Who's the Daddy? Donald Sutherland Is a Veteran Hollywood Activist Who in the 1970s Made Anti-Vietnam Films with Jane Fonda. Those Heady Days Pale in Comparison to Today's Political Battles, He Tells Stephen Armstrong

By Armstrong, Stephen | New Statesman (1996), April 14, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Who's the Daddy? Donald Sutherland Is a Veteran Hollywood Activist Who in the 1970s Made Anti-Vietnam Films with Jane Fonda. Those Heady Days Pale in Comparison to Today's Political Battles, He Tells Stephen Armstrong


Armstrong, Stephen, New Statesman (1996)


Many Hollywood actors like to sound off about politics. But few have been at the sharp end of it quite like Donald Sutherland. "I was in Yugoslavia when I found out," he says, with a fond smile. He is telling me about the day in 1969 when he found out his then wife, the actress Shirley Douglas, had been arrested for procuring arms for the Black Panthers. "Clint Eastwood came walking out of the sun like it was a spaghetti western and said, 'I have some bad news for you. Your wife's been arrested. For buying hand grenades. From an undercover agent of the FBI. With a personal cheque.' And when he got to the personal cheque he started laughing so hard he fell to the ground. I had to help him back up."

At a stately, white-haired 72, Sutherland is every inch the patriarch. He is equally well known these days for his offspring (as father of the actor Kiefer Sutherland) and for his own impressive back catalogue, which includes classics such as Don't Look Now, as well as more standard commercial fare (Backdraft, Pride and Prejudice). He is also part of the radical Sixties generation of actors for whom Hollywood was a vehicle for achieving social and political change.

In the Sixties and Seventies, while married to Douglas (a Canadian whose father, Tommy, led the first elected socialist government in North America, in Saskatchewan), Sutherland specialised in anti-war films such as Kelly's Heroes and M*A*S*H. During a later relationship with Jane Fonda, the couple collaborated to produce the anti-Vietnam War documentary FTA, a series of sketches and interviews with US troops on active service. He still has something of the iconoclast about him, and seems to carry the Sixties torch with more wit and enthusiasm than pay-cheque protesters such as Jack Nicholson.

When I meet him, he has just arrived from Los Angeles, so I am expecting jet lag. As soon as I enter the room, however, I realise that he is not the usual recalcitrant junket-bunny. "You're the New Statesman, right?" he begins. I nod, as you do to a Hollywood star who has been told the name of your publication just two minutes ago. "Right." He slips out a sly grin. "So you're not just a Spectator?"

He is here to promote the TV series Dirty Sexy Money, a slick deconstruction of the futile lives of the super-rich. It focuses on one family (the Darlings) that personifies all that is wrong with the American dream: there is a talentless heiress who dreams of acting fame, a "family values" politician with a taste for gay sex, and a spoilt gambler who bemoans the hardships of wealth. Sutherland, appropriately enough, plays the patriarch, Tripp Darling, who uses his brood to further his own ambition, often using Machiavellian methods. He interprets the show as a critique of US politics: "The writer is using one family to display the dysfunctional nature of American society. It represents the political, economic and social dilemmas facing the United States."

He is a committed supporter of Barack Obama and can hardly contain himself about the presidential race despite, apparently, having promised his publicist that he will not talk about it. Describing it as a "roiling nest of snakes", he slams Hillary Clinton for seeking to further the interests of her family. "There hasn't been one person since Robert Kennedy that I desperately wanted to be president. There have been lots of guys that I wanted not to be president. But I just read this letter from an African-American woman, saying it was the first time she felt proud of her country just because of Obama's speech on race. If that dialogue can really open up--and it's a hard dialogue--then I think that's wonderful."

Unlike many veteran campaigners, he does not romanticise the Sixties: in fact, he insists, the possibility for change now is greater than it was then. "[In the Sixties] there was a potential for social movement. The Black Panther Party was struggling to create local political change, but not nationally and certainly not internationally.

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Who's the Daddy? Donald Sutherland Is a Veteran Hollywood Activist Who in the 1970s Made Anti-Vietnam Films with Jane Fonda. Those Heady Days Pale in Comparison to Today's Political Battles, He Tells Stephen Armstrong
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