For every era of film in the last half-century, there’s a memorable Donald Sutherland role.
Whether it’s his breakthrough performance in “The Dirty Dozen,” his portrayal of a demented arsonist in “Backdraft” or playing a ruthless president in “The Hunger Games” films, Sutherland’s career spans roughly 140 films in every genre, his performances tinged with wit, charm, and often a hint of unpredictability.
None, however, have earned Sutherland an Academy Award, let alone a nomination. That will change Saturday when Sutherland receives an honorary Oscar at the film academy’s ninth annual Governors Awards ceremony.
Although Sutherland has known about the honor for weeks, it doesn’t mean he isn’t feeling some jitters.
“It had never occurred to me not even remotely … that people would think to honor me in such a way,” Sutherland said during a recent interview.
“It’s a dinner,” he said of the ceremony, “and if you think I’m going to eat, you’re nuts.”
He likened the experience to carrying the flag of his native Canada in the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 and trying to keep up with the pageantry of the moment. ”All I could think of in the middle of it was that I wished that my mother, who had been dead for probably 20 years, could see me now,” he said. “And I feel kind of that way. I wish Brian Hutton were alive and could see me now.”
Hutton directed Sutherland in 1970’s “Kelly’s Heroes,” in which he played Sergeant Oddball. He said to this day, the character remains the role he hears about most from fans.
Sutherland is the best-known recipient of this year’s honorary Oscars honorees, which include director Agnes Varda, writer-director Charles Burnett and cinematographer Owen Roizman. None of the honorees have worked together, but Sutherland and Roizman share something in common – bouts with polio when they were young.
Raised in a small town in Nova Scotia, Canada, Sutherland said his sights were always set on acting. His father wanted him to have a more practical career and steered him toward electrical engineering. That was never appealing to Sutherland, who instead took the advice of his acting instructors to focus on his performances.
When Sutherland takes on a role, even if it’s a small one, he said it stays inside him forever. That includes his turn as X in “JFK,” whom he played for a day, as well as roles he’s spent much longer on, such as the damaged father in “Ordinary People.”
The actor remains busy, and said his character from his upcoming film “The Leisure Seeker,” is “running around like crazy inside me.” Sutherland stars opposite Helen Mirren as a couple on an epic road trip in their RV.
At 82, Sutherland has no intention of slowing down. Asked if he finds the roles for older actors fulfilling, Sutherland said, “Hey, as an actor, I can walk onto a scene, say hello (makes gargling noises) crash onto the floor and have a heart attack and that’s enough.”
“Except that it hurts my shoulder,” he said. “Truly, my shoulders are in terrible trouble because I die a lot – and I’m cramming for my finals.”
Not that Sutherland would have any regrets if his last performance included his final breath.
“I’m really hoping that in some movie I’m doing, I die but I die, me, Donald, and they’re able to use my funeral and the coffin,” Sutherland said. “That would be absolutely ideal. I would love that.”