Guest Actor Biography
Page 111 of 127

   

Donald Sutherland

Jessel, The Superlative Seven

by Pete Stampede

How typical of The Avengers that when a future Hollywood star appears, he's doing a silly foreign accent! Donald Sutherland has, to my mind, one of the great faces in cinema and a uniquely edgy presence (no-one is better at skulking, especially in Klute), even if some recent projects have been less than top-grade. He was, in retrospect, at his best in the early 70's, Kelly's Heroes being my favourite from this period, although many consider Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now a classic. Born Donald McNichol Sutherland on 17 July 1934 in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, he was, for most of the 60's, living in Britain and turning up in any part requiring a convenient American accent, a common predicament for Canadian actors. He was even a stooge to the great Terry-Thomas in a 1963 TV special, and the following year was Fortinbras in the BBC's Hamlet at Elsinore, actually filmed in Denmark with a jaw-dropping cast (Christopher Plummer, Michael Caine, Robert Shaw, Steven Berkoff, Roy Kinnear); intriguingly, he was in both a BBC drama-documentary, Lee Oswald - Assassin in 1966, and Oliver Stone's JFK, a quarter of a century later. He was no stranger to the ITC action series either, with roles in The Sentimental Agent (the episode, "A Very Desirable Plot" also saw the TV debut of a very desirable young Diana Rigg), The Saint and Man In a Suitcase. His first film was an unbilled bit in The World Ten Times Over (1963), not Castle of the Living Dead (1964) as some usually reliable sources claim.

Sutherland played a doctor who suspects his wife of vampirism in the multi-story Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), a film I have a terrible soft spot for, not least for its bizarre cast. Peter Cushing played Dr. Schreck, telling the fates of fellow train passengers Christopher Lee, song and dance man Roy Castle, ageing disc-jockey Alan Freeman (catchphrase, "Greetings, pop pickers!"), and Sutherland: what on earth did they find to say to each other between takes?

"The Superlative Seven" came at the start of an extraordinary couple of years in his career, in which he was hardly ever off the big or small screens, in Britain and America, and made the move from supporting actor in Britain to star in Hollywood. He got a role in The Dirty Dozen (1967) after impressing as a convict in a Roger Moore-directed episode of The Saint, "Escape Route" (1966) - according to Moore, anyway! (Sutherland had earlier been in an American-set Saint, "The Happy Suicide" (1965)). Originally, another of the Dozen, tough-guy actor Ralph Meeker, was supposed to do the scene in which a loon is passed off as a military bigwig, but declined; Sutherland claims Robert Aldrich didn't even know his name, but absent-mindedly pointed at him and said "You with the big ears do it!" Another of Sutherland's anecdotes from this early period is that on the set of a Hammer horror, Fanatic/Die, Die My Darling! (1965), in which he was a villainous gardener, he was called into the legendary, but now thoroughly raddled Tallulah Bankhead's dressing room, only to find her in a state of undress. On seeing his being taken aback, the grande dame drawled, "What's the matter, darling? Haven't you ever seen a naked blonde before?"

Sutherland did two episodes of Man In A Suitcase, "Day of Execution" (1967) directed by [Avengers director] Charles Crichton, as a drunken American chum of McGill's, and "Which Way Did He Go, McGill?", as a villainous ex-convict, snarling lines like "Oi've done three year's bird and Oi want moi share!" in a strange Irish accent; unfortunately, he used it again years later in The Eagle Has Landed (1977). He provided the distinctive transatlantic voice of the computer issuing orders over the phone to Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) in Billion Dollar Brain (1967), also playing a tiny part as a scientist. Interlude (1967, shown 1968) was a soppy romance with a London setting, in which Sutherland had a supporting role as a philanderer and John Cleese, in his film debut, was the last name on the cast in the opening titles. Oedipus the King (1968) was a theatrical adaptation which didn't transfer; incidentally, director Philip Saville had a high-profile romance with Diana Rigg (while he was still married, in fact) at the time. Sebastian (1968) was a flashily directed spy yarn starring Dirk Bogarde, and produced by Michael Powell (who'd have done a much better job of directing); it marked Sutherland's last bit part as a convenient American-sounding accent in Britain. After a typically silly episode of The Champions, "Shadow of the Panther" (1968), in which he was a voodoo-practising loon, he gave the best performance in Joanna (1968), yet another Swinging London love story, directed by failed pop star Mike Sarne, who would later inflict Myrna Breckenridge upon the world; it had unknowns (before and since) in the leads and Sutherland as a dying but hard-partying Lord. Then, with money borrowed from Christopher Plummer, he went to Hollywood, first doing a TV movie, The Sunshine Patriot (1968): yet another spy tale, it starred Cliff Robertson in a double role as an American and (unconvincingly) an Englishman, with Sutherland and Wilfrid Hyde White (now there's someone who should have been in The Avengers but never was) in the London-set scenes. The Split (1968), a violent (for the time) thriller in which Sutherland did another of his heavies, may have seemed like a typical Hollywood product looking at the cast (Gene Hackman, Warren Oates, Jim Brown) but actually had a director from The Avengers, Gordon Flemyng. Years later, Sutherland made a one-off return to British TV in The Railway Station Man (BBC, 1992), reuniting him with Don't Look Now co-star Julie Christie.

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Page last modified: 5 May 2017.

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