Danny Glover: A Relevant Life

Sgt. Roger Murtaugh, sidekick to loose-cannon cop Martin Riggs in the wildly popular Lethal Weapon films, may be best known for the line, “I’m gettin’ too old for this.” Which might have been the last time Danny Glover, who plays Murtaugh, would ever utter that line.

The 64-year-old Glover’s brilliant acting career has spanned decades, garnered numerous awards and shows no signs of letting up. It is a kind of success Glover takes in stride—no pretensions, no sense of entitlement, no false modesty. To him, it’s work. It’s what he does—but with a powerful difference: It’s a way to provide value, to make a difference in the world.

“I have worked since I was 11 years old,” he says in a soft and raspy voice that warms to the memory. “I always knew I had the capacity to go out there and make a living and take care of myself. I got my first charge account in eighth grade; I used to put my clothes on layaway. One of the beautiful things was that my parents made me self-sufficient.”

Glover was born in 1946 in San Francisco, and his parents were postal workers and activists in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Glover was a child of the civil rights movement, which would later inform his charitable work and activism, but he was also a child of a large family (the oldest of five children) in which everyone was expected to do his or her part.

“We did things together as a family. We went on vacations together as a family; all seven of us would pile in a station wagon and drive across the country,” he says. “We were responsible for an equitable distribution of work around the house. My dad cooked so we all learned how to cook. We all played a role. We had to make our beds, and on Saturdays it was my responsibility to mop the kitchen. We had to wash dishes—we each took a week of washing dishes and if you wanted somebody to take your week, you had to pay them.”

 

Finding Value in What You Do

Glover’s introduction to acting came after he graduated from San Francisco State College with a degree in economics. Already married with a baby and working for San Francisco city government, he enrolled in the American Conservatory Theater’s Black Actors Workshop. There, he discovered the work of South African playwright Athol Fugard, which he says showed him the “transforming power of dialogue.” The passion to become an actor took hold, and he left his job as a bureaucrat for a life in the theater.

For Glover the family man, the decision was calculated. “I always knew I could go out and get a job or multiple jobs. I had a wife and child at the time. I tried to do whatever I could to make sure the hardship [of that early transition] was not something that infringed on their lives too much.”

After Glover moved to Los Angeles, the movie parts began rolling in, starting in 1979 with small roles in Escape From Alcatraz and Deadly Drifter. Still, he was just starting out, and he describes himself back in those days as “the guy who stands in the corner at the party and watches everyone who’s a success, and then goes home and practices so he’ll be ready for the next party.”

The party broke wide open for Glover in the mid-1980s, when he was cast in Places in the Heart, Silverado, Witness and The Color Purple. He earned the first of five Emmy nominations for his portrayal of

Nelson Mandela in the TV movie Mandela, but he is probably best known for his role as L.A. police sergeant Murtaugh in the LethalWeapon series, which launched in 1987.

“For some people,” he says, “getting in front of the camera or on the stage becomes second nature. For others, you have to work hard at it. You have to feel some level of comfort with all the distractions around you. You have to feel that what you do matters and has some value. I think that’s huge.”

 

Place of Potential Growth

Glover can’t really say what has made him the success he is. He knows his parents endowed him with a strong work ethic and the confidence to follow his heart, but he also credits a willingness to learn.

“I don’t know whether it’s a combination of tenacity and persistence and looking at failure and trying to learn from the failure and looking at the obstacles and trying to learn from where you stumbled,” he says. “Every aspect of your life, every growing point of your life, is established or connected with your feeling more comfortable with yourself—comfortable with your body and more comfortable with yourself as a human being. For each point that I became more comfortable with myself as a human being, I felt I was in a place of potential growth.”

Glover’s sense of self has guided him since he was young. It even helped him manage the epilepsy he suffered as a teenager and young adult. Glover says he developed a kind of concentration, a “self-hypnosis,” that has prevented him from having seizures—and he has not had one since he was 35.

But the biggest obstacle he says most people encounter, and eventually must overcome as he has, is finding value in what they do. “Part of the obstacles we overcome—and some of us do it later in life and some of us do it very early in life—is to feel that the work you do has value and therefore you have value. To get over your sense of fear on the one hand and to also feel that you are entitled to be successful.”

After Lethal Weapon, Glover worked continuously; his filmography goes on for pages and lists more than 90 film and television roles. He has won numerous accolades, including NAACP Image awards, film festival awards, even lifetime achievement awards. He is at an age when many film careers start winding down, but Glover doesn’t worry about his ability to remain marketable—at any age.

“I probably [worry about that] in my subconscious, but I don’t wear that every day,” Glover says. “You become so attached to certain parts of the image created by people who shape that for you indirectly and directly—the audience that applauds you and wants your autograph and has a great deal of adulation for you and what you’ve done. Sometimes that reality is distorted because you are trying to accept it with all this humility. But at the same time it creates this place where you seem to be bigger than life. So I think part of my success has been trying to retain some balance in who I am as a father, as a grandfather—some balance of who I am as a citizen, someone who is real, embracing and caring about the world and the planet around me.”

 

Connecting to Something Larger

In fact, Glover is a well-known humanitarian and activist on many fronts, including global human rights, AIDS and the TransAfrica Forum, an organization that describes itself as the “oldest and largest African-American human rights and social justice advocacy organization.” Glover’s activism has been controversial at times, but he maintains that he acts in response to his own “moral underpinning and grounding and what I think is right to do.”

“When I think about the difficult times I’m having, I can also think about the difficult times a lot of people are having,” he says. “Working people who are on the verge of losing their homes, their only major investment. People on the verge of trying to decide how much caloric intake they can take in order to pay this bill or that bill. So when I think about my success or whether or not it stops right here because I am no longer marketable, I try to think about what it is that keeps me alive. That I get up and breathe, that I smile, that I try to be open in my heart, that I try to learn, try to teach, try to be the best I can with what I know.”

Glover’s giving back is based on the example of Martin Luther King Jr. “when he talked about how being of service was the highest level of our interaction and engagement.” At the root of everything he does, Glover says, is “the sense that we can make a better world. That’s all I’m trying to do.” And he thinks that’s the best advice for being successful: hone your talents, find passion in what you do, connect to something larger than yourself.

“My advice would be to find your voice, to protect your instrument— to take care of your instrument, to nurture it. Nurturing your instrument is physical exertion, but there is something more in nurturing your craft, something else more connected to a spiritual life, a giving life, a life that finds beauty in life itself.”

When it comes to what’s next, Glover doesn’t point to this project or that one, although his latest project, Five Minutes in New York, is due out this fall; he mentions his grandson, his family, his daughter. But you know the work is not far behind. It’s what he does. It’s who he is, day by day.

“It’s the everyday things,” he says. “Some sort of consistency, some sort of tireless work ethic. And being passionate about what I do, whether that is the work I do as an artist that I get paid for or the work that I do as a citizen. Passion is the fuel that runs my engine.”

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