Three Iconic Comedies Starring Donald Sutherland

Sutherland was an accomplished dramatic actor but made his mark in landmark laughfests
Three Iconic Comedies Starring Donald Sutherland

Donald Sutherland passed away Thursday at the age of 88, an actor so respected for his dramatic acting that he won an honorary Oscar in 2017. He’ll be remembered for KluteOrdinary PeopleDon’t Look Now and even The Hunger Games, but don’t forget that Sutherland played key roles in three of the most influential comedies ever. 


Take a seat, Alan Alda — Sutherland was the original Hawkeye Pierce in Robert Altman’s epic satire. Sutherland didn’t get along with the director, but who cares? It was Altman’s first hit-it-out-the-park classic, a movie that thumbed its nose at the Vietnam War by pretending to be about the Korean War. “Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland are two genuinely funny actors,” wrote Roger Ebert in his four-star review. “They don’t have to make themselves ridiculous to get a laugh. They’re funny because their humor comes so directly from their personalities.” 

Why did M*A*S*H hit so hard? Sutherland, who improvised much of his part, says the film captured “the feelings of an awful lot of people about an awful lot of things.”

The Kentucky Fried Movie

In a comedy full of unknowns created by a ragtag group of wannabe funny guys from Wisconsin, Sutherland stood out as a name people recognized. The actor’s role was small but impactful — a clumsy waiter who signals Armageddon by face-planting into a multilayer cake.

The film was written by first-time screenwriters David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, three guys who would use celebrity throwaway cameos to even greater effect in Airplane! and the Naked Gun series. The film’s director? That was another newbie named John Landis, a dude with only one low-budget horror movie under his belt. The underground success of the independent Kentucky Fried Movie got him hired for a bigger project. Speaking of which…

National Lampoon’s Animal House

Universal Pictures, which demanded a star or two in a movie full of unknowns, likely never makes Animal House if Landis doesn’t convince Sutherland to take a small part as pot-smoking Professor Jennings. 

Karen Allen, who played Katy, was glad he did. Landis was trying to convince her to go fully nude in a scene with Jennings. Allen fought Landis on the idea, a conversation that Sutherland found highly amusing. “Finally, he comes over and says, ‘Well, John, if she’s going to have to bare her buttocks, I should have to bare my buttocks too,’” remembers Allen in Fat, Drunk and Stupid: The Inside Story Behind the Making of Animal House

Sutherland left the set and then returned in a long sweater and nothing else. At one point in the scene, he walks into the kitchen, lifts his arms as if he’s searching the cupboards for coffee or cereal, and bares his ass for the world to see. “I was completely taken with Donald’s generosity, of his being willing to do this on my behalf to make me feel comfortable,” Allen said. 

Sutherland wanted $250,000 to shoot his small part. According to Landis, the studio response was “Get the fuck out of here!” It countered with $20,000 plus points. Sutherland, who was convinced the movie wouldn’t make money, said screw the points and took $35,000 instead. Had he chosen the original deal, he would have cleared around $6 million. 


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