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Kiefer Sutherland: The Bad Boy Who (Sorta) Grew Up

The latest installment of Misleading Men, the series where we look back at actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment

Few modern actors have so perfectly illustrated the many permutations of the bad boy as Kiefer Sutherland. One of the breakout stars of the late 1980s, he’s as ingrained in that generation’s young-gun talents as Julia Roberts or Charlie Sheen. And when his film career started to decline, he transitioned to television, remaking himself while earning newfound critical respect in the process. He’s now come full circle — appearing in the new Flatliners, a remake of one of the films that helped propel him to young-gun status. All the while, his bad boy-ness has now transformed into respectability.

Born in London in 1966, but moving to California and later to Toronto, Sutherland and his twin sister Rachel have a famous father in actor Donald Sutherland, who left their mother when they were only 4. (Their grandfather, Tommy Douglas, was the Premier of Saskatchewan.) As for Sutherland’s mom, Shirley Douglas, she’s a celebrated stage actress whose influence first got him interested in performing. “[W]hen I would finish school, I would go to the theater,” Sutherland later recalled. “I would do my homework, we would have dinner there, she would do her play, and then me and my sister would go home. … The people who hung around her were amazing storytellers, whether it was actors or crew. They were just exciting people.”)

He left school early to pursue acting, an understandable desire given his pedigree. But as Sutherland explained to The Guardian in 2006, he also caught some other breaks. “I got really lucky in that my dad stopped working just as I started,” he explained. “He took a few years off, not on purpose, but he has three sons with his wife of 30 years and he wanted to be involved with them. … I look back on those interviews [from the start of my career] and I’m amazed; there’s no mention of my father, it’s not even ‘son of Donald Sutherland.’ I caught a bit of a break in that it never felt like a weight to me. It’s amazing that I was stupid enough to try it — we’re talking about one of the most prolific actors in film history — but my parents were very gracious about making me feel like I at least had a shot at making my own path.”

Sutherland started acting in films in the early 1980s, playing his first lead in the 1985 coming-of-age drama The Bay Boy. (Funny enough, his character was named Donald.) By the following year, he started establishing himself as an in-demand actor, moving from Stand by Me to The Lost Boys to Bright Lights, Big City to Young Guns to Flatliners. Playing bullies, vampires or cowboys, Sutherland projected confidence that split the difference between cockiness and poise. He came across as a charismatic hot shot during an era full of moody leading men, and he had an ability to sniff out hits. “He can do almost anything, ‘cuz he’s a born character actor,” Sutherland’s Flatliners director Joel Schumacher said later, “and he [already] was at 18.”

Unlike his father, who was in 1970s classics such as M*A*S*H and Klute, Sutherland had a more mainstream, popcorn film career, making his name in slightly cheesy but very likable Hollywood genre fare. In retrospect, however, he didn’t much enjoy his quick ascension — or at least not as much as he’d wished he had. For him, the fear of it all ending was too strong. “Most of my career I’ve spent really nervous,” he admitted in 2013. “Just about work, getting work. … I’ve had people come up to me and go, ‘Oh my God, Lost Boys is one of my favorite films,’ or ‘Young Guns was one of my favorite films.’ … I wish I had enjoyed them more. I was so nervous about being out of work, or this being my last job, that I forgot to realize how lucky I was.”

Although not part of the “official” cadre of actors known as the Brat Pack, he was friends with enough of them to be an informal member. And like several of them, he had his tabloid issues. A high-profile engagement to his Flatliners costar Julia Roberts ended when she pulled the plug just days before the wedding. (It was rumored he was secretly dating a stripper, which he denied, while Roberts went off with Sutherland’s friend Jason Patric.) He came to forgive her, realizing she had probably saved him from greater heartbreak down the road. “I commend Julia for seeing how young and silly we were, even at the last minute, even as painful and as difficult as it was,” Sutherland told Rolling Stone in 2006. “Thank God she saw it.”

More troublingly, he began amassing DUI arrests, starting in 1989, and developed a reputation for being out-of-control. “Kiefer is a binge drinker,” an anonymous associate told People in 2007. “He picks up a drink and doesn’t stop until the wheels fall off.”

Into the 1990s, he was still finding success as a supporting actor in films like A Few Good Men and A Time to Kill, but that early shine had faded. It was easier to think of the scandals than to point at a deeply affecting performance. It got bad enough that eventually, Sutherland started focusing on rodeo riding as much as acting.

It was 24 that helped turn around his career. The concept was dazzling — an entire season of dramatic television that played out in real time as the vigilant counterterrorism cop Jack Bauer tries to stop some bad guys. In the process, Sutherland found, relatively late in his career, his signature role. Gone was the youthful bravado, replaced by a somber, grizzled focus that made Bauer a compelling, empathetic figure — especially in a post-9/11 era when audiences were in search of clear-cut heroes.

24 was a ratings juggernaut and an Emmy winner — Sutherland walked off with Outstanding Lead Actor in 2006 — and it recast the bad boy as a serious adult, something the star didn’t realize until the show started catching on with audiences. “When 24 became a hit, people started saying things like, ‘Comeback this,’ and, ‘Resurrected-from-the-dead that,’” he told Rolling Stone. “At first I was like, ‘Resurrected from the fucking dead? What the fuck does that mean?’ But sometimes the brain doesn’t let you realize the kind of trouble you’re in.”

24’s success didn’t end Sutherland’s troubles, but he emerged as a more mature, thoughtful individual. The 2006 documentary I Trust You to Kill Me best captured the star’s more private side. Seemingly a portrait of an up-and-coming band that Sutherland was managing and had signed to his label, the tour film ended up chronicling the actor as he drank, philosophized, talked about his relationship with his parents and gave us a glimpse into being famous. It was a remarkably casual peek, and Sutherland has never been looser and more appealing on camera. It was also the film that famously showed Sutherland bounding into a hotel-lobby Christmas tree for no good reason.

A little more than a year after his Emmy win, Sutherland served a 48-day prison sentence for a DUI arrest. When he got out, he expressed regret for being so thoughtless as to drive drunk (again) and for letting down so many people. But he never swore off alcohol. “I was never the guy, if something was wrong in my life or something wasn’t right, I didn’t go drown my sorrows,” he said last year.

“One of the things I love to do is go out with my friends and tell stories and have a bunch of drinks. That’s true. Having said that, I can also look back on my life and tell you very squarely that the only bad things that have ever happened to me in my life have been because I like to go to bars and have drinks with my friends. I would be lying if I told you that there weren’t moments where I felt I let it get away from me. So it’s kind of been a push-and-pull through my life.”

Nonetheless, as he nears his 51st birthday, Sutherland has ended up as one of the few of the Brat Pack cohorts to thrive. In movies, he’s become the character actor Schumacher predicted so long ago, giving strong supporting turns in everything from Melancholia to the 2017 Sundance drama Where Is Kyra?, often playing wounded, humbled individuals. On TV, he’s now the lead of ABC’s Designated Survivor, a drama that feeds off his 24 notoriety. He also put out an album, Down in a Hole, that showed his appreciation for rock-tinged country music and confessional lyrics. (“Now, I just don’t give a shit,” he responded when asked what prompted him to release music at this stage of his life.) And, of course, he has the new Flatliners, a connection to his earlier fame.

In 2016, he told a story about working on The Bay Boy, his first leading role. He remembered having dinner at a Chinese restaurant during the shoot. “This is my first job, and I couldn’t have been more excited in my entire life,” he recalled. “And at the end of the dinner, I open up a fortune cookie and it says, ‘Go home.’ … And I always wonder, you know, if I had gone home, what would I have done? My grandfather was an incredibly important politician in Canada. I was fascinated with law. Would I have gone back to school? You know, so I’ll always deal with that because of that fortune cookie. But the truth is, I love what I do, and I’m as excited to go to work today as I ever was when I was 15 years old.”

He’s a guy who seems attuned to how lucky he is — because of his family connections, because of the DUIs that never led to anything more tragic. And like a lot of bad boys, maybe we always secretly hoped he’d grow out of that phase and become the better person (we assume) he was meant to be.

In the end, that transformation might be Sutherland’s most rewarding role.