutherland enrolled in the engineering program at the University of Toronto. Three years into his studies, he agreed to appear in a campus production of Edward Albee's The Male Animal. Immediately he knew he'd found his life's work. Throughout the late 1950s and '60s Sutherland struggled to gain a foothold in film - appearing in such forgettable gems as Castle Of The Living Dead and Dr. Terror's House Of Horrors - and episodic television. Then came M*A*S*H.
Over the next three decades, Sutherland's list of film credits expanded to include more than 100 roles. Yet, such tremendous fecundity notwithstanding, he's never opted for safe or easy choices. For Sutherland, it's never been about fame or fortune - even though, with typical humility, he insists he's just a mortgage-paying father of five. Instead, he embarked on a 45-year journey of self-challenges. As he explained not long ago to Maclean's, "the harder you work, the harder you're going to have to work. You never get to the truth, but that's what your job is. To find it. The closer you get, the harder you have to work to find it."
That's why he's never been typecast; why he's equally believable and equally compelling as a haunted father (Don't Look Back, Ordinary People), a hapless college dean (Animal House), a condescending art dealer (Six Degrees Of Separation), or a benevolent, real-life hero (Bethune).
But it is the man himself, not his movies, who leaves the most lasting impression. Despite his status as one of the world's great screen stars, there remains much of the Maritime lad he once was - generous, soft-spoken, keenly intelligent, and endlessly curious.
And, though he and his companion of nearly 30 years, actress Francine Racette, now divide their time among homes in Los Angeles, Paris, and Québec, he also remains forever faithful to his homeland. Recently, when National Post columnist Linda Frum inquired about his citizenship, Sutherland simply replied: "Canada is where my heart is."
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