Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Snarling and Skulking: A Spy-ography of Donald Sutherland

Snarling and Skulking: A Spy-ography of Donald Sutherland

By Wesley Britton

According to critic Pete Stampede, acclaimed actor 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." (note 1) Still, despite Sutherland's long and varied career, a note at the IMDB from a aficionado complained there is no fan site for Sutherland nor any list serves devoted to him. That fan's choice was to simply post a few photos.

Well, there's more out there than what that poster suggested, but it is true online pickings are slim when comparing Sutherland to others with similar filmographies. So here's a contribution to filling that void.


Born on July 17, 1935 (in New Brunswick, Canada), Donald McNichol Sutherland later said his absolute hero, as a young movie-goer, was Robert Mitchum. In his youth, Sutherland only thought of acting in terms of the stage which was what brought him to Britain. However, he didn't enjoy his time at LAMDA (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) because the tutors decreed his voice was too low and would have to be raised an octave. This process went wrong and for a while he couldn't speak, leaving him, in his own words, fit only for truck driving. (note 2)

Sutherland spent most of the 1960s in Britain finding film and TV work in roles requiring a convenient American accent. He became a reliable supporting character in British-made television series, such shows often launching pads for long careers in films. For example, Roger Moore worked in Maverick, Ivanhoe, The Saint, and The Persuaders before becoming 007. Sutherland was part of this generation, a guest in two adventures of Moore’s The Saint. Sutherland first appeared in the American-set episode, "The Happy Suicide" (1965). Then, according to Pete Stampede, "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!"

In 2006, Moore recalled more about working with Sutherland on “Escape route.” In his commentary track for The Spy Who Loved Me, he described the episode as one of those where Simon Templar went to prison in order to get information from an inmate. In this case, Sutherland was the prisoner, and the two escaped jail by running to a helicopter. The pair were pursued by a stuntman who grabbed the ledge and held on while the helicopter took off. Moore said Sutherland got too caught up in his role, and kept stamping on the stuntman's fingers, 100 feet in the air. Moore, directing the episode, had to yell cut to save the fellow's life.

During this busy period, Sutherland also guested in the super-hero spy series, The Champions. He played a crazed practitioner of voodoo in the episode, "Shadow of the Panther" (1968). In addition, Sutherland did two episodes of Man in A Suitcase. In "Day of Execution" (1967), he played a drunken American buddy of series lead Richard Bradford's character, McGill. In "Which Way Did He Go, McGill?" Sutherland was a villainous ex-convict snarling lines like "Oi've done three year's bird and Oi want moi share!" In Pete Stampede's words, Sutherland used a "strange Irish accent" for the drama and "unfortunately, he used it again years later in The Eagle Has Landed (1977). (note 3)

As it happened, Eagle featured Michael Caine, another perennial sometime spy from the same generation as Roger Moore, Sean Connery, and Donald Sutherland. Back in 1967, Sutherland had played a brief role in Caine's third "Harry Palmer" film, Billion Dollar Brain. Sutherland provided the voice of the computer issuing orders over the phone and was a quickly seen scientist in the movie. Both actors also worked together in a television version of Hamlet. "when they were mates in London in the 60's," Stampede noted in an e-mail, "they were both in an episode of the much-loved, long-running cop show Dixon of Dock Green, as villains intent on rubbing out one of Dixon's junior colleagues."

Most famously, Sutherland was the con-man killer Jessel in the 1967 episode, "The Superlative Seven," where he battled Patrick Macnee's John Steed in The Avengers. Ironically, this part came his way a few years after he had a role in a series seen only in England, The Sentimental Agent. The episode, "A Very Desirable Plot," also featured the TV debut of future Avenger, Diana Rigg. "His role in The Sentimental Agent," Stampede admits, "was a very small one, just a couple of lines as a hotel clerk, but in the same scene, just after he does his bit, Diana Rigg comes in, making her debut."

Beyond television and supporting roles in films, Sutherland's movie career began to move forward before decade's end. His last bit part using an American-sounding accent in a British spy film was in Sebastian (1968). Produced by important director Michael Powell, Sebastian had a math whiz (Dirk Bogarde) the Brits employ to crack codes. Then, with money borrowed from his friend, Christopher Plummer, Sutherland finally migrated to Hollywood where another secret agent role got him quick work. He did a TV movie, The Sunshine Patriot (1968). This effort starred Cliff Robertson in a double role as an American and an Englishman with Sutherland and Wilfrid Hyde White in the London-set scenes. The story was about an American agent with microfilm pursued by Russians.

But before the move, a future contribution to spy television came in the birth of Donald's twins on December 21, 1966--daughter Rachel and son, Kiefer. (Kiefer was named after Warren Kiefer, the screenwriter on his father's first theatrical film, Castle of the Living Dead [(1964]).


The 1970s were largely good years for Donald Sutherland, whose name came to prominence with the 1970 M*A*S*H with co-star, Elliott Gould. Sadly, Gould and Sutherland tried to capitalize on this fame in 1974 S*P*Y*S. In this forgettable farce, the two former doctors became bumbling CIA agents given the simple task of protecting a Russian ballerina. They're so inept the CIA asked the KGB to take them out. Critics and audiences were equally annoyed.

While other important roles came his way, such as playing the tank commander Sgt. Oddball in Kelly's Heroes (1970), starring in the Academy award-winning detective thriller Klute (1971), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), the only other espionage outing during the '70s was the aforementioned The Eagle Has Landed. In a central role, Sutherland was novelist Jack Higgin's World War II Irish infiltration expert, Liam Devlin, who leads a group of German commandos into a small English village in hopes of kidnapping Winston Churchill. The twist was, Churchill wasn't there--an actor double had been sent to allow the Prime Minister to do secret work elsewhere. As reported in my Onscreen and Undercover: The Ultimate Book of Movie Espionage, "While Eagle earned high praise when it debuted, time has not been kind to a script that left out much that made the source material a landmark in espionage fiction." The problems are not attributed to the ensemble cast but rather a disinterested director. (See notes 3 and 4 below).

The High Point

Sutherland returned to spycraft, and WWII, in 1981's Eye of the Needle. In terms of espionage films, Needle was clearly Sutherland at his best in a well-made, suspenseful thriller with Hitchcockian touches. This major motion picture, based on a Ken Follett novel, involved Nazi spy Faber (Sutherland) shipwrecked on a remote English island after he secretly photographs the fake aircraft of General Patton's bogus coastal army. (note 4) Trying to send this information back to Germany--which would have altered the success of the planned D-Day Normandy invasion--he quietly murders two men, one of which was husband to Kate Mulligan. Unhappy in her marriage, Mulligan was first seduced by Faber before she realizes who he is and must stop his mission on her own.

For most reviewers, Sutherland was chilling in this underrated, Old-fashioned adventure. (note 5) According to Wesley Wark, Needle was a "nip-and-tuck chase film" like The 39 Steps as the Nazi went into rustic settings. (note 6)

Low Ebbs

But, more often, the material in Sutherland's spy scripts was not the stuff of classic filmmaking. He was part of the all-star cast in novelist Alistair Maclean’s
Bear Island (1980). Sutherland, Richard Widmark, Vanessa Redgrave, Barbara Perkins, Christopher Lee and others floundered in this bloated adventure involving scientists and Nazi spies on a strange island. The Canadian venture cost $12 million---it didn't get it back. But Sutherland hit his low point, in terms of movie secret agents, in The Trouble With Spies (1987. He was Appleton Porter in the critically panned comedy as yet another bumbling British agent going to Ibizia looking for a Russian. Despite mistake after mistake, Porter wins in the end. One indication of the film's potential was that it was released three years after it was made. Another clue about the film is the name it was released under in the U.K.---Two Female Spies in Flowered Panties.

During the 1990s, Sutherland's luck with spy roles again ran the gamut from the high caliber to the mediocre. In the 1991 Oliver Stone JFK, Sutherland played a mysterious Washington intelligence officer who pointed to links to the military-industrial complex in relation to Kennedy's assassination. In 1997, Sutherland appeared in two spy stories: The Assignment and Shadow Conspiracy. In the former, a film Roger Ebert rated with ****1/2, Sutherland was Jack Shaw/Henry Fields, A CIA agent tracking Carlos, "The Jackal" (Aidan Quinn). Originally titled The Carlos Project, the movie featured Ben Kingsley as an Israeli Mossad agent in one of the first films connecting worries of the Middle East with Cold War concerns. For some critics, "Jackal" stories had already been better done by the likes of Frederick Forsythe (Day of the Jackal) and Robert Ludlum (The Bourne Identity). Others claim The Assignment was an above-average spy thriller with a third-act that didn't disintegrate into a boom-boom, shoot-shoot finale.

However, in Shadow Conspiracy, cliches ruled the day in this vehicle for presidential assistant, Charlie Sheen. Sutherland was Jacob Conrad, the trusted mentor to Bobby Bishop (Sheen) who is on the run. A plodding effort in need of major rewrites.


Considering this catalogue of espionage lemons, middling adventures, and one outstanding classic, one might wonder if Donald Sutherland is worthy of any overview of important actors in spy films. It's worth noting he worked in numerous high-quality films unrelated to the secret agent genre including Johnny Got His Gun (1971), Don't Look Now (1973), the Academy Award winning Ordinary People (1980), and A Dry White Season (1989). He starred in Cold Mountain and The Italian Job (both 2003) and Pride and Prejudice (2005). Also in 2005, he was perfectly cast as the oily, manipulative Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton in the under-appreciated TV series, Commander in Chief. In July 2006, he earned an Emmy nomination for his performance as a custom's agent in the TV movie, Human Trafficking. Thus, for a few short months, two generations of Sutherlands appeared in network prime time, Kiefer Sutherland now the star of one of the best covert action projects ever aired.

For spy buffs, perhaps Donald Sutherland's presence in British television during the '60s spy renaissance remains his primary legacy in celluloid espionage. In the main, when Sutherland missed the mark, it was usually in films with unrealized scripts or lackluster directorial execution. When all the ingredients came together, as in Eye of the Needle (readily available on DVD), Donald Sutherland remains uniquely able to give chilly menace both emotional and intelligent depth. Rarely the hero but usually memorable, Sutherland continues to be a presence difficult to duplicate.


1. See Stampede, Pete. "The Avengers Forever: Donald Sutherland." 2002. TheAvengersForever.com

2. Some quotes here came from an e-mail from Pete Stampede to this author in which he said much of the information he used in his Avengers description came from a chapter Sutherland wrote called "Reflections Of A Star" in "a long out-of-print anthology called Anatomy of the Movies. I think he admitted having made one light-hearted caper comedy too many at that point."

3. For a more detailed discussion on The Eagle Has Landed, see "From Harry Palmer to Austin Powers: A Spy-ography of Michael Caine" posted at this website.

4. See my Onscreen and Undercover: The Ultimate Book of Movie Espionage (Praeger, 2006). PP 81. The photo gallery includes a still of Sutherland photographing the planes in Eye of the Needle.

5. Mulay, James J. And Daniel Curran, Jefferey H. Wallenfeldt. Spies and Sleuths: Mystery, Spies, and Suspense Films on Videocassette.
Evanston, IL: Cinemabooks. 1988. PP 45.

6. Wark, Wesley, ed. Spy Fiction, Spy Films, and Real Intelligence. London: Frank Cass and Co. Ltd. 1991. Pp. 145

Other Donald Sutherland Sources

Donald Sutherland - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Sutherland - 45k -

Donald Sutherland Profile, Gossip, News, and Picture at CelebrityWonder.com.
http://www.celebritywonder.com/html/... - 41k -

Yahoo! Movies: Donald Sutherland
http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/contributor/... - 15k -

Donald Sutherland - Northern Stars
Database for information about Canadian actors and directors.
http://www.northernstars.ca/actorsstu/... - 23k -
(Must be subscriber to access.)

Donald Sutherland posters, filmography, news, and forum.
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/p/donald_sutherland/ - 100k -

Donald Sutherland News
http://www.topix.net/who/donald-sutherland - 37k -

IMDb: Donald Sutherland
Donald Sutherland (I) - Filmography, Awards, Biography, Agent, Discussions, Photos, News Articles, Fan Sites.
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000661/ - 59k -

For other articles on film espionage, see


1 comment:

Dan Bodenheimer said...

The Escape Route episode of The Saint with Roger Moore was perhaps that second Saint TV show that I ever saw. I think the first one was A Double In Diamonds. Anyway, it really impressed me and I had great expectations for the rest of the shows! There's a good list of those at http://www.saint.org/sttv.htm!