Donald Sutherland's 5 Best Military Roles

Donald Sutherland alongside Lee Marvin in 1967's "The Dirty Dozen." (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Renowned actor Donald Sutherland, who died on June 20, 2024, at age 88 after a long illness, appeared in hundreds of film and television roles over the course of his 60 years on the screen while bringing some of the most memorable characters in cinematic history to life. To say he was highly regarded in Hollywood for his "chameleonlike" acting ability is putting it lightly; even those who hated him had to admit, "He can read the phone book, and I'm interested."

Sutherland's breakout role came in 1967's "The Dirty Dozen," where he played one of the U.S. Army's specially assigned deviant soldiers -- a type which, intentional or not, became the norm for his military characters. When it came to portraying a military misfit, no one did it better than Donald Sutherland, so we compiled a list of our favorites.

Oddball, "Kelly's Heroes"

No negative waves here. It has to be difficult to be the best part of a World War II movie that features Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles and Carroll O'Connor. Sutherland makes it look easy as Oddball, a new-age tank driver who agrees to join a heist to steal French gold from a Nazi bank in the middle of the war.

Sutherland's performance is even more impressive when you know that the actor contracted a case of spinal meningitis during production, and because they didn't have the right antibiotics, he slipped into a coma and nearly died. Which scenes were filmed before and after the coma? We'll never know.

Capt. "Hawkeye" Pierce, "M*A*S*H"

For "M*A*S*H" fans, it might seem hard to think of anyone but Alan Alda as Capt. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, because he played the character for 11 seasons between 1972 and 1983. But in 1970, Sutherland was tapped for the role in director Robert Altman's film adaptation of the original "M*A*S*H: A Novel About Three Army Doctors" by Richard Hooker and W. C. Heinz.

Like any other work, there are those who think the movie is better, and those who think the show is better. Regardless, Sutherland was critical in bringing this dark, satirical look at the U.S. Army during the Korean War to life. Released during the final years of the actual Vietnam War, the film put the blood and gore of war on display while railing against authority. Without Sutherland's portrayal of Hawkeye, there would be no Alda version, and maybe no "M*A*S*H" TV show at all.

Vernon L. Pinkley, "The Dirty Dozen"

As previously mentioned, Vernon L. Pinkley is widely considered to be Sutherland's breakout role, launching his movie career for the next few decades. For this reason alone, it deserves to be at the top of the list, but once again, Sutherland stands out in a movie filled with legendary actors. Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes and Telly Savalas were all Hollywood leading men, but they were all upstaged by the relatively odd-looking but unforgettable Canadian actor making mark.

Related: The Real-Life D-Day Commandos Who Inspired Hollywood's 'Dirty Dozen'

Pinkley wasn't the brightest of the Dirty Dozen, but he turned out to be one of the most capable and caring soldiers. In the end, Pinkley's redemption would come as he bravely gave his life for his fellow soldiers, holding off a superior force of Germans to give the Dozen time to complete their mission. Sutherland's performance brought humor, vulnerability and humanity to a team of otherwise tough convicts.

Capt. Jerry O'Neill, "Space Cowboys"

"Space Cowboys" is about a group of elderly Space Race-era veterans coming out of retirement after some 40 years to neutralize a satellite put into orbit by the former Soviet Union. Sutherland plays retired Air Force flight engineer Capt. Jerry O'Neill, whose post-military career turned into designing roller coasters but who has famously lost none of his skills, abilities or memory.

Sutherland is at it again in this movie, with another trademark military misfit character. Like Oddball and Pinkley before him, O'Neill is smart, capable and always out to have a good time, a sharp contrast and welcome comic relief to the rigid military demeanor of Clint Eastwood's Frank Corvin and Tommy Lee Jones' Hawk Hawkins. Without O'Neill, this movie would have been half as fun.

Christ, "Johnny Got His Gun"

"Johnny Got His Gun" is a 1971 film set during World War I. Joe Bonham (played by Timothy Bottoms) wakes up in a hospital after getting hit by an artillery shell. The blast tore off his eyes, ears, nose, mouth and limbs, but his mind is left intact, leaving him a prisoner in his own body, communicating only by using his head to tap Morse code. Sutherland's character isn't really a military role: he portrays Jesus Christ, who hangs out with troops as they prepare to depart.

In non-religious terms, Christ is one of the most subversive, anti-establishment characters ever to appear in print. In this anti-war movie, he's just like one of the enlisted troops, handing out whiskey, playing blackjack and performing card tricks with souls to pass the time. He's also a symbol for the sacrifice those troops are about to make as they give their lives for a war that none of them had anything to do with starting.

Sutherland was perfect for the role and the movie, especially since he was actively involved in the anti-war movement of the day. He famously appeared at "F*ck The Army" events, designed to be an entertaining answer to Bob Hope's USO shows.

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