- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 30, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Donald Sutherland as the leader of the Jewish Council in the Warsaw Ghetto in "Uprising" ideal casting?

Initially, Mr. Sutherland didn't think so. On first offer, he turned down the opportunity to portray Adam Czerniakow in NBC's four-hour miniseries.

"My job is only to agree that I'm correctly cast, and I didn't think I was correctly cast," Mr. Sutherland says.

It's easy to see why he felt himself unsuitable at least physically. The Canadian-born actor is of Scottish heritage. His eyes are light. He's at least 6 feet 2 inches tall.

His mind ultimately was changed by urging from his agent and his recognition of co-writer, director and producer Jon Avnet's passionate conviction. The film with Mr. Sutherland as one of the stars will air 9 to 11 p.m. Sunday and Monday (WRC Channel 4).

Another persuasive factor for Mr. Sutherland was the makeup artist, Gianetto De Rossi, who in Federico Fellini's 1976 movie "Casanova" successfully transformed the actor's soft, doleful looks into the archly seductive profile of the notorious 18th-century Italian pleasure seeker.

For Mr. Sutherland's transformation into the sorrow-filled, dignified Czerniakow, his hair then extremely long in preparation for another role was hidden beneath a balding pate. He also was given a gray beard and mustache to frame his face. His fleshy nose and the distinctive arch of his eyebrows, however, remained true to themselves, and he eschewed a suggestion to darken his eyes.

"I said, 'No, no, no,' because my feeling is that if you put those round contacts in, it blurs whatever is coming through your eyes, and whatever is coming through your eyes is the only thing that is really important. So the color is irrelevant."

Mr. Sutherland's recollections of playing Czerniakow are expressed over a fruit-and-avocado breakfast in a downtown Los Angeles coffee shop.

Alluringly elusive in mind and spirit and often in person Mr. Sutherland is difficult to pin down. He stopped off, though, for a brief chat on his way to work on a nearby location for "Path to War," an HBO movie directed by John Frankenheimer. In it, he plays the elegant and urbane Clark Clifford, secretary of defense to President Johnson during the Vietnam War, so he's looking elegant and urbane.

The tidy exchange of straightforward question and answer is not Mr. Sutherland's style. His conversation drifts into gentle eddies of philosophy, humor and sentiment as he reflects on the fulfilling experience of filming "Uprising" in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Mr. Avnet and his co-writer, Paul Brickman, based their miniseries about honor and courage during World War II on eyewitness accounts and historical testimony, including the daily journal Czerniakow kept as he struggled to find compromises that might save his people.

Mr. Sutherland describes the sage elderly man's dilemma as not being able to conceive of the horror of genocide: "It was inconceivable why someone would target the whole Jewish race; therefore, if it's inconceivable, there must be a way to negotiate."

Mr. Avnet describes Czerniakow as representing someone "who did what most of us would have done."

When his negotiation policies failed to mitigate the Nazi evil, a group of fighters mobilized to strike back at the Germans.

Hank Azaria plays Mordechai Anielewicz, one of the leaders of that Jewish Fighting Organization. David Schwimmer is his cohort, Yitzhak Zuckerman. Leelee Sobieski is Tosia Altman, another JFO member. Jon Voight is Gen. Stroop, sent to quell the uprising. Cary Elwes portrays Fritz Hippler, the propagandist director of the anti-Semitic film "The Eternal Jew."

Mr. Sutherland says he was overwhelmed by the authenticity of the re-creation of the ghetto in which more than 350,000 Jewish Polish citizens were confined.

"I haven't seen a set like it since 1966 and maybe not even then," he says. (He is referring to the chateau built for "The Dirty Dozen," the film that brought him to Hollywood's attention and led to his star billing as Hawkeye Pierce in the now classic 1970 movie "M*A*S*H.")

He eloquently describes the "acres of cobblestone streets" created for "Uprising" and filled with "buildings gray, dismal, wretched, out of which life would come pouring with a kind of optimism and a kind of courage."

"When I sat there with my bald cap on and looked at that set, it was one of those things that claimed me. My heart beat with his, you know. It was extraordinary. I loved it," Mr. Sutherland says with a sigh of satisfaction at how much working on the project moved him emotionally.

Mr. Avnet describes the 66-year-old star as an actor who can "take it further," for whom "the only limit is the imagination of the director."

Mr. Sutherland's wife, Francine, also had a visceral response to his depiction of Czerniakow. "She loved the way he looked and the way he walked," reports Mr. Sutherland, whose conversation is sprinkled constantly with references to his spouse.

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