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MOVIES : Service With a Sneer : No one plays a villain quite like Donald Sutherland, who's almost as scary as 'Outbreak's' killer virus. His secret: You have to remember that bad guys are people too.

March 12, 1995|Lawrence Christon | Lawrence Christon is a Times staff writer.

As he tells it, Donald Sutherland was jet-lagged and bone-tired from the high- speed shooting schedule of HBO's "Citizen X" in Budapest when the call came from Dustin Hoffman in California: We need you.

"I came late, very late," he says, referring to the plea from the makers of "Outbreak" to join their cast as a general who would destroy a town in order to save the world from a hideous viral epidemic. "I gave Dustin every conceivable excuse, but he rebutted them all."

"Outbreak" was being made by Hoffman's production company, and apparently there was trouble wrestling down a script. Sutherland arrived to help create just the heavy they needed, not an unhinged Captain Queeg but a figure more terrifying for his icy rationality and an unblinking righteousness.

"We needed someone who could play a very special, complex character, not just a bad guy," said director Wolfgang Petersen. "We needed someone with intelligence and credibility, and a sense of humor. I've watched Sutherland for 25 years. He has an enormous presence on the screen. Dustin and I really wanted him, and as it turns out, he came with a lot of ideas of his own we wound up using."

The past couple of years have been interesting for Sutherland; his last four roles have formed a kind of parallelogram of characters in which each refers to the other, but from different angles. All are of an age and station. The steely contemptuousness of "Outbreak's" Gen. McClintock contrasts with the political suavity of "Citizen X's" Col. Fetisov, who must be careful not to wince at a powerful apparatchik's contention that "there are no serial killers in Russia. They are a product only of the decadent West."

His corporate honcho Garvin in "Disclosure" greets the day with Volpone-like glee, seeing gold in sunlight with a carnivore's pearly smile. His portrayal of Flanders Kittredge in "Six Degrees of Separation" is almost frightening in the nervous accuracy with which he captures a professionally charming, upscale New Yorker who lives through the eyes of other people. We don't know whether to laugh at his empty bonhomie or groan over his pathetic smugness. Or console his timorous humanity.

That we can't be sure is a tribute to Sutherland's skill at keeping us off balance.

"You have to see people the way they see themselves," he says, by way of describing his work ethic and answering an old charge that he's "complex and temperamental."

"That's why, when people say that Flan is such an (expletive), or that Garvin is smarmy, I'm a little taken back," Sutherland says. " They certainly think they're doing the right thing, by their own lights. In McClintock I hope a certain arrogant wit comes through, and a contempt for people incapable of seeing through a morass of sentimentality that oversimplifies complex issues. That's why I never see the pictures I've made. I don't worry, but the characters go crazy. They're fighting for their lives."

A great many of those lives are of course memorable. His loopy Hawkeye in Robert Altman's film "MASH," for example, in which his watery eyes and vulpine grin suggest wider margins of anarchy than might be apparent to the most gimlet-eyed among Army brass. Or the astonishing patience with which he caught the hard curves Jane Fonda threw him in "Klute." Or the terrible perplexity of Calvin Jarrett in "Ordinary People" in realizing decency wasn't always enough to hold your family together, or even get you through.

Sutherland can play crazy ("The Dirty Dozen"), he can play sane among the crazies ("The Day of the Locust"); he can play romantic ("Casanova"); brutal ("1900"); stoic ("Bethune") and morally incensed ("A Dry, White Season"). He's fooled people who should know better. Up for the lead in "Same Time, Next Year," he overheard the film's producer say, "Donald Sutherland doesn't do comedy."

(Every actor's memory is embedded with splinters of rejection. This last goes along with that of the English director who once told him, "The role we're casting is that of a guy who lives next door. You don't look like you've ever lived next door to anyone.")

The Hollywood veteran in Hoffman probably knew he wouldn't have to drill far before he hit the nerve especially raw among actors: insecurity. Sutherland owns up to it. "I'm on a schedule where I make 2 1/2 films a year, every year, with time off in the summer for my family. If I'm not working in America, I'm working in Europe, or Canada. You never know. After I did 'Ordinary People,' I wasn't offered a job for a year."

Sutherland's 30-plus-year career has produced 84 film performances, a rock-solid reputation for exemplary work and a presence that has moved into the culture like a whisper in the night. Thirty years seems like forever in the postmodern world; Volvo and the Cigna health-care company are two current commercial TV sponsors who have taken advantage of Sutherland's avuncular, lived-in voice to sell an underlying theme for their products: reassurance.

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