As might any man in his position, Donald Sutherland sought a second opinion. In the just-released film Threshold, a fictional scenario sketched out by screenwriter James Salter eight years before the real-life case of Barney Clark, Sutherland stars as an eminent cardiac specialist who performs the world’s first artificial heart operation. To insure professional behavior for his character, Sutherland went to a primary source, spending two days at the elbow of noted heart surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley of the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. For the 48-year-old actor who shot to fame as an irreverent physician in the movie M*A*S*H, the eyewitness experience was eye-opening. Says Sutherland of a 12-hour day in the operating room, “The thing that’s so amazing is the exhilaration and joy. The doctors come out, and they’re not even tired.”
Sutherland also relied on Cooley, 62, to flesh out the character of Dr. Thomas Vrain. He based the look of the doctor on tall, blond Cooley, whom he physically resembles. Sutherland even bleached his eyebrows to heighten the similarity. With his face obscured by a surgical mask in the scrub room, Sutherland was mistaken for Cooley by a nurse, who inquired about an upcoming case.
Ironically, the artificial heart in Threshold was produced not by Coo-ley’s institute but by Utah’s Dr. Robert Jarvik, 36, who also designed the device implanted in Barney Clark. While researching the film in 1980, screenwriter Salter traveled to the Artificial Organs Division at the University of Utah. His tour guide there was Jarvik, who during lunch improvised and drew on a napkin the heart he imagined for the film. Recalls Salter, “I saw in Jarvik the imagination and creativity to talk about these things in a freewheeling, uninhibited way.” Later that afternoon Jarvik created a clay model. Although Clark’s device requires electricity and mobile equipment at his side, Jarvik’s movie version has no exterior pump, hookups or tubes. It is powered by heat from a radioactive-isotope package also implanted in the patient’s chest. According to one science writer, “It is not beyond the realm of possibility.” Both Cooley and Jarvik receive screen credit as technical advisers, and Cooley makes a cameo appearance—as a hospital staff member.
During the course of his research, Sutherland diagnosed a common condition among heart surgeons: egotism. “They have a particular kind of vanity,” he notes. “They’re living isolated lives in which they’re revered.” But that doesn’t diminish the actor’s enthusiasm for their pioneer work. Faced with Barney Clark’s life-or-death dilemma, Sutherland has no doubts about his choice. “I’d take the artificial heart in a minute.”