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Kiefer Sutherland: The Life and Career of the Iconic Actor

From bleach blonde vampire to President of the United States!

Imagine you’re two years old and the FBI comes crashing into your home, armed and ready for confrontation. Sounds like the beginning of a TV episode, but this was reality for Kiefer Sutherland, long before he could be seen in movies and TV shows.

The armed FBI raid into his Beverly Hills home in 1969 ended with his mother, Shirley Douglas, being taken away in handcuffs. After a brief prison stay for allegedly trying to buy explosives for the Black Panthers, Douglas and her children went off to her native Canada while husband, actor Donald Sutherland, was off in Europe filming The Dirty Dozen.

Kiefer Sutherland and Shirley Douglas, 2012, Kiefer Sutherland, actor in  movies and TV shows
Kiefer Sutherland and Shirley Douglas, 2012George Pimentel/Getty Images

The early life of Kiefer Sutherland

Born Kiefer William Frederick Dempsey George Rufus Sutherland in London, England to Canadian actors Shirley Douglas and Donald Sutherland, the family moved to California shortly after Kiefer’s birth to further pursue their acting careers.

Both his mom and dad were politically active as was his grandfather, Tommy Douglas. To this day, Kiefer believes his family was targeted because of his father’s fame and left-leaning politics, while his mother was a committed civil rights activist.

Kiefer Sutherland, 1990, actor in movies and TV shows
Kiefer Sutherland, 1990Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images

It doesn’t matter what age you are – when the FBI comes running through your house with their guns drawn, you’re gonna remember it,” he said in a 2022 interview with The Independent.

Kiefer’s big break

It was while living in Canada that Kiefer got his first film role in the comedy drama Max Dugan Returns in 1983. His first major part was in the Canadian drama, The Bay Boy (1984), which earned him a Genie Award nomination, equivalent to our Oscars.

Kiefer Sutherland, 1998, actor in movies and TV shows
Kiefer Sutherland, 1998SGranitz/WireImage/Getty Images

Thinking he’d broken into acting, Kiefer had saved up enough money doing commercials in New York to buy himself a car. He drove cross country and moved to Los Angeles, where, after a few months of sleeping in his car, he landed an episode in TV’s Amazing Stories and then the 1986 telefilm Trapped in Silence with Marsha Mason. He then moved in with Robert Downey, Jr. for three years during their early days in Hollywood in the 80s.

During his storied career, Sutherland was engaged to actress Julia Roberts, whom he met when both starred in Flatliners (1990), but three days before the wedding, they postponed it and eventually called it off.

A man of many talents

Kiefer Sutherland, 2018
Kiefer Sutherland, 2018Xavi Torrent/Redferns/Getty Images

In the late 1990s, Sutherland bought a 900-acre ranch in Montana and toured with the rodeo circuit, winning rodeos in Phoenix and Albuquerque. He earned first place in the US Team Roping Championships, but didn’t come away unscathed.

During his first rodeo, he broke three fingers. Along the way, Kiefer has had his run-ins with the law and proven himself a worthy country musician and songwriter. His gravelly, smoke burnished voice was evident on the release of his first album, Down in a Hole, in 2016.

Kiefer Sutherland, 2017
Kiefer Sutherland, 2017Samir Hussein/Redferns/Getty Images

The Kiefer Sutherland Band toured in April and May of 2016 and debuted at the Grand Ole Opry the same year. The band’s second album, Reckless and Me, was released in 2019 while the third, Bloor Street, was released in 2022.

With his blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes, it seems Kiefer Sutherland was destined to be a star of the big and small screen. Here is a look back at some of his career’s highlights.

Kiefer Sutherland movies and TV shows

The 1980s

Stand By Me (1986)

This is the first film that Sutherland made in the United States. The coming-of-age story was directed by Rob Reiner and the story is told by a writer who recounts a childhood journey with his friends to find the body of a missing boy.

Kiefer played Ace Merrill, a neighborhood bully and co-starred the late River Phoenix.

The Lost Boys (1987)

Everyone likes a good vampire story, and The Lost Boys has risen to cult status. A mother and her two boys move to a small town on the California coast run by bikers, and a few mysterious deaths are unsolved.

Vampire hunters lure in the younger son while the older one gets caught up in the gang of bikers by none other than a pretty young girl. Kiefer plays a vampire named David, and the film has a great soundtrack that holds up well today.

Promised Land (1987): Kiefer Sutherland movies and TV shows

Opposite a young Meg Ryan as Danny’s psychotic wife, Tracy Pollan and Jason Gedrick, this was the first film to be commissioned by the Sundance Film Festival.

The drama follows two high school students — basketball star Hancock (Gedrick) and Danny (Sutherland), the geek turned drifter — after they graduate. The American dream of a white picket fence is lost on this group.

Young Guns (1988)

It’s 1878 in New Mexico and a rich rancher is killed. A group of young men, led by William Bonney (Emilio Estevez), become deputies to avenge the murder of that rancher, Murphy, who had become their benefactor.

Billy takes his job a little too seriously and the hunters become the hunted. Soon, the young men become famous and Bonney is given the name Billy the Kid. Sutherland plays Doc Scurlock, while the other young guns include Charlie Sheen, Lou Diamond Phillips, Dermot Mulroney and Casey Siemascko.

The 1990s

Flatliners (1990)

This sci-fi psychological film centers around the idea of the afterlife and the test of stopping your heart for a near death experiment. Five med students partake in this research, but the dark consequences of past tragedies begin to jeopardize their lives. Little did they know that if you cross the “line,” death will follow you back.

Young Guns II (1990): Kiefer Sutherland movies and TV shows

Picking up where Young Guns left off, Billy the Kid and his gang are still wanted by the law and when Doc Scurlock (Sutherland) and Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) are captured, Billy sets out to save them.

Sure enough, they escape and head south for Mexico. Pat Garrett, one of Billy’s former partners, is hired and paid $1,000 to kill Mr. William H. Bonney. The film lives up to its tagline: The West just got wilder.

A Few Good Men (1992)

The military legal drama stars Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise along with an outstanding ensemble cast of Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Cuba Gooding, Jr., J.T. Walsh and Kiefer Sutherland as second Lt. Jonathan Kendrick, a junior officer subordinate to Nicholson’s Col. Nathan R. Jessup.

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The story centered on a court martial of two US Marines charged with the murder of their brother in arms, and the challenges faced by their lawyers as they prepare the case. Who can forget Nicholson’s now famous line: “You can’t handle the truth!”

The Three Musketeers (1993)

It’s 1625 France and young d’Artagnan (Chris O’Donnell) heads to Paris to join the Musketeers — but the evil cardinal has broken up the group except for three. Get it? 

He meets those three remaining Musketeers – Athos (Sutherland), Porthos (Oliver Platt) and Aramis (Charlie Sheen) to join them on their journey to save the king and country.

The Vanishing (1993): Kiefer Sutherland movies and TV shows

Sutherland co-stars with Jeff Bridges and Nancy Travis as the boyfriend of an abducted woman who never gives up his search — but the creepy abductor (Bridges) watches his every move.  

A Time To Kill (1996): Kiefer Sutherland movies and TV shows

It was Sutherland and Sutherland (as in father and son) in supporting roles in this legal drama based on John Grisham’s 1989 novel. Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey star along with Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson.

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Octavia Spencer made her film debut in this story which takes place in Mississippi when an African American girl is abducted, raped and beaten by two local white men. Racial tensions are at the heart of the story.

Eye for an Eye (1996)

Kiefer plays evil murderer and rapist Kevin Doob, who is about to be tried but dismissed because of a legal technicality.

If the court fails to keep Doob behind bars, a mother, Karen McCann (Sally Field), will seek her own form of justice. The only thing worse than a woman scorned is a mother scorned.

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Dark City (1998): Kiefer Sutherland movies and TV shows

Alongside William Hurt and Rufus Sewell, the film was a special presentation at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Sewell is a man who struggles with memories of his past, which include a wife he cannot remember and an undistinguishable world no one else ever seems to wake from. Sutherland plays Dr. Daniel Schreber.  

The 2000s

Phone Booth (2002)

Sutherland is “The Caller” in this psychological thriller, who calls a phone booth in Times Square where Colin Farrell, as New York publicist Stu Shepherd, is calling his mistress to avoid detection by his wife.

Sutherland is an unnamed evil and scheming killer, and as unfortunate fate would have it for Stu, the caller is also a trained sniper who says that if he leaves the booth, he will let his wife know about the girlfriend. Murder and chaos ensue.

The Caine Mutiny Court-Marshal (2023)

Based on the two-act play of the same name, Sutherland played Lt. Commander Phillip Queeg, the part portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the 1954 film adaptation.  

Only briefly in the film, his performance was singled out by critics as some of the best work of his career, making every second count.

Pompeii (2014): Kiefer Sutherland movies and TV shows

An epic historical disaster film inspired by and based on the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. that destroyed Pompeii. Kiefer plays Senator Quintus Attius Corvus.

Forsaken (2015): Kiefer Sutherland movies and TV shows

After 30 years in the business, Kiefer had the chance to star with his dad in this Canadian revisionist western drama that also stars Demi Moore.

Kiefer plays John Henry Clayton, who returns home to his estranged father, Reverend Samuel Clayton, who tells him his mother had died some years ago. Past encounters and suspicious men round out the story.

Television roles

24 (2001-2010): Kiefer Sutherland movies and TV shows

As Jack Bauer in the Fox drama series, Sutherland earned a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama Series in 2006 for his portrayal of the US counter terrorist federal agent.  

The unusual format was received with positive reviews as each season took place within one 24-hour period emphasized by a split screen and digital clock. Bauer’s mandate is to protect the United States from terrorist plots by any means.  

24: Live Another Day (2014): Kiefer Sutherland movies and TV shows

This was a 12-episode series based on the original drama.

Designated Survivor (2016-2019): Kiefer Sutherland movies and TV shows

Sutherland stars as Tom Kirkman, a rather low-level cabinet member who is suddenly appointed President of the United States after a catastrophic attack on the Capitol during the State of the Union. Kiefer described this character to be the most natural to his own personality of any other performance.  

Rabbit Hole (2023)

The actor plays the lead role as John Weir, an expert in corporate espionage who runs afoul of some very powerful people in this Paramount+ thriller.

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