Back in 1969, Hollywood legends Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles and Donald Sutherland headed to Yugoslavia to shoot World War II movie Kelly Heroes.
The classic movie saw a group of American soldiers learn from a drunk German of Nazi gold hidden behind enemy lines, that they go on a mission to steal for themselves.
Having had his big break in 1967’s The Dirty Dozen, Sutherland had a wild experience on set, including almost losing his life.
The Sergeant Oddball actor suffered from spinal meningitis in the middle of shooting Kelly’s Heroes, which put him in a coma and almost cost him his life.
According to The Irish Examiner, Sutherland said: “I came to Yugoslavia for a day’s filming and I was out for six weeks. They took me to hospital – I had spinal meningitis. They didn’t have the antibiotics, so I went into a coma, and they tell me that for a few seconds, I died. I saw the blue tunnel, and I started going down it. I saw the white light. I dug my feet in. I didn’t want to go – but it was incredibly tempting. You just go: ‘Aw, s**t man, why not?’.”
Sutherland’s then-wife Shirley Douglas, the mother of Kiefer and Rachel, received a telegram telling her to come to Yugoslavia immediately, but warning that her husband would probably be dead before she arrived. Of course, he did get better, but also during filming, she was arrested back home in the USA, which Eastwood had to break to the Oddball actor.
At the time, the FBI’s COINTELPRO was working to undermine the Black Panthers and Douglas had been campaigning for American Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War. She had helped fundraise for the group Friends of the Black Panthers but ended up getting arrested in LA after trying to buy hand grenades for the group from an undercover FBI agent using a personal cheque.
Eastwood, one of Hollywood’s big conservatives like fellow Western star John Wayne, found this hilarious and had to break the news to Sutherland on the Kelly’s Heroes set. After telling him exactly what happened, the star fell to the ground laughing and couldn’t stand up.
Nevertheless, after breaking the news, Eastwood put his arm around Sutherland and they walked down a hill overlooking the Yugoslavian countryside, where he said he’d support his friend through this incident. Another interesting fact about Kelly’s Heroes is that future Hollywood director John Landis was a production assistant who played one of the three nuns.
Landis told Sutherland that one day he would be a movie director, and the actor said if that were to come true he would appear in all his movies. It wasn’t quite all, but the Oddball star did feature in 1977’s The Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon’s Animal House and even on a billboard in 1980’s The Blues Brothers.