Countdown to a Comeback
Back in his boarding school days in Aurora, Ont., Kiefer Sutherland kept the staff at venerable St. Andrew’s College on their toes. He would illicitly order pizzas and sell slices at a markup to classmates, and he bred white rats in his room. “There would be these reports from the school,” recalls his mother, actress Shirley Douglas, 67. “They’d say, ‘It’s been many years since we had a boy who showed so much leadership, but it’s leading him in all the wrong directions.’ ”
Two decades and a few more wrong turns later, he seems to have solved the direction problem. After a lifetime of comparisons to his father, actor Donald Sutherland, and a decade of exile from Hollywood’s A list, his performance as counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer in FOX’s real-time series 24 has earned the 35-year-old actor a Golden Globe. Sutherland adores his beleaguered character, who’s trying to derail an assassination plot while rescuing his abducted wife and daughter. “Jack’s very clever professionally,” he told the Copley News Service, “but far from perfect personally.”
Sutherland can relate, having weathered two broken marriages and a famously ill-fated engagement with Julia Roberts in 1991. Currently finalizing a divorce from his second wife, former model Kelly Winn, 40, Sutherland has been living solo in a modest L.A. apartment and stepping out with Catherine Bisson, 28, an artist. “No matter how tough things have been, Kiefer always turns up for work and works hard,” says his mother. “There were times when people weren’t sure if he would turn up. But there’s something in him—his tenacity. He just keeps on going.”
In the past his penchant for going to pool halls and nightclubs gave him a bad-boy rep that only got worse when he pleaded no contest to reckless driving in 1989 and 1993. His hell-raising days, however, have been dialed down. “Kiefer has grown up a lot,” says 24 director Stephen Hopkins. “He’s now a stronger, clearer man. He’s got a teenage daughter [Sarah Jude, 14, from his marriage to his first wife, actress Camelia Kath, 48]. He’s reached a point where he now knows what he wants.”
Even back in 1993, Sutherland told reporters he had been calling directors to apologize for his past misbehavior: “I said, ‘Do you remember back in 1984 when I did that thing about whatever? Well, I’m sorry, man.’ ”
Sutherland hasn’t turned into “Ward Cleaver, however. Last summer he jumped fully clothed into the pool at a Beverly Hills hotel after downing scotches at the bar. He and 24 director Hopkins occasionally go out for drinks. “On the rare occasions when we got drunk, he was a charming drunk, not a bad-tempered person at all,” says Hopkins.
His rough-and-tumble hangouts once included an 813-acre Santa Ynez, Calif., cattle ranch where Sutherland (who is still a Canadian citizen) honed the calf-roping skills that earned him first place at the U.S. Team Roping Championships. He plays on an ice-hockey team, alongside stars such as Cuba Gooding Jr. and Denis Leary, and is “a perfect gentleman,” says teammate Alan Thicke. “He makes Wayne Gretzky look like a goon.” As a hockey player Sutherland is “very determined and serious,” says the Great Gretzky, 41, who occasionally joins the amateurs, “but the NHL is safe.”
Not that Sutherland needs a new line of work. Raised in L.A. and Toronto by Douglas after she and Donald divorced in 1970, Sutherland “wanted to be a rock star” as a kid, says his twin sister Rachel, a TV-postproduction supervisor in Toronto. “We never felt any pressure to become actors.” Her brother caught the bug after a stage role at age 10. At 17 he headed to L.A. “I always wanted to be out in the world making a big bang out of life,” Sutherland told PEOPLE in 1984. Two years later he made an impact as a teen tough in Stand by Me, following up as a cocky vampire in 1987’s The Lost Boys. Despite substantial partying, “he had a profound work ethic and still does,” says Joel Schumacher, Sutherland’s director in Boys, 1990’s Flatliners and 1996’s A Time to Kill. “If he was out all night he would drive to the guard booth at Warner Bros, at 3 in the morning, park and tell the security guard to wake him at 6 for his morning call.”
It was on the set of Flatliners that Sutherland—who had separated from Kath, 13 years his senior, in 1988 after just a year of marriage—fell for costar Roberts, then 22 and an instant star in the wake of Pretty Woman. But four days before their June 1991 nuptials, Roberts called it off and jetted to Dublin with actor Jason Patric. Neither star has revealed the reasons for their split, though Sutherland told Details in 1991 that the decision “was mutual.” Nevertheless, says his mother, “that was a hard time for Kiefer.”
He gave marriage another shot in 1996, tying the knot with Winn, a divorced mother of two sons. They separated in 1999. “I got more involved in my life than ours,” Sutherland explained to Entertainment Tonight.
Friends say he has a close relationship with stepkids Julian, 11, and Timothy, 8, as well as with his daughter, who lives with Kath. His relationship with his own father is more complex. During filming of 1989’s Renegades, “Donald showed up four or five times, and it just threw Kiefer,” recalls producer David Madden. “Donald is an aloof, formidable man, and I think Kiefer really wanted to be close with him.”
“My presence has been like a thorn in his sense of originality,” the elder Sutherland, 66, told Britain’s Daily Mail in 2000. His son’s ’90s career struggles couldn’t have helped. After 1992’s A Few Good Men, the hits stopped. His turn as Jack Bauer changed that. “He’s struggling to keep it together, fighting to stay noble,” says 24 executive producer Joel Surnow. “We’re talking about Jack Bauer and Kiefer Sutherland both.”
And those bags under his eyes? Method acting. “Kiefer’s whole life is concentrated on the series. He’s always short on sleep,” says his mother. “But he’s very happy.”
Rachel Biermann, Lorenzo Benet, John Hannah and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles and Constance Droganes in Toronto