Boozy nights, barroom brawls—now the star of 24 must serve time for drunk driving

By Alex Tresniowski
October 29, 2007 12:00 PM

Two days after pleading no contest to drunk driving, Kiefer Sutherland did something most people would find shocking—he ordered a drink. His usual, in fact: a double J&B scotch with a Coca-Cola chaser at dinner with a group at Manhattan’s Grano Trattoria Oct. 11. Sutherland, 40—battle-scarred ex-Brat Packer and jut-jawed hero Jack Bauer on 24—”was very nice, very cool,” says an observer, and the dinner was quiet and cordial. “People didn’t even realize who he was. He stayed for a few hours and then he left.”

It might not go down as one of Sutherland’s famously wild-and-boozy nights—like the time he beat a guy to a pulp for licking his girlfriend’s foot, for example, or the time he tackled a Christmas tree in a hotel lobby. But on the heels of his fourth DUI arrest since 1989—and the near certainty of incarceration for his latest arrest—it does show that the TV tough guy doesn’t seem inclined to stop drinking. A month ago, in the wee hours of Sept. 25, Sutherland failed a sobriety test after L.A. cops pulled him over for making an illegal U-turn. At the time he was on probation for a 2004 DUI conviction, which meant mandatory jail time. On Oct. 9 Sutherland struck a deal that will send him to jail for 48 days—18 for violating probation and 30 for the new charge—but allow him to serve his time in stints that won’t interfere with production of the seventh season of 24, set to air in January. “I’m very disappointed in myself for the poor judgment I exhibited,” Sutherland said after his plea, “and I’m deeply sorry for the disappointment and distress this has caused my family, friends and coworkers.”

But to those who know him, Sutherland’s latest bust hardly comes as a surprise. Considered one of the humblest and hardest-working actors in Hollywood, he has also acknowledged he has a problem with alcohol—he told Rolling Stone last year that his case is “right out of the textbook on problem drinkers.” And after two decades of bar brawls and benders—”one night he came in here, got a bottle of J&B and polished off the whole thing,” says someone who recently saw Sutherland fall off his barstool at an after-hours club near his home, a converted iron foundry in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood—he also has a rap sheet. On top of his ’04 and ’07 DUI convictions, Sutherland had two DUI arrests in 1989 and in 1993 that resulted in fines and community service. “Kiefer is a binge drinker,” says someone who has known him since the late ’80s. “He picks up a drink and doesn’t stop until the wheels fall off.”

But with so much at stake—a hit TV show, a daughter and an extended family he loves, even the lives of innocent bystanders—why can’t he get a handle on his problem? Several sources interviewed by PEOPLE say that Sutherland, like his intrepid but tormented character on 24, has been fighting demons most of his adult life, in part because of a tulmultuous childhood: his parents, actor Donald Sutherland and Canadian actress Shirley Douglas, divorced when he was 4 and he bounced between them—and at least seven different schools in Canada—before dropping out at 15. Sutherland left home that same year and soon moved to Los Angeles, where he lived out of his car while trying to make it as an actor. But from the beginning he had to contend with his father’s fame; the elder Sutherland starred in movies such as M*A*S*H and Klute and now the ABC show Dirty Sexy Money. “He’s got this very large burden hanging over him about having Donald as a father,” says someone who has known him for a long time. “How do you measure up to that as an actor? I know that gets to Kiefer at times.”

Whatever pressures Sutherland felt, he found an outlet in drinking early on. But even as a teen he didn’t allow his boozing to get in the way of his work. When he decided to pursue acting and eventually snagged a lead role in the 1987 teen vampire movie The Lost Boys, “Sutherland did drink, yes, but if he was out all night he’d drive up to the guard booth at Warner Brothers at 4 in the morning, sleep next to it and tell the guard to wake him at 6 for his morning call,” the film’s director, Joel Schumacher, told PEOPLE in 2002. “At 18 he had a profound work ethic and he still does.”

Sutherland’s fierce drive and commitment—he routinely works 12-hour days for months at a time while filming 24—may be part of the problem. Friends say his ability to do his job well despite bouts of heavy partying in his off hours has fueled the sense he has his drinking under control. “As sick and crazy as it sounds, he’s almost found a way to make it work for him,” says the source who has known him since the ’80s. “He has a tremendous amount of responsibility as the lead guy on 24 and so he keeps it together and stays clean and sober for a period. But then he suddenly finds himself with a little less responsibility and a little more time on his hands. Then he goes on benders. And when Kiefer goes on a run, he goes on a run.”

As Sutherland told Rolling Stone, “It’s selfish and self-absorbed and it’s a dangerous thing, thinking that if you work really hard, you should be able to reward yourself by going out and getting [drunk] … I have a few drinks and I’m not so worried about tomorrow and not thinking about yesterday.” But Sutherland rarely stops at a few drinks. “One night we were both drinking heavily when this guy kept interrupting us and trying to get in on it, so finally Kiefer jumped up, socked him in the mouth, sat down and started drinking again,” says someone who partied with him in 2006. “Just a typical night for Kiefer. He’s a great guy, but he gets out of control when he drinks.”

Even so, many believed he had turned a corner after his 2004 DUI arrest—and that, perhaps, he had finally found some peace of mind. Twice divorced—he married his first wife, actress Camelia Kath, when he was 20, and they had a daughter, Sarah Jude, now 19; he split from his second wife, model Kelly Winn Sutherland, in 1999—Sutherland found a new home among his colleagues on 24. “This is the community that I wanted to belong to all my life,” an emotional Sutherland said when he accepted the 2006 SAG Award for best actor in a TV drama, one of several accolades he’s won for 24. His 24 costar Kim Raver told PEOPLE in January, “Kiefer has found his inner happiness. I think the set of the show is a real family to him and I think that makes him feel really wonderful.”

Away from the set, however, old habits held their grip, and Sutherland—polite and genial in public, say friends, but introverted and dark in private—continued his heavy drinking. On the evening of Sept. 24, Sutherland attended a FOX charity event at L.A. club Area, but wasn’t spotted drinking there and left not long after 10 p.m. Three hours later, police pulled him over in Hollywood and arrested him for drunk driving. Why on earth didn’t Sutherland just hire a driver? Like a lot of celebrities, Sutherland “doesn’t want to hire a driver because you can’t trust them to keep their mouths shut,” says someone who knows the actor. “It doesn’t matter how many nondisclosure agreements you make them sign; when the heat is on, they talk. Look what happened to Lindsay and Britney.”

Sutherland accepted a longer jail sentence in lieu of delaying production on 24. “He told us that even if he had to sacrifice more time in custody in order to protect the show and the jobs of those who work with him, he would do so,” FOX execs said in a statement. A commendable move, to be sure, but not in light of what made it necessary. Says one close friend: “I am disappointed in the way Kiefer conducts his personal life.”

By most accounts, so is Sutherland, but what he plans to do about it is uncertain. He has been in therapy in the past, but so far there is no indication he has ever entered a rehab facility or has any plans to do so. Maybe his latest arrest will end his drinking life, or maybe it won’t. “Of course he’s very bummed about it—he’s going to jail, isn’t he?” says a Sutherland family friend. “I just don’t understand why he’d want to drive if he’s drunk. He’s stubborn, I guess. It is almost as if he wanted to get caught.”