Danny Glover Turns 75: A Quiet, Fiery Legacy

“Danny Glover’s decades-long advocacy for justice and human rights reflects his dedication to recognizing our shared humanity on and off the screen.” – David Rubin, President of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, announcing the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, to be presented to Glover. Danny Glover turns 75 on 22 July 2021.

Can you hear Murtaugh? Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) barking at Sergeant Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson): “I was driving before you were an itch in your daddy’s pants!” Of course you can. Glover played Murtaugh in four movies in just over ten years. What made Lethal Weapon (1987) and the franchise it spawned special? Not the standoffs or the stunts. Not the guns or the gags. 

“The real reason for the franchise’s near billion-dollar success is chemistry,” writes Empire’s Nick De Semlyen in a special interview that sees him reunite the stars and director of Lethal Weapon. “A screen friendship that turned into a real one, Gibson and Glover made two potentially silly characters …not only lovable but iconic.” 

A Black man with short hair and a mustache. He wears a grey suit and red tie.
Lethal Weapon (1989). Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

During that interview, the film’s late, great director Richard Donner laughs with Glover and Gibson. “I loved it in Maverick (1994) when Danny turns up in a scene (bank robber sporting a bandana) and he and Mel look at each other and do a double-take,” he says, “I mean, where else can you get away with that?” Bang in the middle of a Western, Glover gets to repeat his Lethal Weapon line: “I’m too old for this shit!”

In 2021, Danny Glover turns 75 after over a hundred movie roles, shaping a Hollywood legacy all his own. In 2022, the Academy will honour that legacy — both on and off screen.

Danny Glover, a Black man in his 70s, poses in front of a red curtain. His hands are folded together.
Image courtesy of the University of Alabama

During an interview with Samira Ahmed, while discussing his searing portrayal as the mean Mister in The Color Purple (1985), Glover clarifies: “The act of acting is the act of being. My intent was not to demonstrate who Mister was, but to be Mister.”

Ahmed recalls: “You’re trying to seduce Celie’s sister and you’re riding on horseback. You’re smiling at her through the trees. You lift your hat. The rose petals fall out of it and you suddenly turn into something far more aggressive. But the camera is on your face. And you have this amazing smile…it’s charming and yet has that threat in it. Are you conscious that that’s a skill you have or is that something you just…do?”

Glover thinks for a second, then explains his preparation for Switchback (1997), for which he read the FBI’s entire library shelf on serial killers. All sociopaths, all charmers. “I’d play in my trailer John Coltrane’s Equinox over and over,” he says. “And I decided, this is how I want to move. So sometimes you physicalize something. You’re training the body, using the body as the vehicle to internalize what you want to do.”

His Lethal Weapon histrionics aside, Glover’s style remains overwhelmingly quiet but fiery. When he steps into a scene, even in a supporting role, he commands attention without saying a word. He oozes gravitas in the way he carries himself, adding a touch of silliness or sobriety as demanded by the script. His years on stage helped him hone his skill in character arcs across theatre acts that would later make him so convincing in movie shots. 

Glover looks good in or out of a suit. He smiles easily. He seems instantly empathetic, likeable. So, he may have had to work harder to appear duplicitous. More like character actors Martin Sheen, Michael Caine, Robert Prosky, James Caan, Danny DeVito. Like Glover, you usually start off liking them. Less like J.T. Walsh, John Heard, Christopher Plummer, Gene Hackman, Brian Dennehy, Jack Nicholson; you usually start off seeing them as distant or dubious or both. Unlike Glover, they may have had to try harder to seem nice— and not nearly as hard to seem nasty. 

A smiling Black man wearing a black top hat and suit.
The Color Purple (1985). Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

You want to see some vintage Danny Glover? Then hunt down a riveting family drama filmed across two and a half rooms. Not Hollywood but a long-forgotten TV movie, A Raisin in the Sun (1989), that ran three decades after Sidney Poitier’s 1959 rendition of the turbulent central character, Walter. As Walter splutters, seethes, and storms across those rooms trying to outgrow his hallway, his home, and his heritage, Glover sparkles. 

Flight of the Intruder (1991) sees Glover as US Navy Commander Camparelli, censuring an officer. Over the course of that 90-second scene, Glover snaps, whispers, growls — but hardly stirs from his chair. What do you hear? What do you see? His startlingly sharp voice modulation, sweating authority. His unwavering glower, breathing menace.

Glover’s first on-screen role was a minor part, in prison, in Escape from Alcatraz (1979). But his career has been a lesson to younger actors in not staying a prisoner to their screen image. Sure, he’s worn more than a few law enforcement suits, as cop or bureau heavy. But he’s also played husband, father, uncle, grandfather, judge, cowboy, priest, colonel, serial killer, Vietnam war vet, baseball team manager, Alabama blues club owner, plantation slave and President of the United States. He’s even played a horrifyingly unwelcome family visitor in To Sleep With Anger (1990). “Glover is an actor of considerable presence,” Roger Ebert says in his review of the film, “and here he lets us know his character is from hell, and hardly has to raise his voice.” 

A Black man in close-up, who has an unsettling expression on his face. He wears suspenders and a white striped shirt.
To Sleep With Anger (1990). Image courtesy of SVS Films

But the screen could never constrain Glover. He wouldn’t let it. Once in conversation with Lilyan Chauvin, Glover said, “An artist is one who has empathy for humanity.” It’s what he brought to bear — first in his acting, later in his activism. Had he not diverted himself every few months, flying to far-off places to campaign for causes that mattered to vulnerable and marginalised groups, he might have secured even meatier roles. And a nice little shelf of Oscars and Golden Globes — especially if he’d oiled the right floors in Hollywood.  

 Among Black actors, Danny Glover’s screen legacy is still unsung. If you look back at typical action thrillers in the early-to-mid-1980s when Glover was starting out, the much younger Eddie Murphy was one of the only Black actors seen in leading roles. At this time, Glover was about the only other one with his face plastered across half the film poster. He straddled the star quality of a Sidney Poitier or a Harry Belafonte on one hand, and on the other, the character acting chops of the likes of James Earl Jones, John Amos, Yaphet Kotto, Brock Peters, Woody Strode, Jim Brown. 

Glover’s imposing size and physicality saw him hold his own alongside some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. His centre-stage work in the early and mid-1980s laid the groundwork for studios to offer supporting or lead roles to the likes of Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, Delroy Lindo, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Forest Whitaker, Will Smith, and Denzel Washington in the late 1980s, ‘90s and beyond. Given his rootedness in Black history, Glover may warm to the idea of a legacy among Black actors. Equally, he may be averse to reveling in it. 

Danny Glover, a Black man in his 70s, smiles for the camera. He wears a navy plaid jacket, collared shirt, and tan baseball cap with a kangaroo.
Image courtesy of Getty Images

Years ago, the man who’d won an Emmy for his outstanding work in Mandela (1987) was asked by an audience whether he felt that opportunities for African-Americans to make programmes had improved. Glover paused. “Dr. King always said: ‘I’m not simply trying to integrate Black people into the current system. I’m about changing the soul of this country. That’s my mission.’” 

For some four decades, Glover has done just that. He became so one with each character that what remained on-screen and in our minds was the character alone, twisted or tender, callous or compassionate. For one so used to being conscious of difference, Glover dreams of a oneness in Hollywood. A time when we won’t need to talk of Black or white acting legacy, but only of acting legacy. A time when we no longer feel race or see colour as something that needs to be integrated into art, but see only the art.

Until then, Glover will be asking himself and us the same question he posed years ago: “Does the positioning of Black people within the system change the soul of the country?” For all that Danny Glover has given us, on and off screen, we owe him an answer.

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture.

Twitter: @RudolphFernandz