Danny Glover: No more Mr Nice Guy

The actor Danny Glover is famous for playing an amiable cop in the Lethal Weapon series. Sholto Byrnes discovers why he would far rather be known as 'an obnoxious radical'
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The Independent Culture

"A liberal," says Danny Glover, quoting the poet Langston Hughes, "is a guy who talks about how bad segregated trains are. Yet he rides in the whites-only section. Liberals are apologists. And if Tony Blair and the Labour party are considered liberal - well, come on, give me a break!" By now Glover is animated, in contrast to when we first meet in one of the ornate drawing rooms of Home House in central London. Ostensibly he's here to talk about his being honoured in the "outstanding contribution" category at last week's Screen Nation Film and TV awards, billed as "the UK black Oscars". But as he sprawls in an armchair, patting himself down after a session in the gym, Glover betrays little interest in discussing his films, which include The Color Purple, Witness and the Lethal Weapon series.

"A liberal," says Danny Glover, quoting the poet Langston Hughes, "is a guy who talks about how bad segregated trains are. Yet he rides in the whites-only section. Liberals are apologists. And if Tony Blair and the Labour party are considered liberal - well, come on, give me a break!" By now Glover is animated, in contrast to when we first meet in one of the ornate drawing rooms of Home House in central London. Ostensibly he's here to talk about his being honoured in the "outstanding contribution" category at last week's Screen Nation Film and TV awards, billed as "the UK black Oscars". But as he sprawls in an armchair, patting himself down after a session in the gym, Glover betrays little interest in discussing his films, which include The Color Purple, Witness and the Lethal Weapon series.

"I've got a whole closet full of awards," he says. "I think they all have some relevance. But in my own mind I've always treated my career as not being just mine. I don't think any success is yours alone, particularly if you've come out of the kind of historic experience that I've come from. The success is not yours, it's the embodiment of what people before you have struggled and done, of how they fought and sacrificed to make changes. Fifty or 60 years ago, men of colour, and particularly black men, weren't able to do the things I've been able to do in my profession."

Such serious language may be a little surprising springing from the lips of a man who so often comes across on screen as amiable and good-natured, sometimes even rather put upon. Think of his Roger Murtaugh, constantly exasperated by the irresponsible antics of Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon films, or as Henry Sherman, the accountant whose ineffectual wooing of Anjelica Huston in The Royal Tenenbaums is disrupted by the return of Royal Tenenbaum himself, played by Gene Hackman. Glover's face has a wonderful ability to convey innocence and naivety, which is possibly why audiences warm to his characters so readily. It doesn't strike one as the face of a fiery radical.

Unbeknown to many in this country, however, Glover is and has always been highly political. Amnesty International has given him a lifetime achievement award; he is chairman of the TransAfrica Forum, which was very active in the fight against apartheid (he was a guest at Nelson Mandela's 80th birthday); and, two weeks ago, he was arrested on the steps of the Sudanese embassy in Washington while demonstrating about the situation in Darfur.

Even when musing on films, Glover brings in political references. When I ask him about Gibson's controversial The Passion of The Christ, he replies by wondering what Martin Luther King would have thought about it. "He often said that Jesus was a true revolutionary," he says. Gibson was the butt of much criticism over his ultra-conservative religious beliefs, I say to Glover. Does he worry that his own political activities will interfere with his box-office appeal? As an example, I cite an American website that lists "the 20 Most Annoying Liberals in the US"; Glover isn't actually on the list, but he receives an "honourable mention".

"Well, I wouldn't consider myself a liberal, first off," he begins, rapidly emerging from his post-workout lethargy. "I consider myself a progressive. I don't like the word liberal. I have problems with liberals. I'm someone who talks about progressive issues." How does he differentiate between the two terms? "I think it's about time we started differentiating," he replies heatedly. "I don't question my opposition to the war in Iraq. I don't question my opposition to neo-liberal policies. I don't question my opposition to the WTO and the World Bank, or the form of globalisation that's happening at the moment. I don't question this at all. But liberals may. Liberals may think that globalisation as it exists is fine. If anything, I'd be happy to be seen as the most obnoxious radical. Radical changes need to happen in the economic system, which is dominated by multinational corporations. I don't believe that creating more greedy capitalists is going to change the world."

I'd thought that as a vocal opponent of George W Bush he might be quite pleased to appear on this website. But even the fact that he's down only as an "honourable mention" riles him. "I'm not on the list," he says, "and one of the reasons I'm not on the list is because they don't take anything that black people have to say seriously. They think black people can only talk about civil rights. Not human rights, and not about the way the world exists."

That's a serious charge, I say. Does he really think that's true? "You have your anomalies like Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell, but look what they talk about." Did he agree with Harry Belafonte's comments on Powell, likening the secretary of state to a "house slave" serving his master? "Absolutely. Without a doubt."

The young Glover was raised on such strong political meat. Born in 1947, he lived in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco, where his parents were postal workers and members of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). "They were very much involved in their union," recalls Glover. As a child, he spent summers in Georgia with his grandparents, who were poor farmers. There he experienced the segregation that still existed in the South. In restaurants, for instance, they had to dine in a different area from the whites. What was that like? "It made me feel different things at different times," he says. "I wasn't aware of it at eight years old. But I remember being in Georgia aged 15, aged 18, and I had a different feeling then - anger. And by this point I was at a very progressive, radical college and was in the black student union. I was involved in a major strike at San Francisco State College in support of an ethnic studies programme and a pair of schools that were also out on strike."

It was also at college that Glover met the woman who was to become his wife. Having spotted Asake Bomani, Glover was too shy to approach her properly. Instead, he stood outside her English class, waited for her to come out, said "Hi, how're you doin'?", and then walked on. This scenario was repeated several times, until eventually he called her up and asked her out. "Yeah, yeah," he says, bashful now, "I couldn't get too many words out. Put me in front of a microphone and you'd get more words out of me. But I was just blown away by this woman." It was Asake, with whom he has a daughter, Mandisa, who first encouraged him to pursue acting as a profession.

In the mid-Seventies, Glover joined the Black Actors' Workshop of the American Conservatory Theatre. After television appearances on series such as Lou Grant, his first film role, as an inmate in Escape from Alcatraz, came in 1979. This was followed by larger parts and acclaimed stage performances in New York, particularly in two plays by the South African writer Athol Fugard, Master Harold... and the Boys and The Blood Knot. In 1985 he appeared in three of the year's most successful films - Witness, The Color Purple and Silverado - and by the next year he was reading through the script of the first Lethal Weapon film with Gibson. Glover concedes that his appearances as Murtaugh overshadow his other, more serious, work. "Yeah, I imagine it always will," he says. "But it's been a big part of my career, probably a bigger part of my career than of Mel's, because he's done other things. It was probably the most successful buddy-action-comedy series, and that's a testimonial to the sheer generosity between two artists and the director."

A gun-toting cop on screen, and an anti-war protester off. Isn't there an incongruity there? "Look, I'd be lying to you if I said I don't think about what effect these decisions are going to have on my career. I do think about that," he says. "But I'm still going to take a position, because it's the right position. Whatever my career is, has been, will be, might be, there's always some consistency in who I am and who I try to be as a human being. That runs much deeper. The other stuff I don't really control. I may do a film and it makes a zillion dollars. But it doesn't mean anything, other than it made a zillion dollars."

Glover looks totally blank when he says these last two sentences. No, I don't think it means anything to him at all. His passion is politics, and that's what he keeps coming back to. He may have been a supporter of Dennis Kucinich, a left-leaning congressman who stood for the Democratic presidential nomination, but he has no great fondness for the winning nominee, John Kerry. "What I was trying to do with Dennis was to work through rank and file labour unions to talk about real issues. They support Kerry, but they also understand that he is part of the system as well. They know that their benefits and healthcare will be under attack whoever's in the White House. So they're organising for a much bigger pitch than just getting Kerry elected."

Glover's minders are hovering; they want him to leave to be interviewed on Richard & Judy. But he wants to continue expounding his views. "Give us 10 more minutes," he says, brushing aside their protestations. "What we should be talking about is the fact that we had a recovery that created no jobs; that real income for workers is still falling; that there has to be some kind of universal healthcare system; and that 45 million Americans are without healthcare. Those are the real issues if you deal with the people on the ground, not the select, privileged few."

Glover is roused further by contemplating the political career of one of his Hollywood contemporaries. "Here's Arnold Schwarzenegger. He says he represents immigrants, but he's not representing Haitian immigrants, or those from the former Soviet Union who work in hotels for very low wages, or Hispanic farm workers. He's just one privileged immigrant worker who hit the lotto. He fuckin' hit the lotto. He came in here, he mumbled a few words, and he brandished his muscles. So it's very different for him."

Those about whom Glover speaks admiringly include Edward Said, Noam Chomsky and Martin Luther King. When I ask him what it's like to be arrested and detained, an experience that most people would find quite frightening, he says: "It's on principle. Dr King always used to say: 'If you're going to jail for something, then you're going for what's right.' Dr King did a lot of jail time, and so did a lot of other people in the civil rights movement. I've been arrested around issues and done some time. But often the arrest is symbolic, to draw attention to the issue."

Is this ability to bring public focus on to matters the main purpose of his fame? "Well, there are certain other benefits," he says, referring to the 40-acre vineyard he owns in Sonoma County, California, bought with the multimillion-dollar rewards of his film career. "But I've always had the attitude that this fame doesn't belong specifically to me. I mean, I didn't invent the wheel. I'm probably trying to be a spoke in it within the history of human struggle. The weight I have to carry is that I have to do what I think is right."

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