Donald Sutherland, Don’t Look Now and Hunger Games actor, dies aged 88

<span>Donald Sutherland.</span><span>Photograph: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP</span>
Donald Sutherland.Photograph: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Donald Sutherland, whose acting career spanned six decades and included starring in such highly acclaimed films as Don’t Look Now, M*A*S*H and The Hunger Games, has died aged 88.

He died in Miami after a long illness, confirmed by his representatives.

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His son, actor Kiefer Sutherland, also shared the news on X. “With a heavy heart, I tell you that my father, Donald Sutherland, has passed away,” he wrote. “I personally think one of the most important actors in the history of film. Never daunted by a role, good, bad or ugly. He loved what he did and did what he loved, and one can never ask for more than that. A life well lived.”

A prolific actor who appeared in more than 190 films and TV shows, Sutherland embodied an off-kilter appeal that served him brilliantly in a series of classic 1970s movies, which gradually evolved into a veteran gravitas in the latter stages of his career. He did not win a major award for any of his film roles (and was never nominated for a conventional Oscar), but did win two Golden Globes for best supporting actor for the TV movies Citizen X (in 1996) and Path to War (in 2003). Sutherland received an honorary Oscar in 2017.

Born in Canada in 1935, Sutherland studied engineering and drama at the University of Toronto, and opted to move to London in 1957 to join an acting class at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda). After a series of small roles on British TV shows including Man of the World, The Saint and The Avengers, and films such as the Hammer horror film Fanatic and the Amicus anthology Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Sutherland was cast in the action film The Dirty Dozen, as one of a group of prisoners trained up for a dangerous mission during the second world war.

The Dirty Dozen was a hit and Sutherland then appeared in two more war films with anti-heroic sensibilities: the massively influential Korean war comedy M*A*S*H, in which Sutherland played rule-bending surgeon “Hawkeye” Pierce, and Kelly’s Heroes, as a whacked-out tank commander who joins Clint Eastwood’s bank robbery. (While working on the latter film, in 1968, Sutherland said he “died for a few seconds” as a result of contracting meningitis.)

Sutherland’s work became more radical: he played the title role in Klute, opposite Jane Fonda’s sex worker, as a detective investigating a murder in the first of director Alan J Pakula’s so-called “paranoia trilogy” and appeared with Fonda in the anti-Vietnam war documentary FTA. In 2017, declassified documents showed that Sutherland, a vocal anti-war activist, was on the National Security Agency’s “watch list” between 1971 and 1973.

Sutherland then embarked on a wide variety of roles as he attained leading man status. In 1973 he starred opposite Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now, the Nicolas Roeg-directed psychological horror, which contained a then-infamous sex scene, intercut with Christie and Sutherland getting dressed, which Sutherland was repeatedly forced to deny was authentic. He then starred in Federico Fellini’s Casanova, played murderous fascist Attila Melanchini in Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic 1900, and featured alongside Michael Caine as a duplicitous IRA man in war thriller The Eagle Has Landed. He played a dope-smoking professor in National Lampoon’s Animal House, and fought “pod people” in a remake of the horror sci-fi Invasion of the Body Snatchers – giving rise to a popular gif of the film’s final moments. In 1980 he led an impressive ensemble cast in Robert Redford’s directorial debut, Ordinary People, after Gene Hackman had dropped out of the role.

Related: Donald Sutherland: a life in pictures

In the 1980s and 90s Sutherland was mostly cast in character roles, including an art dealer in Six Degrees of Separation, the mysterious Mr “X” in Oliver Stone’s JFK who suggests there is a high-level coup inside the US government, and slayer trainer Merrick Jamison-Smythe in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie starring Kristy Swanson. Sutherland also had prominent roles in the legal thriller A Time to Kill (alongside his son Kiefer), the astronaut drama Space Cowboys and the Jane Austen adaptation Pride & Prejudice.

In 2012 his role as the villainous President Snow in The Hunger Games introduced him to a new generation of filmgoers. He also starred in Stephen King horror Mr Harrigan’s Phone and disaster thriller Moonfall in 2022. Most recently, he had a recurring role in TV series Lawmen: Bass Reeves with David Oyelowo.

In 2017, Sutherland received an honorary Oscar yet was often cited as one of the greatest actors never to receive an Oscar nomination.

November will see the posthumous release of his memoir titled Made Up, But Still True. The book will offer “an unfiltered account of his life that is deeply insightful, emotional, and often very funny”.

In a statement, Helen Mirren, who starred with Sutherland in 2017’s The Leisure Seeker, called him one of the “smartest actors” she has ever worked with. “He had a wonderful enquiring brain, and a great knowledge on a wide variety of subjects,” she said. “He combined this great intelligence with a deep sensitivity, and with a seriousness about his profession as an actor. This all made him into the legend of film that he became. He was my colleague and became my friend. I will miss his presence in this world.”

Fonda, his co-star in Klute and Steelyard Blues who had a three-year affair with Sutherland, remembered him as “fascinating”. “Donald was a brilliant actor and a complex man who shared quite a few adventures with me, such as the FTA Show, an anti-Vietnam war tour that performed for 60,000 active duty soldiers, sailors, and marines in Hawaii, Okinawa, the Philippines, and Japan in 1971. I am heartbroken,” she wrote.

Related: Donald Sutherland: ‘I want Hunger Games to stir up a revolution’

Ron Howard, who directed him in action drama Backdraft, also called him “one of the most intelligent, interesting & engrossing film actors of all time”.

The Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, called Sutherland a “truly a great Canadian artist”, while the two-time Oscar winning actor Michael Douglas, who starred in 1994 film Disclosure alongside Sutherland, shared a picture of the pair together on Instagram, saying: “What a lovely, talented, and curious man. RIP Donald Sutherland.”

The director Edgar Wright paid tribute in a post online. “RIP the great Donald Sutherland, a favourite actor and always fascinating screen presence,” he wrote, describing him as “a funny, laconic, but also intense and dramatic presence in so many memorable movies”.

Sutherland was married three times, to Lois Hardwick between 1959 and 1966, Shirley Douglas (1966-1970)​ and Francine Racette, whom he married in 1972.