(Header photo via Huffington Post)
Written By: Tiffany Leung
Donald Sutherland was born in 1935 in Saint John, New Brunswick. He initially became interested in an acting career at the age of 10, after seeing a magic show at a church. However, he enrolled in University of Toronto’s engineering program due to his father’s suggestion of pursuing a steady career path. Sutherland chose University of Toronto because of its well-known reputation, as well as its remarkable theatre program.
Sutherland’s portrait from Victoria College’s yearbook, 1958
Throughout his time as a student, he participated in many theatrical productions, namely those of the Hart House Theatre, UC Follies, and Victoria College’s Dramatic Society. His first acting role was in Thurber’s The Male Animal (1953) at Hart House Theatre. which was generally well-received. Other Hart House plays in which he was involved include Darkness at Noon (1954-1955), The Troublemakers (1955-1956), and The School for Wives (1956-1957). He was also involved in Victoria College’s Dramatic Society Production of Electra (1957) and Thieves’ Carnival (1958). One of his most notable roles was during his fifth Hart House play, where he acted as Stephano in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1956-1957). The play was a huge success, and Sutherland received excellent reviews from both The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. Sutherland also spent many of his summers acting at The Straw Hat Players—a summer theatre company founded by a few members of the Hart House Theatre, as well as its director, Robert Gill.
After 3 years in the engineering program, Sutherland switched into English at Victoria College and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He left Toronto in 1958 and went to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts for 2 years. Afterwards, he travelled to Perth, Scotland for a year and a half. He participated in a few plays before eventually returning to London, England. His first big break was in his role as Fortinbras in the 1964 television show, Hamlet at Elsinore. After a few years in Britain, he headed to Hollywood, where he starred in the smash-hit TV show M*A*S*H (1970), a black comedy. Since then, he has participated in many other successful productions, such as Ordinary People (1980), a drama film, and The Hunger Games franchise (2012-2015), a science-fiction series. He has also acted in Canadian productions, including Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1990), a CBC television drama, and Enigma Variations (1999), a mystery comedy.
Sutherland was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1978. He was also awarded the “Genie Award” for Best Actor in 1983 for his role as a heart surgeon in Threshold, and in 2000, he was inducted in Canada’s Walk of Fame.
In 2001, Sutherland contributed to the success of Hart House Theatre’s Campaign. As an honorary co-chair member of the cabinet, he aided Hart House Theatre in acquiring 8 million dollars for its revitalization and endowment. When asked to comment about the theatre, he said, “It’s a theatre with arms that embrace you, comfort you, push you, applaud you. It gives birth to people who make theatre. It nurtures them. It guides them. It sets them free and they wear the mantle of that theatre for the rest of their lives.”
Many thanks to The Globe and Mail (1978), Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia, Hart House Theatre: A Dramatic History, Evening Times Globe (1970), The Bridgewater Bulletin (1967), The Weekend Magazine (1977), Maclean’s Magazine (2000), Historica Canada, U of T Magazine (2012), Torontonensis (1958), Victoria College’s Digital Collections, and Hart House Theatre Production History.