Lynette Rice
April 02, 2010 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Despite having to endure eight seasons of physical and mental torture, Jack Bauer was never one to quit. But even if he managed to beat the clock on 24, he could only do so much to control the ratings: With year-to-year viewership down 12 percent (11.5 million this year versus last season’s 13 million) and the show’s tropes looking more tired than terrific (Katee Sackhoff‘s Dana is the CTU mole now?), Fox announced last week that May 24 will mark the end of the high-octane drama.

For star Kiefer Sutherland, 43, the decision to end the show now rather than attempt to peddle it elsewhere (like NBC, which EW first reported was willing to consider a ninth season) was bittersweet. ”It’s been the greatest education I certainly have ever had as an actor, particularly the most important that has happened to me in my career,” Sutherland tells EW. ”I got to cut a guy’s head off and put it in a bowling bag as a way of proving that I was someone else. Those were some of the most fun scenes to play in my career. I will always look back on it as an unbelievably special and truly important experience in my life.”

Besides, it’s not as if he’s totally saying goodbye to the character that earned him his first Emmy in 2006. With production on the series set to wrap April 9, Sutherland and the show’s executive producer and head writer, Howard Gordon, can soon turn their focus toward a 24 screenplay in the works by Billy Ray (State of Play) for Twentieth Century Fox. Though it still remains in the planning stages — Sutherland can’t comment on whether the film will feature mainstays like Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe O’Brian) and Elisha Cuthbert (Kim Bauer) — he’s psyched about what it can offer versus what the series couldn’t. ”The crisis always had to come to us because we didn’t have time to move anywhere in a real-time world,” says the actor, ”whereas in a two-hour representation of the 24 world, planes, trains, and automobiles become a factor because you are not required to go scene by scene in real time. That’s something I can say I’m very excited about.”

At the very least, it should give fans some clue as to how the producers will bring the serialized franchise to an end next month. Death to Bauer is clearly not an option — though the producers did consider a tragic ending for TV’s favorite antihero. (Hey, stranger things have happened. Tony Almeida did come back to life in season 7, after all!) Utimately, Gordon and his crack team of writers ended up penning a finale that will tee up the movie but still provide a definitive end to the action franchise. ”All that has happened in previous seasons weighs in, particularly in the last six to eight episodes,” Gordon teases. ”We took some risks, and I think the show has earned the chance to take those risks. It definitely feels like a series ender.”

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