Did you know that Donald Sutherland once played Homer Simpson?

No, no. Not THAT one - not the cartoon buffoon who's the patriarch of "The Simpsons." That was his character's name in "The Day of the Locust," director John Schlesinger's 1975 adaptation of the Nathanael West book about Hollywood sycophants in the 1930s.Sutherland, however, doesn't laugh as others do when he's reminded of the Simpson connection - perhaps because he's unfamiliar with the Fox network series.

"I liked that character. I liked that character a lot," he says seriously. "It was the last review I ever read."

It was Pauline Kael's review in The New Yorker. "I have it in my head. Burned. Burned!" he says, his slow, soothing baritone rising.

"On the first page she said that the novel really shouldn't have been written, but since it was, OK. But it shouldn't have been made into a film, but if they were going to make it into a film, they should have brought it up to date and not shot it in Los Angeles, but shot it in Las Vegas. It should never have been done by a foreign director." And on and on.

He recalls reading that long-ago review in a hotel lobby while Schlesinger was sitting across from him. "And by this time we're into four pages, and then she trashed Karen Black and William Atherton. And it then gets to the bottom of this page . . . and it says, `There's nothing specifically wrong with Donald Sutherland's performance as Homer Simpson. It's just awful.' "

Schlesinger rolled on the floor, laughing, when he got to that point.

If Sutherland read the notices of his latest film, "Dr. Bethune," he would have enjoyed various tributes. But the movie came and went at most theaters in a heartbeat, probably because, as one critic put it, "whatever happened in the editing room shouldn't happen to sausage."

Sutherland, whose breakthrough role came in "M*A*S*H" as Korean War medic Hawkeye, says Bethune's idealism led him to play another doctor.

He notes that Bethune put hospitals on the backs of mules and on wagons to bring them to the front in war-torn China in the 1930s.

The role evoked a bit of chauvinistic pride for the native of St. John, New Brunswick. He played the Canadian surgeon because he feels Canada needs as many folk heroes as it can get.

"Robertson Davies (the Canadian writer) said the only difference between Canada and the United States is just a question of frontiers. In the United States it's the Old West and your hero is the outlaw; and Canada, our frontier is the far north and our hero is the mounted policeman. And mounted policemen don't really make great heroes."

When it's suggested that Dudley Do-Right might qualify, he laughs at the thought of the inept cartoon Mountie.

Still, he sees it as a serious dichotomy.

"We're like two sons, Canada and the United States, that left the British Empire, the mother. We stayed with the apron springs and you guys went off. And our character has not been dissimilar from those of the classic images from the boy who stayed home and the boy who went away and made a big success."

Sutherland - whose appearance, particularly with the full beard he's grown, has been likened to "half Christ at the Last Supper and half Mick Jagger at Altamont" - certainly was a boy who left to become accomplished and famous.

He's been in more than 60 films, including "Ordinary People," "1900," "Casanova," "The Dirty Dozen," "Eye of the Needle," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "Klute," "Don't Look Now," "A Dry White Season" and "JFK."

Next: He co-stars with Stockard Channing (reprising her stage role) and Will Smith in the film version of the play "Six Degrees of Separation," directed by Fred Schepisi.

"I had a wonderful time working for Fred," he says. "It doesn't have to do so much with the characters as to do with the director you're working for."

Indeed, Sutherland has a certain reverence for directors. The two sons borne to him by French-Canadian actress Francine Racette are named Roeg, after director Nicolas Roeg, and Rossif, after Frederic Rossif. The actor's feelings stem from working with some of the best, including Bernardo Bertolucci, Louis Malle and the late Federico Fellini.

Sutherland also expresses near awe for the written word and writers.

"I love scripts that are written by good guys," he says, citing John Guare and Alvin Sargent. "Really delicate, elegant scripts that you wouldn't dare to change a word of. That your job is to struggle to find the real meaning of that word."

He allows that some scripts serve as just a framework, but says what you hope for are the ones that aren't just an amorphous foundation for a film.