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How Donald Sutherland became a Hollywood movie icon after Perth Rep snub

Acting legend Donald Sutherland cut his teeth at Perth Rep.
Acting legend Donald Sutherland cut his teeth at Perth Rep.

Losing the lead role in a Perth Rep production inadvertently sent Donald Sutherland on the road to Hollywood stardom.

Sutherland has Scottish, as well as German and English, ancestry.

He left Canada in 1958 and studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art but quit after nine months.

He joined the Perth Repertory Theatre in 1960 and kicked off his season with the part of Heracles in The Rape of the Bell by Benn Levy.

“Here is a very nice moment and I don’t want to go anywhere,” he said.

He broke his toe on the first night of the first production but carried on regardless.

This was in the days when David Steuart and Marjorie Dence ran the theatre which was a place that left a lasting impression on actors as well as audiences.

Donald Sutherland on stage at Perth Theatre in 1960.

With its ornate gold-leaf gilding, rich red walls and plush velvet seats, the elaborate 800-seater auditorium was a luxurious venue.

“I’ll always be grateful for the time I spent at Perth Theatre,” said Sutherland.

“It was my first real acting job and it gave me real confidence and security.”

It was a fortnightly rep, not weekly, so Sutherland had more time to work on a role, and did everything from Shaw and Sheridan, to Pinter and Panto.

Fish and chips

Sutherland was hired for £8 a week and the company also went on tour and performed various plays in Arbroath, Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy.

While Arbroath may be internationally renowned for its smokies, Sutherland found the town also held the secret to a perfectly-battered haddock supper.

“The best fish and chips come from Arbroath,” he said.

“The best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted.”

Sutherland, now 86, and his first wife Lois Hardwick found digs which they shared with another young actor who went on to make his mark.

Little did anyone at Perth Theatre then know just how well these two would do.

Sutherland and Hardwick rented the tiny cottage with Michael Sheard and his future wife Rosalind Moir and woke up one day with frozen bedsheets because it was so cold.

Donald Sutherland.

Speaking in 1990 Sutherland shivered at the memory of the cold in Perth.

“Canadians are used to cold but in Scotland they didn’t build for cold,” he said.

“I’d a two-room cottage near Bell’s distillery and I’d wake up covered with frost.”

Room-mate Sheard was born in Aberdeen and is best known for The Empire Strikes Back and playing the tyrant teacher Maurice Bronson in TV’s Grange Hill in the 1980s.

He wrote a book about his experiences in 1997, entitled Yes, Mr Bronson: Memoirs of a Bum Actor, which described Sutherland as “a super trouper” at Perth Rep.

He said: “I have a good claim, incidentally, to being the catalyst which set Donald Sutherland on the road to mega stardom.

“Later on in that season at Perth we did a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts.

“Don desperately wanted to play the lead part of Oswald, but they gave it to me.

“As a result Don left Perth Rep in a huff and walked straight into a film career, starting with Hammer Horrors and followed very shortly by The Dirty Dozen!”

The entrance to Perth Theatre.

Sutherland spent 18 months in Perth before returning to London.

He started picking up work in television and B-movies like Castle of the Living Dead before his big break came when director Robert Aldrich cast him in The Dirty Dozen.

“Originally, I’d just a walk-on part,” said Sutherland.

“We were sitting around in a bar between takes – Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes and the others, all with our heads shaved.

“Clint Walker started complaining to Aldrich that the scenes he was supposed to do, pretending to be a general, weren’t appropriate.

“So Aldrich turned to me: ‘Hey, you with the big ears, you do it’.”

Hollywood producers saw star power in that brief role and his career took off.

He’s played leading men and all manner of misfits.

In more than half a century of acting he has appeared in classics like Kelly’s Heroes, Klute, Don’t Look Now and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

He returned to Scotland in 1980 and spent eight weeks shooting on the Isle of Mull to film his role as a cold-blooded Nazi spy in thriller Eye of the Needle.

“I liked the character’s discipline, his precision,” he said in 1981.

“I liked his loneliness and his immorality.”

Film credits in the 1980s and 1990s included Ordinary People, Threshold, Lock Up, JFK, Backdraft, Without Limits and Space Cowboys.

Donald Sutherland returned to Scotland to film the Nazi war thriller Eye of the Needle.

Sutherland has traversed all mediums and genres all the way up to the recent blockbuster Hunger Games trilogy in which he played Professor Snow.

His steely turn as Katniss Everdeen’s nemesis saw him attract a new generation of fans.

Sutherland is one of a string of star acts to have performed at Perth Theatre including Edward Woodward, Donald Pleasance, Russell Hunter and Ewan McGregor.

He remains one of the hardest working actors around.

He retains a great affection for Perth.

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