Donald Sutherland Cost Himself Millions By Negotiating His Own Animal House Contract

There are two situations where you should never speak without a lawyer present. One is when you're being questioned by the police, and the other is during contract negotiations. Donald Sutherland learned the latter the hard way.

Sutherland had a supporting role in "Animal House" as Professor Dave Jennings, a hippie whose attitude is closer to his students' than the Faber College administration. He even re-used his wig from "Don't Look Now" to play Jennings: The curly perm and mustache fit even better for the part of a hippie professor. "Fat, Drunk, & Stupid: The Inside Story Behind the Making of Animal House" by Matty Simmons tells the story of how Sutherland got the part.

John Landis, director of "Animal House," befriended Sutherland on the set of "Kelly's Heroes" and wanted to work with him. "Animal House" was in production at the same time as the "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" remake; both were released in the same year, 1978. Due to Sutherland's prior commitment to shooting "Body Snatchers" in San Francisco, Landis reportedly suggested that Sutherland come up to Oregon for one day and shoot all his scenes at once (this turned into "one day plus" after Universal Pictures informed Landis he couldn't hire an actor for only one day of shooting).

Worn down by Landis' pleading, Sutherland agreed. Due to the short shoot and that he was acting essentially as a favor for a friend, he didn't want any hassle, and that influenced his negotiation posture.

Works on contingency? No, money down!

Donald Sutherland was a full-blown movie star by the time he made "Animal House," having appeared in hits like "M*A*S*H" and "Klute" in just the preceding decade. So, naturally, he wanted to be paid like a star. According to Matty Simmons, Universal did take kindly to Sutherland's initial asking price of $250,000 ("Get the f*** outta here!"). Instead, they offered him $20,000 and a commission of two percent based on the film's return. Sutherland declined: "I can't take that offer. I just want the money, I don't want any points in the movie."

Instead, Sutherland's final payment for the film was $35,000 with no commission. "Animal House" turned a tidy profit; the box office returns have been reported as $120,091,123. As Simmons notes, Sutherland could have netted himself a multi-million dollar check for one day of work had he gone with Universal's first counter-offer.

During an interview on the "Opie & Anthony" show, Sutherland told his side of the story and acknowledged his mistake. Asked if he knows what his two percent commission would've been, he answered, "I don't want to know." Sutherland didn't wind up hurting for cash in the long run, but I do hope he kept his agent and lawyer close during future fee negotiations.