Seven years ago, if you wanted a glimpse of the actor who is carrying nearly every rich dramatic lead Hollywood has to offer a black man these days, your best bet might have been hailing a taxi.
"Thank God for Yellow Cab," Danny Glover says.
He was 31 years old, married, trying to manage monthly house payments and newly unemployed. He had spent more than half the decade evaluating social programs for the city and county of San Francisco and then quit. "When I found out I could drive a cab and make $100 a day, I was in seventh heaven," Glover says. "I could do what I wanted to do."
What he wanted to do, anywhere an audience would allow him to do it, was act. "I'd get up at 4 in the morning, let the cab go at 10 or 11 -- would have made my gate and maybe made about $50, which was enough at the time to get me down to L.A. for an audition I'd have to be in at 3," he says. "Get a flight out at noon, be down in Los Angeles at 1:30, catch a bus to my interview -- and I've done what I wanted to do."
Danny Glover: black hero and villain, 1985. He was Moses, the country man whose shambling white-South survival act cloaks the precise knowledge of planting that saves Sally Field's cotton farm in "Places in the Heart." He was McFee, the murderous police lieutenant who hunts down the Harrison Ford detective and a small Amish boy in "Witness." In "Silverado" he was Malachai, the cowboy who joins three white companions to rout the town bad guys. And in the much-publicized "The Color Purple," opening Friday, Glover plays the meatiest male part in the picture -- "as expansive as any role any black actor's had in a long while," he says.
With his voice gone deeply southern and his hair shaved back to affect advancing baldness, Glover plays Albert, the abusive and suffering husband who is held in such distant distaste throughout much of Alice Walker's 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Never graced with the warmth of a last name, Albert is referred to in the book as "Mr. ----"; only after the long drama of love and redemption does Celie, the maturing woman whose correspondence with her sister makes up much of the novel, learn Albert has both a name and a spirit that is not so relentlessly mean after all.
"The role was challenging, more than anything else," Glover says, and smiles. "Who wants to look good in all their films? Who wants to play Malachai in all their films or Mose? If we as actors and artists use parts of ourselves, then what part of myself is congruent, somewhat, with Mister?"
He is thoughtful now, leaning forward, consumed with interest at the complexity of the part. "Something about him and his own pain -- and the book gives you a good idea what that is when he says, 'Shug is the one I should have married. I married who my daddy want me to marry. I love Shug. I always will.' He's capable of love. It's as simple as that. Like so many times we fail to respond, or we fail to express that fully, because of whatever pressure from peer groups, or pressures from parents, or the fact that we really don't know how to respond."
He is a big man, tall and made bigger looking by the broad-shouldered leather jacket and black cap. He has large brown eyes and a faint growth of beard, and as he stretches an arm across the balcony of the dockside restaurant he is immediately odd among the worsted lunch crowd -- an unorthodox college lecturer, maybe, or a writer of social polemic. His car is a small gold Toyota; he came careening toward the entrance in it, a little late and hunting for a parking place. Now, with the menu before him, the only attention he attracts is from the waiter, who assures him that the orange juice is indeed squeezed fresh.
Glover is lunching in his home town, which he has refused to abandon for the kinds of places movie stars are supposed to live in. His public life here is low-key in the extreme: He lives with his wife and daughter in an unevenly gentrifying neighborhood, where Glover is supervising, and occasionally taking over on his own, the renovation of their Victorian house. He is friendly, affable, embarrassed about the trappings of celebrity. He apologizes -- "You understand that, don't you?" -- for guarding his home telephone number. Even the notion that his name now appears in the same sentence as star seems to make him uneasy; he says he dislikes using the word. "And not because -- I just kind of want -- this is working out all right, you know?"
Glover grins. "This is all right. I don't want to add anything. Am I supposed to feel any different because all this happened? I don't know. Harrison Ford still builds furniture -- he's still a carpenter. That's one thing I like to do. I still like hanging Sheetrock and working, sanding. I'm an expert at refinishing hardwood floors."
And if there is a particular caution about embracing celebrity even after four high-visibility pictures in a row, some of it surely has to do with being black in the American motion picture industry. "Scott Glenn doesn't have to worry about his next job," Glover says evenly, remembering the shooting of "Silverado." "It's going to be there. Kevin Kline doesn't have to worry about his next job. Kevin Costner -- bless him, he's wonderful -- Kevin Costner is not going to have to worry about his next job. But a lot of those black actors that I work with -- yours truly, maybe -- have to worry about what's next."
When protestations are made about the magnitude of Glover's stature these days, he laughs merrily, as though he cannot decide whether the idea is wonderful or ridiculous. "People may look at me and say, 'Okay, his star is rising, he's coming into his own,' " he says. "But I'm just one, you know? I mean, there's Eddie Murphy . . . I found some things that may be gratifying artistically and also have come about being successful in terms of my -- financially. I mean, relatively."
Glover laughs again. "I put that with a big underline. RELATIVELY. But I mean" -- he sighs -- "there's just no work. We're always under the same apprehensions that I think black people in general are under in society . . . There's scripts. There's always scripts. But nobody wants to make them."
The fear is born, of course, of what producers imagine white audiences will and will not pay to see, and "The Color Purple," with substantial black involvement at both cast and production levels, despite the controversial choice of Steven Spielberg for director, seems to Glover to be extraordinary in its possibilities. "People feel it's going to be a crossover film," he says. "With Steven's name and the story -- there's a universality to the story itself; it's not a just a black story -- we may jump that bridge. We may cross over that river that we seemed to want to cross with 'Roots' and seemed to want to cross at certain other points but never did."
And Glover says he has no reservations about the wisdom of selecting a big-name white director for a picture so utterly immersed in black southern life. "I may have to eat my words, because I don't know what people will think about the film, but I thought Steven Spielberg was a wonderful choice to do this film," he says. "He knows how to make a film, and that's obvious. Plus there's some other things we all discovered about Steven. He really trusted us. He really went with us. We'd be going someplace and he'd have his own idea. He'd say, 'Show me where you're going. Let's see where you're going.' I think it's going to be interesting."
There is no youthful name-in-lights fantasy in Glover's past; he wanted, in fact, to be an economist. He grew up in San Francisco, the child of two post office employes, and, by the time he reached San Francisco State College in the late 1960s and joined the turbulent effort to install a black-studies program there, he had begun to think he might be able to work in the Third World. "I'm steeped in optimism and idealism, you know, at 20, 21 years old," he says. "I had no intention of being an actor . . . I'd sung in the choir at church, but certainly I was part of the crowd, the chorus."
The adventure of improvisational community theater attracted him, though -- "all agitprop theater, real basic stuff," he says -- and he began working with a director who specialized in improvisation. "Which is a way of dealing with spontaneity, of bringing spontaneity to characters and roles," Glover says. "It always stressed discipline and concentration. We took aikido, Japanese martial-arts lessons, three times a week . . . balance, focus, concentration, discipline . . . and after you read a hundred acting books, acting skill still comes down to that."
Was he good? "No," Glover says, and then corrects himself. "You don't have a sense of that. You just don't. Even now, I don't have a sense . . . Because the irony is, if you reach this person" -- he means the actor's character -- "and say, 'Oh, I've reached this person,' then you become self-indulgent. You want to feel that it's spontaneous, and that it's unconscious. You want to say, 'This is the first and only take I've ever done of this.' Or each time you do a performance of a play -- 'This is the first time I've ever said these lines.' "
Glover's voice is passionate. "Because in essence if you're not reaching for that at all, it's as dead the 10th performance as it's going to be on the 300th. It's not the life you want to bring. Because it can be so alive on the 300th -- even though you're tired, even though you know the words, you may catch something in somebody's eyes, the other person's eyes, or you may catch something in your own body language -- something that transforms you, that takes it ever further."
He says he was intrigued by the theater but not yet consumed. For four years, after San Francisco hired him as a evaluator of social programs, he devoted himself to his civil service work and took no acting jobs at all. It was not until he happened to see a local theater's call for actors with improvisational experience that Glover began seeking roles again, and by the end of 1977 he had quit his job and was auditioning and acting full time.
The plays that attracted him were serious, powerful, often politically inspired. He was particularly drawn to the South African playwright Athol Fugard; six years ago, while Glover was performing in an Off-Broadway production of Fugard's "Blood Knot," he turned down the part eventually taken by Taurean Blacque in "Hill Street Blues." (He is philosophical about this now: "A blessing," he says, although he allows himself a certain wistfulness about the money.) When Fugard's "Master Harold . . . and the boys" took Glover to Broadway, film director Robert Benton watched the production and asked Glover to read for his movie about a newly widowed country woman trying to keep her land in Texas.
Glover read the "Places in the Heart" script to himself first, and studied the carefully deferential Moses character and thought about his own grandfather, who had lived all his life in the Georgia countryside. "I remember sitting on the floor, my agent's office in L.A. -- it was carpeted, no furnishing in the room -- and crying," Glover says. "It reminded me of a lot of stuff -- and part of it's my imagination -- about going to the South, and being in church and praise God from whom all blessings flow . . . so finding those qualities and allowing those qualities to be part of a Moses' subtextual being, if he's not able to express those things overtly -- allowing those things to happen was wonderful, because I'd had it in my life. I saw it when I'd go to the farm, my grandparents' farm, and pick cotton in the summers. I'd see that kind of -- just steadfastness, and strength and belief in his God."
Glover's next roles are uncertain; he says he has turned down some scripts that looked "shaky" but that he is certainly in no great rush to seize new work. "I wouldn't mind doing a comedy -- that may be possible," he says. "There are a couple pieces that I think need to be done -- some about the Haitian revolution, which I think is important . . . Certainly something about Steven Biko, which I think is important to do."
And the particular uneasiness of the black actor is something that simply lives with him, he says. "There's a great deal of frustration among black people generally in this country," he says. "Why should I be any different? The frustration that black actors speak of is the same frustration that black city employes speak of when they hear that affirmative action is endangered . . . I can tell you what the industry is, what it's like. I'm not going to deny any of the things that it is.
"I just think all the possibilities of that change are present and available. It's the same optimism, the optimism that my grandmother had. What keeps us alive and keeps us going is -- definitely -- dwell on the inequities, but have some sense of optimism that we can change it."