Donald Sutherland is one of those rare actors who is not only wonderfully talented, but is gifted with a damn fine head of hair. It’s hard to think of any other actor who has made his follicles work so hard in every performance. I first became aware of this phenomenon, when in the mid-1970s Mr Sutherland opened the envelope at, I think it was, a BAFTA Award ceremony in London, where the tall, elegant Canadian, walked up to the podium and revealed a shaved hairline at odds with his long flowing locks. Sutherland was about to appear in the film Casanova, and remarked to audience’s gasps:
“When Fellini says get a haircut, you get a haircut.”
Though Sutherland started as a clean-cut co-star of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (alongside Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), and had appearances in The Saint and The Avengers (and even the voice of the computer in The Billion Dollar Brain), there was always this sense he was a geeky straight in a tight suit desperate to try some acid and, maybe if he liked it, wear beads and grow his hair long. Which is kind of what I thought when I saw him as Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H and of course, most memorably as Sgt. Oddball in Kelly’s Heroes.
His performance in Kelly’s Heroes nearly cost Sutherland his life, when he collapsed with spinal meningitis, as he later explained:
“We were in Yugoslavia and there were no antibiotics. My temperature was so high that I lapsed into a strange coma and had an out-of-body experience. I saw a tunnel in a pearlescent blue colour. I wanted to go through it, but I had the contrary sensation of desperately trying to stop myself.
“It was soft, warm and I was the most relaxed I’ve ever been. I somehow found myself looking down on my own body, stretched out like a shell. At first I couldn’t get my brain to order anything to move, but I was determined not to die.
“I was clinically dead for only moments, but I felt like I’d travelled for an eternity.”
But let’s stick to the hair. It’s too easy to say, when its short he’s square, when its long he’s counter culture, for Sutherland does more than that. Look at his wacky, hirsute Reverend Dupas that almost up-ended Little Murders. There, in one performance, is all that went wrong with the sixties.
His hair and performance in Little Murders was in sharp contrast to his restrained presence in Klute, where his sideburns tells you everything about this repressed, small town detective, who wants to be hip. Sideburns, by the way, is a corruption of the original “burnsides”, so-named after American Civil War general Ambrose Burnside, who sported side-burns, whiskers and had a clean-shaven chin.
For Don’t look Now, Sutherland is perfect. the mustache, the unruly curls, the cunnilingus, but what was going on in Invasion of the Body Snatchers? I like that film, I bought the tie-in photo-novel, but the hair?
More quirks, more whiskers in The First Great Train Robbery.
The nineties brought a lot of cameos. Sutherland is all that’s memorable about JFK, though we never had a proper glimpse of his hair, its color and length is an older, wiser, John Klute.
Now, in his seventies, he’s still a damn fine actor, with a damn fine head of hair.