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He's an actor with good-guy baggage

Danny Glover finds his `Lethal' image doesn't have to be fatal.

March 11, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

DANNY GLOVER is a complicated man. Which is strange when you consider the solid uncomplicated image of him. Tall, magisterial even, with that wide and lovely smile, the man we know from a hundred (OK, four) "Lethal Weapon" movies, from "Places in the Heart," "The Color Purple" and "Angels in the Outfield," from, a bit more recently, "Dreamgirls," "The Shaggy Dog" and "Saw."

"Saw." Let it sit for a minute. Impossible. What was Danny Glover doing in "Saw?"

(Getting killed like the rest of the cast, for one thing.)

Did he know, did he sense, that the grisly, low-budget horror flick would become an enormous hit, generating millions of dollars and a spin-off franchise? Is that why he did it?

Not exactly.

"The producers were, at the time, my managers," he says, referring to Evolution, whose principal partners produced "Saw." "I did it as a favor to them. And let's face it, no one was exactly banging down my door. I am glad I got killed off, though. Saved me from the sequels."

This is one reason the career is complicated -- it may seem like Glover is working all the time, but he really hasn't been. Music agent Marty Madison in "Dreamgirls" was the first big part in a big film he's had in a while; it was the good folks at ICM, he says, who actively pursued it. "I was not the first person on their list," he says, with a laugh. "But they were like 'If Danny Glover wants to be in this movie, great. We're glad to have him.' Which was nice."

Now, on the heels of "Dreamgirls" comes "Shooter," an action-thriller starring Mark Wahlberg as Bob Lee Swagger, ex-Army marksman fighting for justice, and his life, that opens March 23. Glover had not been the first one on that list either -- director Antoine Fuqua originally considered Gene Hackman for the Congressional Medal of Honor-winning colonel who coaxes the bitter Swagger back into action. But then producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura uttered Glover's name and the deal was sealed.

"Danny has such gravitas," says Di Bonaventura. "He can mask his emotions or he can wear them on his sleeve. And his good-guy baggage worked to our advantage."

"Everyone loves Danny," says Fuqua. "He's perfect. A sort of fatherly guy who will be able to convince someone to get back in the game."

As Col. Isaac Fitzsimmons Johnson, Glover does more than that. To prevent any irate charges of spoiling the plot, let's just say the role is not quite what it seems.

Which is a pretty good description of Glover himself. Although Glover is well established, he's had a rocky few years. At 60, he is entering a territory where the roles are richer, though not as plentiful, where the competition can be stiff -- Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Laurence Fishburne, even Alec Baldwin.

Fortunately, stardom has never been the sum of Glover's self-definition, as a conversation makes perfectly clear. Yes, there is the same wise yet friendly face, same aged-in-wood voice. But Glover, who resolutely forsakes L.A. and New York for his hometown of San Francisco, is much more a political animal than an industry insider.

Wide-ranging table talk

OVER dinner, he talks easily, comfortably, in long, complex paragraphs about topics including the education system (he was in New Orleans at the behest of the Algebra Project and the Vanguard Foundation), his daughter and grandson ("I've only got one of each, so I have been accused of worshipping"), his third-grade teacher ("Miss Fumber. She'd wash your mouth out with soap, but she told us she was in the business of raising citizens") and diversity in Hollywood.

"You try to do things outside the box," he says. "But the industry has been so indoctrinated and intoxicated. Is 'Blood Diamond' an African film? Is 'The Constant Gardner'? Do they depict the lives and feelings, the thoughts of Africans? No, because no one is really interested in that."

It is easy to see the San Francisco State economics major who got into acting because poet, playwright and activist Amiri Baraka was holding auditions. "No one else auditioned for the play I was in," says Glover, "so I got the part."

At a certain point, however, he realized he was indeed an actor. "When you're doing something day after day for 11, 12 hours for no pay, when you realize you can use your body, your voice to tell a story," he says, "then that's something else. You're onto something else."

Still, he hasn't strayed far from those early days. He still lives in Haight-Ashbury, and his politics remain as progressive as in the days when he belonged to SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).

"It's so hard to get an intelligent film about anything made in Hollywood these days, much less one about race," he says. "We frame the discussion in archaic ways, we focus on incidences of what some person said or what some person wrote. We don't take on the real issues, like fear or that I represent 12% of the population and 50% of the prison population. No one talks about what is going on systemically."

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