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Donald Sutherland’s M*A*S*H character, explained

The role that made Sutherland a star.

Donald Sutherland had a wildly impressive and varied film career. He proved adept at playing virtually every kind of character, from detective to dictator to CIA whistleblower. He brought his ineffable charm to each, ensuring their memorability.

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Sutherland’s legendary career would have been different, however, were it not for the film and the character that put him on the map. M*A*S*H was a smash hit in 1970, and a large part of its appeal came down to Sutherland’s biting performance as a military surgeon.

Sutherland only played the character once, but he left such an impression on viewers that he helped spawn one of the biggest sitcoms of all time.

Who did Donald Sutherland play in M*A*S*H?

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Donald Sutherland’s M*A*S*H character is named Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce. The character is memorably introduced when he arrives at a South Korean military hospital in a stolen jeep, and immediately pokes fun at his commanding officers. Pierce is a talented surgeon, but his irreverence towards combat and, well, everything else, makes him a deceptively complex character.

Sutherland, who reportedly clashed with M*A*S*H director Robert Altman during production, was encouraged to improvise. He and co-star Elliott Gould amplified the humor, but neither forgot the drama underpinning the comedy. Sutherland talked about this underpinning during a 1970 interview with CBC:

It is insane to watch human bodies come flying into a camp that are wrecked for no reason at all. That kind of insanity created an environment, a kind of mini-society, that was in chaos. To a lot of people, that represents a kind of society that we have today.

Sutherland’s unorthodox approach paid off. M*A*S*H is considered one of the greatest comedies ever made, and the actor’s turn as “Hawkeye” Pierce made him an A-list star.

Who played Hawkeye Piece after Donald Sutherland?

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Donald Sutherland had one of the best decades of any actor during the 1970s. He made good on the fame afforded him by M*A*S*H, and starred in a string of classic films, including Klute (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), 1900 (1976), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). He even reunited with his M*A*S*H co-star Elliott Gould for the comedy S*P*Y*S (1974).

Sutherland’s status as a film star meant that he had no interest in television, so when it came time to turn M*A*S*H into a sitcom, CBS had to find a new actor to portray “Hawkeye” Pierce. They went with Alan Alda. Ironically, Alda initially passed on the show. He was hesitant to utilize combat as a backdrop for comedy, but ultimately relented when he read the script. It proved to be a wise call. Alda made the character of “Hawkeye” Pierce his own and appeared in every episode of M*A*S*H for 11 seasons.

The hat that Alda wears in the opening credits of the M*A*S*H sitcom is the same one worn by Donald Sutherland in the film. It was meant to be a literal tip of the cap to the actor who created the character of “Hawkeye” Pierce, even if Alda rarely wore the hat again. History would repeat itself two decades later, when Donald Sutherland appeared in the film Six Degrees of Separation (1993), and Alan Alda took over his role in the Audio Book adaptation.

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Danilo Castro
Danilo Castro is an entertainment writer based in San Diego. He's contributed to publications like Screen Rant, PopMatters and FanSided. When he's not covering the latest film news, he's the managing editor for Noir City Magazine.