Who's the daddy?

Donald Sutherland is a veteran Hollywood activist who in the 1970s made anti-Vietnam films with Jane

Many Hollywood actors like to sound off about politics. But few have been at the sharp end of it quite like Donald Sutherland. "I was in Yugoslavia when I found out," he says, with a fond smile. He is telling me about the day in 1969 when he found out his then wife, the actress Shirley Douglas, had been arrested for procuring arms for the Black Panthers. "Clint Eastwood came walking out of the sun like it was a spaghetti western and said, 'I have some bad news for you. Your wife's been arrested. For buying hand grenades. From an undercover agent of the FBI. With a personal cheque.' And when he got to the personal cheque he started laughing so hard he fell to the ground. I had to help him back up."

At a stately, white-haired 72, Sutherland is every inch the patriarch. He is equally well known these days for his offspring (as father of the actor Kiefer Sutherland) and for his own impressive back catalogue, which includes classics such as Don't Look Now, as well as more standard commercial fare (Backdraft, Pride and Prejudice). He is also part of the radical Sixties generation of actors for whom Hollywood was a vehicle for achieving social and political change.

In the Sixties and Seventies, while married to Douglas (a Canadian whose father, Tommy, led the first elected socialist government in North America, in Saskatchewan), Sutherland specialised in anti-war films such as Kelly's Heroes and M*A*S*H. During a later relationship with Jane Fonda, the couple collaborated to produce the anti-Vietnam War documentary FTA, a series of sketches and interviews with US troops on active service. He still has something of the iconoclast about him, and seems to carry the Sixties torch with more wit and enthusiasm than pay-cheque protesters such as Jack Nicholson.

When I meet him, he has just arrived from Los Angeles, so I am expecting jet lag. As soon as I enter the room, however, I realise that he is not the usual recalcitrant junket-bunny. "You're the New Statesman, right?" he begins. I nod, as you do to a Hollywood star who has been told the name of your publication just two minutes ago. "Right." He slips out a sly grin. "So you're not just a Spectator?"

He is here to promote the TV series Dirty Sexy Money, a slick deconstruction of the futile lives of the super-rich. It focuses on one family (the Darlings) that personifies all that is wrong with the American dream: there is a talentless heiress who dreams of acting fame, a "family values" politician with a taste for gay sex, and a spoilt gambler who bemoans the hardships of wealth. Sutherland, appropriately enough, plays the patriarch, Tripp Darling, who uses his brood to further his own ambition, often using Machiavellian methods. He interprets the show as a critique of US politics: "The writer is using one family to display the dysfunctional nature of American society. It represents the political, economic and social dilemmas facing the United States."

He is a committed supporter of Barack Obama and can hardly contain himself about the presidential race despite, apparently, having promised his publicist that he will not talk about it. Describing it as a "roiling nest of snakes", he slams Hillary Clinton for seeking to further the interests of her family. "There hasn't been one person since Robert Kennedy that I desperately wanted to be president. There have been lots of guys that I wanted not to be president. But I just read this letter from an African-American woman, saying it was the first time she felt proud of her country just because of Obama's speech on race. If that dialogue can really open up - and it's a hard dialogue - then I think that's wonderful."

Unlike many veteran campaigners, he does not romanticise the Sixties: in fact, he insists, the possibility for change now is greater than it was then. "[In the Sixties] there was a potential for social movement. The Black Panther Party was struggling to create local political change, but not nationally and certainly not internationally. There were revolutionary cadres. There was even a cinema of change - and yet change didn't happen. It was co-opted. In the course of two years, just as the Vietnam War was coming to an end, it slithered away because there was no leadership. It was all coming from the bottom and there was no one to understand and reflect it. We were in a pretty desperate situation in 1970. Not as desperate as we imagined it, but now we're in a really terrible state."

Taking the tone of an evangelical preacher, he insists that there is a real chance now that an Obama win could make a difference. "Look, the people are waiting. The people have a lot of saliva in their mouths - they're hungry. I believe that if a leader like that were elected president of the United States, the United States would follow along like a ravenous horde. People would rise up. It's been a difficult seven years. People were very aware of the dangers inherent. People were fired, people were pilloried. But we have the potential to have leadership that people can align themselves to."

But can one person, one leader, really make such a difference? He shrugs. "There are two theories of history - the structuralist, where no individual actually affects history, or, if you take the ideas of historians like Tony Judt, you see that individuals can affect history. That they don't appear because of history, but they appear as themselves and then alter history." He admires the new generation of activist artists. "The people I really admire are Bono and Angelina Jolie. They do good work using their position to tackle socio-diplomatic problems."

It seems strange, given his passion, that he hasn't taken that route himself. Here, suddenly, the evangelist evaporates and the pragmatist takes over. "I've been financially strapped my whole life," he says, spreading his hands as if to prove how empty they are. "If I had some money to give away I would be so happy. I rang the Democrats and said is there anything I can do? They asked me to go and speak on radio talk shows on the morning of the election in Texas. I said, you know I'm a Canadian? And they said - oops."

"Dirty Sexy Money" is on Channel 4 (Fridays, 9pm; repeated Tuesdays) until May

Donald Sutherland: the CV

1935 Born in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. His media career begins at the age of 14, when he becomes Canada's youngest radio presenter and DJ

1958 Abandoning plans to become an engineer (graduates in engineering and drama from the University of Toronto), pursues his acting ambitions by moving to England. Trains briefly at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, then gains experience in repertory theatre and by taking bit parts in film and television

1970 Following numerous appearances on TV, stage and film, Sutherland finds stardom when he plays "Hawkeye" Pierce in Robert Altman's hit M*A*S*H

1971 Plays a rural private detective on the trail of a killer in the critically acclaimed film Klute (below) opposite his then girlfriend, Jane Fonda

1972 Marries the French-Canadian actress Francine Racette. Between 1974 and 1979 they produce three sons - Roeg, Rossif and Angus. Already has twins, Rachel and Kiefer, from his previous marriage to Shirley Douglas

1973 Stars with Julie Christie in Don't Look Now, directed by Nicolas Roeg

1980 Plays a father touched by grief in Robert Redford's Ordinary People. The film - Redford's directorial debut - goes on to win four Oscars

1991 Plays a small but significant role in Oliver Stone's JFK

2003 Appears in Anthony Minghella's film Cold Mountain alongside Nicole Kidman and Jude Law

Grace Shortland

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back