Did You Know? THI’s First on the Big Screen

In the 70s and 80s, Canadian-born Academy Award winner Donald Sutherland was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, appearing in many critically acclaimed and commercially successful movies, including M*A*S*H (1970), Klute (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Eagle Has Landed (1976), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). He received rave reviews for his star role in Ordinary People (1980), which won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Sutherland’s next movie was Threshold (1981), a Canadian sci-fi drama. In the movie, he played an eminent heart surgeon who collaborates with an offbeat scientist to pioneer the invention of an artificial human heart and perform the first artificial heart transplant in a 21-year-old woman. The movie is an adaptation based on Dr. Cooley’s works and the first clinical implantation of a total artificial heart by him and Dr. Domingo Liotta in 1969.

Sutherland and director Richard Pearce spent a week at THI doing research for Sutherland’s role in Threshold. Having played Capt. Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H a decade earlier, Sutherland was not unfamiliar with playing the role of a surgeon. Nonetheless, at THI he observed operations and learned the proper way to scrub before surgery from Dr. Cooley and tie surgical knots from resident surgeon Dr. James Livesay. The film crew shot several scenes at THI, and Dr. Cooley even had a small part in the movie; however, he later said that most of his scene “ended up on the cutting room floor.”

Jeff Goldblum co-starred as Sutherland’s eccentric research colleague, and Mare Winningham played the role of the patient. Threshold was released in theaters in January 1981. Although not a financial success in the US, the movie received some good reviews and was more successful in Canada. In fact, for his role in the movie, Sutherland won the Genie (Canada’s Oscar) Award for Best Actor and the Best Actor Award at the 1982 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

On November 24, 1981, a special showing of the movie was held for THI in the Texas Children’s Hospital auditorium. Thirty-eight years later on September 15, 2019, Threshold was shown again—this time to honor the 50th anniversary of the 1969 total artificial heart implantation. The movie was the season opener for the “Movies Houstonians Love” series of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, that year. Dr. Bud Frazier opened the event and led the panel discussion afterward, where he was joined by Richard Pearce and producer Michael Burns. While discussing present-day total artificial heart technology, Dr. Frazier acknowledged that the fascinating story behind those inventions nearly 4 decades after the film’s release is an example of when “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life,” as Oscar Wilde opined in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying. This paradigm holds true for many scientific and medical innovations.

– by Gregg Doty, Library Assistant, Library & Learning Resource Center

Images: (Above) Dr. James Livesay, director Richard Pearce, actor Donald Sutherland, and Dr. Cooley pose for the camera after a day of observation in the operating suite here at THI in 1980. (Below) Dr. Bud Frazier presenting Threshold at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston as part of their 15th season of “Movies Houstonian’s Love”