The Clumsy Waiter

In canceled John Landis’ KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE Donald Sutherland has a surprising cameo — Landis evidently cultivated the star assiduously while assisting on KELLY’S HEROES (and got him again for ANIMAL HOUSE) — as “the clumsy waiter,” a bit that involves cutting to him falling down a lot in waiter garb, as part of a mock trailer for a disaster movie starring George Lazenby… these few moments of crude slapstick may hint at something deeper which would, if viewed from the right angle, unlock the mysteries of cinema.

Sutherland was fresh from Fellini’s CASANOVA and Bertolucci’s 1900. In Mark Cousins’ Scene By Scene interview — I think the best in that series — he tells an amazing story about the latter. In 1900 he plays a fascist who’s literally called Attila and who shows you how bad he is by murdering a cat with his head.

The story’s at about 22:42. The reason this is the best episode is that it’s the only time the central conceit of showing scenes to filmmakers actually results in staggeringly interesting reaction shots. Some of Donald’s expressions in this interview count as among the best of his career.

Bertolucci set the scene, explaining that he would tie a (real) cat to a post, then charge a cunningly substituted fake one headfirst, crushing a bag of blood concealed within. Donald wasn’t exactly keen on smashing into a wooden post with his head, which he needs for acting with, but agreed to do it ONCE.


The bag of blood failed to burst. “The actor didn’t hit the cat correctly,” was what Sutherland recalled them saying. OK, one more time.

Some FX genius got the idea of placing two thumbtacks against the baggie, so that it would be pierced by any solid impact.


“There. OK?” “No. Not okay.” He has two thumbtacks sticking out of his forehead. He also has concussion.

So he does twenty takes or something crazy until Bertolucci is satisfied. That evening in the bar he’s trying to explain to Gerard Depardieu what he had to do that day and he decides to SHOW them what he had to do. He charges a pillar, trips, crashes into what turns out to be a mirror, and ends up with half his ear hanging off.

The point of this story, besides the striking nature of the events themselves, would seem to be the plight of the actor, but Sutherland plants a seed of doubt in our minds about his physical prowess, and one maybe wonders if the KENTUCKY FRIED skit was inspired by a certain gaucheness in his movements?

Moving on.

Next story comes from John Baxter’s Fellini biography, not his best work, but he describes Sutherland wrapping on his last day on the project. They’re filming in a field. As he’s walking away, wearing a blanket or cloak or something, he does a big wave at Fellini, using the robe for a flourish. It catches the wind, and he’s pulled off-balance and falls in the mud.

He gets up, makes the gesture again, and falls in the mud again.

Moving on again.

This is from Philip Kaufman’s audio commentary on INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Kaufman is filming the climax in a big greenhouse with Sutherland way up in the roof beams, clambering about.

A friend drops in. “Is that Donald Sutherland way up there?”

Kaufman confirms that it is.

“What the hell? Don’t you know he’s the clumsiest man alive?

I love Donald Sutherland and I will gladly accept any stories you have about Donald Sutherland falling over.

13 Responses to “The Clumsy Waiter”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I’ve always liked Donald Sutherland, who recently celebrated a birthday. He’s marvelous in a wide variety of movies, from “MASH” to “Fellini Casanova” to Maurzsky’s maudit “Alex in Wonderland.” Here he is in the best scene of one of my favorite bad movies

  2. Oh, he’s remarkable in Joanna. A sincere, bold, distinctive, lovely, terrible performance. His line readings qualify as pratfalls.

  3. I’m always surprised by Donald Sutherland. I didn’t know these stories about him. But . . . getting to the act of commenting itself: I hope you will be able to read this one!

  4. Yes! Your comment for some reason was misidentified as spam but I’ve rescued it.

  5. ukjarry Says:

    September, 1981: “Donald Sutherland, who suffered a broken arm in a boating accident on Suisun Bay, was reported in good condition Tuesday at Los Madanos Hospital. Sutherland was injured Monday when struck by a toppling mast as he tried to free his boat from mud.”

    Apparently the space suits in 2000’s “Space Cowboys” were so heavy Sutherland “accidentally fell back and cracked his knee”

    In 2018 he went around in an eyepatch. “He had just come from shooting a TV pilot and had been instructed to play a scene with “pent-up, repressed anger and I burst a blood vessel,” he explained. “They’ll probably figure out a way to get rid of it with CGI. I asked the doctor what causes this kind of thing. And he said, ‘Well, typically it’s a result of constipation.’””

    “On the set of Kelly’s Heroes in 1968, [Donald Sutherland] contracted pneumococcus bacterium (meningitis) from the Danube River and actually momentarily died. Sutherland claims he had an out-of-body experience and watched himself slide toward a blue light for several moments before somehow being ripped back to reality.”

    A brief 1989 space filler in the LA Times “You name it, Donald Sutherland has had it. Polio, rheumatic fever, hepatitis, an appendectomy, pneumonia, scarlet fever.

    All of which may go some way to explaining Jean Walton writing “Whatever the moviegoing audience saw and heard in Sutherland’s diverse onscreen performances, this was accompanied by the back story of the vulnerability of his flesh, of his near-death experiences, of his susceptibility to injury and ailment, his clumsiness, his damaged voice, his hypochondria, his lisp, his vertigo, his tendency to blush or weep”.

  6. Wow!

    He speaks of expecting that he or anyhow someone would die while making Don’t Look Now because the film had so much to do with mortality. Although Kelly’s Heroes certainly has a higher body count.

  7. Sutherland managed to injure himself on Revolution, too, damaging his knee, though since pretty much everyone on that movie saw the doctor at some point it’s perhaps less noteworthy.

  8. Matthew Davis Says:

    I am now just typing “Donald Sutherland”, random parts of the body and synonyms for “crash” into search engines. The results are amazing:

    “The first word I said was neck. My mother turned around and said, “What did he say?” My sister said, “He said, ‘Neck.’ ” My neck was killing me. That was a sign of polio. One leg’s a little shorter, but I survived.” (Esquire interview)

    In 1985 he should have participated in the Fuji-TV World Stars Charity Tennis Tournament, but injured his head prior to the tournament so served as a judge instead.

    More about head injuries: At one time he lived in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. “ So Wright, short and vain, designs the house in such a way that a tall person couldn’t live in it without severe cranial damage. I hit my head *all* the time.”

    John Schlesinger on filming “Day of the Locust”: “What happened was that Donald Sutherland had an accident – fortunately for us, because the script was incomplete and we desperately needed time to finish it, he crashed through a plate-glass door in his hotel and injured his forehead and so couldn’t work”.


    Over the years I’ve walked away from car crashes (as a passenger), a school coach crash, a couple of car bombs, near decapitation by a helicopter propeller, a marked tendency as a small child for falling out of upper story windows and over balconies (undiagnosed poor eyesight), a giant block of ice falling out of the sky, and other things I’ve forgotten.

    Never have I felt such a sudden identification with an actor.

  9. Superb!

    There’s an on-screen fall in Don’t Look Now as he’s emerging from the lake with his dead daughter, where Donald slips in the mud, but I didn’t mention it in the post because it was too grim. But I’d stake my life it was an accident. Who’d do an uncontrolled fall while carrying a small child? It looks a bit sore and the realism and tragedy of the situation stops it being in any way comic.

  10. My avatar is a picture I took of a statue at a royal tomb in South Korea which struck me for its marked resemblance to Donald Sutherland in full bearded glory. It appeared a few years ago in the lookalike section in Private Eye magazine.

    I wonder now if the statue is still standing.

  11. Jeff Gee Says:

    In an editing class I took at NYU, taught by Larry Silk (who edited “Marjoe” and at that time was cutting “Pumping Iron”), we were told the following Sutherland anecdote. I don’t remember who told it. I don’t think it was Larry. I have to paraphrase: ‘You may have wondered why the Jane Fonda movie “Klute” is called “Klute,” which is the name of the character played by Donald Sutherland. If you watch it, you’ll see virtually all match cuts are cuts on HER movements. Miss Fonda always hits her marks. You can not cut on Mr. Sutherland’s movements because Mr. Sutherland’s movements all end with him tripping over a couch, even if there is no couch on the set. If he can not find a couch, he will upset a bowl of cat food and then slide out of frame flailing wildly. I do not know how he has stayed alive this long in a world filled with buses and open windows.’

  12. Amazing! Just the kind of confirmation I was seeking!

  13. Simon Kane Says:

    Oh Jeff, that’s amazing

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