Illustration by Spencer Olson

Misleading Men: How Danny Glover Used ‘Lethal Weapon’ For His Own Causes

Film fame allowed Glover to do the things he really cared about

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

This week saw the premiere of Lethal Weapon, a Fox series inspired by the iconic 1980s action-movie series that’s perhaps still the gold standard of buddy-cop films. Perhaps you even remember the franchise’s stars. One of them was Mel Gibson, who went on to win Oscars and became one of Hollywood’s biggest names before crashing and burning thanks to his own madness.

The other was Danny Glover.

Using the unforgiving arithmetic of studio math, it would appear that Glover never again enjoyed such stardom. But that would discount what a significant figure he’s been over the last 25 years. You can’t just look at box office to measure it.

Glover grew up in San Francisco, the son of postal workers, and early on he developed an understanding of how social consciousness worked. In 1959, when he was 12, he saw that his mom and dad, union members, were ecstatic about the Cuban revolution. “I never forgot that,” he said in 2012. “I was around that union a lot and surreptitiously, vicariously listened to what they talked about, how they would strategize about an action. All that was part of my acculturation as a child.”

He went to school at San Francisco State University, but also had an interest in acting, getting involved in message-driven plays from the likes of civil rights writer Amiri Baraka. “I felt I was making a statement. My [acting] interest began simultaneously with my political involvement.” He didn’t graduate, but he stayed busy around the campus. A member of the Black Student Union, he took part in a five-month strike that demanded the university create the College of Ethnic Studies, the first of its kind in the United States. (“We were committed to creating a larger sense of democratic possibility in which everybody’s voice, culture, and history was honored and valued equally,” he recalled in 2008.) From there, Glover worked in the city’s community development office for six years.

But acting drew him back; he landed his first film role in 1979’s Escape From Alcatraz and shared a short scene with Clint Eastwood. Three years later, he performed in Master Harold … and the Boys on Broadway. The play, by South African writer Athol Fugard, brought Glover major attention, prompting him to once declare, “The only reason I’m an actor is because of Fugard.” From there, he appeared in films like Places in the Heart, Witness and Silverado — his quiet command always his trademark.

In 1985, he earned acclaim for The Color Purple, playing Whoopi Goldberg’s abusive husband, Mister. Roger Ebert thought it was the best movie of the year, zeroing in on Glover: “He is an evil man, his evil tempered to some extent by his ignorance; perhaps he does not fully understand how cruel he is to Celie. Certainly he seems outwardly pleasant. He smiles and jokes and sings, and then hurts Celie to the quick.”

Then came the franchise that would change his life. The original script for Lethal Weapon did not specify that one of its characters was white and one was black, but director Richard Donner cast the actors he wanted: Gibson as the brilliant but darkly troubled Martin Riggs alongside Glover’s older, family-man cop Roger Murtaugh. Glover quickly ditched the play he was doing in Chicago.

And the rapport between the two actors was undeniable. Riggs was a loon, and Murtaugh was a grump, but there was this weird sense of respect between them, defining the buddy-cop genre in the truest sense — you had your good cop/bad cop, the yin-yang relationship of a perfect partnership.

Thanks to Lethal Weapon, perhaps Glover’s most lasting contribution to pop culture arrived, in the form of a much-repeated catchphrase:

It was a key to the films’ success. Gibson was the funny guy, Glover was the deadpan straight man; Murtaugh’s constant irritation a perfect counterpoint to Riggs’ what-will-we-do-next attitude. The actors made four Lethal Weapon movies over the span of 11 years, and only the last one failed to crack that year’s overall top-10 grossing movies. While they elevated Glover’s profile, he remained politically active, all along wrestling with the movies’ depiction of gleefully rogue cops.

On a 1999 panel, Glover said, “It’s almost like I become apolitical when I do [Lethal Weapon movies]. On the one hand, you want to applaud the potential of what you believe could be good law enforcement, and certainly the relationship between these two cops, one white and one black, stands out. The analysis of the department itself doesn’t become the focus, as opposed to the things it’s fighting against. We tend to look at these officers as individuals, aside from their work as part of this force of occupation. It’s almost as if they are above this in some way.”

But would there be a Lethal Weapon 5?:

But if he had reservations about playing a hero cop in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Rodney King beatings, he could point to the very strategic things he did with his newfound influence. Interested in producing movies that could bring a larger cultural experience to the cinema, he would negotiate with the studios for certain perks by cashing in on his cachet.

Sony, for instance, bankrolled a small African-American indie that Glover produced and starred in: 1990’s To Sleep With Anger. “Sony gave us $4 million to do a film that is still considered one of the greatest independent films in American cinema,” Glover told Film Comment last year, and he’s not inaccurate in his description of To Sleep With Anger’s cultural importance. When Glover wanted to finance 1993’s The Saint of Fort Washington, about a schizophrenic (Matt Dillon) and a homeless vet (played by himself), he convinced Warner Bros. to help fund it in exchange for agreeing to star in Lethal Weapon 3. “I was able to use my leverage, which is nothing new — a lot of actors do the same thing,” he explained to Film Comment. “And Warner Bros. got what they wanted, too.”

After the Lethal Weapon franchise ended, Glover would continue to star in movies, a nice macramé of diverse roles: The Royal Tenenbaums, Saw, Dreamgirls, 2012. That calm control he brought to each performance continued to make it easy to take his unfussy skill for granted. Watching him was still a pleasure, but you sensed he was focused on other things.

Indeed, he had his mind on producing, inspired by a teenage love affair with international cinema. In recent years, he’s given back to those like him who consider movies from other countries to be just as valuable as what comes out of Hollywood. His production company, Louverture Films, has had a hand in seminal works like those of African director Abderrahmane Sissako (Bamako), Argentine director Lucrecia Martel (the forthcoming Zama) and Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul—with two excellent recent features, Cemetery of Splendor and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010. If those titles don’t ring a bell, just know that they mean a tremendous amount to arthouse viewers — and that they might not have existed if Glover hadn’t put his muscle behind them.

Glover also remains politically active. He was a longtime supporter of late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. He’s been critical of President Obama’s foreign policy, saying in 2012, “Everything he has done in terms of war, I’m opposed to. How much of that is him following the line and how much his own thought processes, we don’t know. The bottom line is I think he’s a good man.” He’s been arrested on different occasions during peaceful labor protests, and he’s called for boycotts at the Oscars because of his objection to a Hugo Boss plant closing in Cleveland. He supported Bernie Sanders in the primary and has turned his support to Hillary Clinton in the general election; he is a vocal supporter of statehood for Palestine. And he’s defended his friend Gibson, insisting that the person he knows is nothing like that monster we’ve heard in audio recordings.

The roots of that advocacy aren’t hard to see. A year ago, he spoke up for federal postal workers, like his mom and dad, and got annoyed when a local TV station tried to cut him off.

Glover turned 70 this summer, and this mixture of politics and art remains within him. Last fall, he was talking about how he views his job as a producer: “My intent as an actor in portraying the story, presenting the story to an audience, is different in some sense than what my intent is as a producer, which is about trying to find different ways of shifting the visual narrative,” he said. “I’m concerned about that part of it. How can I move people to think, to use what they see, and use what they feel at that moment to go deeper into the constructs of what they feel? … I want the emotional response to translate for people — if they allow it — into a political response.”

You won’t find many movie stars who think about their work in quite that way. Frankly, one of the least interesting elements of Glover’s career may be the movies that made him the most famous.