As a young boy in an acting family, Kiefer Sutherland didn’t realise how big a star his father, Donald, was in Hollywood.
The serious-minded actor, best known as tough-nosed agent Jack Bauer on the long-running series 24, was in his late teens when he finally got the opportunity to see Donald Sutherland’s 1970s-era movies.
“Growing up, I couldn’t watch my dad’s films because they were restricted,” said the 49-year-old Sutherland in a joint interview in Los Angeles with his dad. His dad’s films were groundbreaking but meant for an adult audience.
His mother, Shirley Douglas, and Sutherland divorced in 1970. “Obviously, I would see him for Christmas or see him for the summer. But I didn’t grow up with him. I grew up with my mum – the early years here and there in Canada.”
Sutherland was staying at a family friend’s house who had all the tapes of his father’s films. And over the course of a weekend, he watched his dad in some of his seminal films such as 1976’s 1900 and Fellini’s Casanova; 1973’s Don’t Look Now; 1970’s MASH and Kelly’s Heroes.
Watching those films were a revelation for the teenage Sutherland. “I knew he was a famous actor, but I didn’t know how prolific he was. I didn’t know how diverse all of those characters were.”
Sutherland even called his father to apologise for not knowing his magnitude of his career.
“He was very sweet,” recalled Kiefer of their conversation. “I kind of always thought that was the beginning of what I remember our relationship to be.”
The two have wanted to work together for decades. Kiefer Sutherland has a blink-or-miss part in his father’s 1983 comedy, Max Dugan Returns, and the two starred in 1996’s A Time To Kill, but they never shared screen time.
The Sutherlands play an estranged father and son in the western Forsaken.
Kiefer’s John Henry Clayton is former gunslinger who has given up his guns and hopes to mend fences with his estranged father, the Rev. Clayton. But John Henry may be forced to strap on his guns again because a violent gang is terrorising ranchers into selling their land before the railroad arrives.
The film also reunites Kiefer with director Jon Cassar, who worked on the first seven seasons of 24, and writer Brad Mirman, who also worked with him on his 2011 web series, The Confession.
It was Kiefer who came up with the idea to turn the 1953 western classic Shane on its ear.
“I talked to Brad and Jon about it – what if you inverted Shane? Instead of a gunslinger finding a little boy and being brought into a family, what if the gunslinger is coming back to his own family?”
Making Forsaken was a much more emotional experience for Kiefer than he initially thought.
“As much as I planned as an actor that this is what I want to do with the character, I was not expecting how powerful it was going to be when I looked into my father’s eyes,” he said, glancing over at Donald.
When it came time for John Henry to break down in his father’s church, Kiefer “knew what was going to happen. We did that in the very first take. That is not how I would normally work as an actor. I feel it out on the first take and kind of move up. So there was a lot of planning.”
Donald Sutherland looked surprised at his son’s revelation. “Did you plan?” he asked him.
“I did,” said his son. “There was something about my dad being there that was a real trigger for me.”
“I don’t plan,” Donald said. “That’s really interesting.”
Kiefer posed a question to his dad about his performance as the crazy platoon commander Oddball in Kelly’s Heroes.
“There is no way in my opinion you could up with the diversity of character of Oddball without having thought about that and planned it,” he said to his father.
“Hey,” rejoined Donald forcibly. “Not only did I not think about it, I had been in the hospital at Charing Cross (in London) with spinal meningitis, dying. They sent a wire to Shirley and said, ‘Don’t come, we’ll send the body back.’ I was in a coma.”
A still fragile Donald eventually returned to the shoot in Yugoslavia. “I had no idea how this sound came out of Oddball’s mouth,” Donald said. “It wasn’t anything I had thought or planned. Every time (director) Brian Hutton would say ‘cut,’ I would break into tears and I’d say is that all right?”
Donald hasn’t been more vulnerable on screen than in a scene in Forsaken where he breaks down uncontrollably in front of John Henry.
“When I learned the lines, the character started to weep,” he noted. “It was his discovery of his love for his son.”
His son recalled that “you asked Jon and me, ‘Is there a point where you think it would be too much?’ and Jon said ‘no.’ ”
It was around the same time that Kiefer was discovering his father’s films that Donald learned just how talented his son was, recalling a time Kiefer was visiting him at his house in Brentwood, Los Angeles.
“He came to my bedroom and said, ‘I have an audition that I have to do tomorrow’,” Donald said. “ ‘Do you mind if I do it for you?’ I say, ‘Great. Do it.’ He is at the end of the bed and he does it. He’s fantastic. He says, ‘That’s the way they want me to do it. Could I do it for you the way I want to do it?’ ”
Donald begun to breathe heavily and was struggling to hold back the tears from the memory.
“I said, ‘Yeah, OK.’ And he did it. It was breathtaking. It was true. It was pure. It was like an epiphany. I couldn’t breathe.”
He looked over at his son. “I can’t breathe.”
Neither remember what the audition was for. “But it was moving as you can get,” Donald said. “It was wonderful.” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service