Tributes pour in for Hollywood legend – and U of T alumnus – Donald Sutherland

“Few actors were in as many artistically significant films all through their lives, decade after decade, or were as integral to the medium’s success and longevity”
Profile photo of Donald Sutherland and a red carpet event

Alumnus, honorary degree recipient and iconic film actor Donald Sutherland (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)

Donald Sutherland’s recent death has sparked a global outpouring of tributes remembering the actor as a shape-shifting performer whose range spanned roles in M*A*S*H, the Hunger Games, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Six Degrees of Separation.

The University of Toronto alumnus’s son, Kiefer Sutherland, announced the news in an Instagram post last week.

“I personally think one of the most important actors in the history of film,” the younger Sutherland wrote.


Critic Matt Zoller Seitz concurred with this assessment in an article for Vulture, the pop culture arm of New York Magazine: “Few actors were in as many artistically significant films all through their lives, decade after decade, or were as integral to the medium’s success and longevity.”

The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, the Guardian, the Globe and Mail and CBC were among the other news outlets around the world that published tributes to Sutherland as a stalwart onscreen presence.

Donald Sutherland graduation photo
Donald Sutherland seen in his 1958 graduation photo (photo from Torontonensis)

Before he became a silver-haired icon of the silver screen, Sutherland honed his acting skills at U of T, where he graduated from Victoria College in 1958, laying the foundation for a prolific Hollywood career.

Born in Saint John, N.B., on July 17, 1935, Sutherland first became enchanted with performing after seeing a magic show in a church when he was 10. By age 14, he was a part-time DJ on CKBW-FM, a local radio station in Bridgewater, N.S. 

Yet, his father urged him to pursue a steady vocation – so he enrolled in U of T’s engineering program. Sutherland chose U of T “because of its well-known reputation, as well as its remarkable theatre program,” wrote Tiffany Leung for the U of T History Society in 2016. 

Though he had apparently never seen a theatre play prior to enrolling at Victoria College, Sutherland would prove to be a natural. He became a member of the UC Follies comedy troupe and received excellent reviews from both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail for his role as Stephano in a Hart House production of The Tempest.

Sutherland later said of Hart House Theatre: “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.” 

Donald Sutherland, centre, performs in The Tempest (photo courtesy of U of T Archives)​​​

He went on to win best actor at the Inter-Varsity Drama Festival for his role in a 1958 Victoria University production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit; the win coincided with his completion of a dual degree in engineering and drama. Buoyed by his success on stage at U of T, he travelled across the Atlantic to attend the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. 

His big break came in 1967 when he was cast as a last-minute replacement in the war film the Dirty Dozen, according to IMDB. Sutherland’s extraordinary career on stage and in television and movies would go on to span seven decades and more than 190 acting credits. 

His accolades included a Primetime Emmy Award, two Golden Globes, an Honorary Oscar Award, induction into Canada’s Walk of Fame and being named a companion of the Order of Canada. He received an honorary doctorate from U of T in 1998 in recognition of his acting and his championing of social issues. 

Sutherland maintained ties with his alma mater throughout his life, including lending his voice to a 2019 U of T recruitment video.

Steffen Reinhart, assistant director of recruitment and admissions communications, recalls thinking Sutherland would be “out of reach” – but says he agreed and recorded the audio remotely.

“It was a mainstay in our recruitment work for many years, with many students doing a double take when they realized they were hearing President Snow [from the Hunger Games] tell them about all the opportunities at U of T,” Reinhart says.

News of Sutherland’s passing was met with a deluge of tributes from members of the U of T community.

Canadian literary luminary Margaret Atwood, whose time at Victoria College overlapped with Sutherland’s, mourned his passing on X. “He went to Vic in Toronto. He was a great actor even then,” she posted.

(L-R) Donald Sutherland, Hal Jackman and Norman Jewison at U of T convocation in 1998 (photo by Lisa Sakulensky and Steve Frost courtesy of Victoria University Library, U of T)

Wendy Cecil was chair of U of T’s Governing Council when Sutherland earned his honorary degree in 1998.

“When he received his honorary doctorate, every woman wanted their picture taken with him,” she said. “I’ve always remembered how he started his speech. He took the podium and shouted, ‘If you smoke, stop now!’

“He was a compelling orator and made an impression on everybody there.” 

Anne Tait, who also overlapped with Sutherland at Vic, said she had the pleasure of working with him professionally later in life. She also recalled Sutherland performing at The Alumnae Theatre, a company founded by female U of T graduates in 1918.

“Donald was in A Dream Play by August Strindberg when we produced it at our Coach House on Huntley Street,” she said. “To play the ‘voice from heaven,’ Donald had to get into to the apartment above the stage and speak through its heating vent to the audience below.

“Truly a voice from above.”

– With files from Adina Bresge

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