Daring and do: Danny Glover poses with "Honeydripper'" composer Mason Daring. (Photo by Jim Sheldon, courtesy Emerging Pictures)

Danny Glover, "Honeydripper," and Us

Dennis Harvey February 27, 2008

Honeydripper co-stars musicians Keb’ Mo’ and Dr. Mabel John, along with such familiar acting talents as Lisa Gay Hamilton, Mary Steenburgen, Charles S. Dutton, Stacy Keach and Sean Patrick Thomas. While the movie has received mixed notices for its script, the music, atmosphere and performances have won considerable praise. In any case, it’ll no doubt be a major pleasure to see Danny Glover dig deep into one of the kinds of characters he’s done best: The essentially good man trying desperately to gain a leg-up when fortune has consistently rained on his hopes. That rollcall would include everyone from Moze in 1982’s Places in the Heart (his breakthrough film role) to the stepping-stone manager screwed out of the 2006 big-screen Dreamgirls’ eventual glory. (He also plays a variation on this part in Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, —though I can’t say that movie does much for anyone involved.)

Few actors of his stature have worked so diversely, from Operation Dumbo Drop and the Shaggy Dog remake to narrating a documentary about James Baldwin or as Angela Bassett’s unsympathetic Cape Town slum lover in the 2000 film of Athol Fugard’s play Boesman and Lena (as well as playing a homeless Vietnam vet in Missing in America; as-yet-unreleased Iraq War drama P.N.O.K., not to mention TV-premiered features *The Exonerated, about innocent Death Row prisoners and Civil Rights Movement drama Freedom Song among many others.

Earlier, he built the career that would allow such quixotic professional maturity. The son of SF postal workers, both active in the NAACP, he worked post-college as a civil servant until his late 20s, when he signed on to the American Conservatory Theatre’s shortlived Black Actors Workshop.

His 1982 Broadway debut came in Fugard’s "Master Harrold…and the Boys," by which point he had already made several minor first impressions on the big screen, mostly in SF-shot movies. (They included a bit in Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz, a support part in the Carol Burnett Fisherman’s Wharf busker tale Chu Chu and the Philly Flashy, and co-lead in experimental narrative Out with fellow local Peter Coyote.) At the same time, he also logged guest credits on broadcast series including "Lou Grant" and "Hill Street Blues."

Glover really caught the public eye as Sally Field’s helpmate in Oscar-winning 1984 Places of the Heart. There followed major roles in memorable films like Witness, The Color Purple (both among his few villainous parts), Silverado and Grand Canyon (both for writer-director Lawrence Kasdan). He also starred as the mysterious interloper in Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger (which he helped produce); as a cantankerous but heart-of-gold baseball manager in the Disney hit Angels in the Outfield; in the Lonesome Dove miniseries and as Mandela on TV.

Those were all superb performances. But my two all-time favorites were both in tragically underseen films. 1993’s The Saint of Fort Washington starred him as a veteran Manhattan street person who tries to lend a protective shoulder to non-streetwise recent schizophrenic evictee Matt Dillon. This terribly poignant film from Tim Hunter (director of Tex, River’s Edge, and myriad TV episodes from Twin Peaks to Mad Men) never had a ghost of a chance at the box office.

Danny Glover is 61 years old, a born-and-raised San Francisco resident. He’s best known to the masses by far as the calm co-star to a much crazier (both on- and off-screen, it seems) Mel Gibson in those Lethal Weapon movies, though he (and we) would probably cite his best work as being elsewhere, in films seen much less widely.

One of them might well turn out to be Honeydripper, which opens this Friday. An all-too-rare instance these days of a (more or less) starring vehicle for him, this latest from writer-director John Sayles—a filmmaker whose track record of pro-labor projects must have made him simpatico with the longtime unionist actor—casts Glover as Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis, piano-playing proprietor of the titular blues joint in 1950 rural Alabama. Facing financial ruin, he needs a big windfall, fast. So he creates one, claiming that he’s secured a show from famed (if fictive) electric guitarist Guitar Sam. But the latter doesn’t turn up as promised, forcing Pine Top to try saving his club via a desperate gambit.

On the other hand, Oscar winner (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) Jonathan Demme’s 1998 adaptation of Toni Morrison’s lit classic Beloved had the benefit of everything—from producer-star Oprah Winfrey’s formidable promotion to an extraordinary lineup of talents both before and behind the camera. Its commercial failure was no doubt a hard pill for all concerned to swallow. But its artistic dismissal by many was simply, exasperatingly wrong.

Glover is often seen at political and activist events. This past January Glover got arrested and fined for “trespassing” in 2006 in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where he participated in a union rally against the Sheraton Hotel. Charitable and other organizations he’s been active with have included the TransAfrica Forum and United Nations Development Program. He’s been vigorous in support of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose government has agreed to at least 18 million in funding for two films Glover would make. Both are historical subjects: One about Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar (based on a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book), another about French general Toussaint Louverture, slave-revolter leader and founder of Haiti. Glover would direct the latter and presumably produce the first.

Those certainly sound like worthy projects. Does that mean I won’t get to see Glover to something closer to home as well as worthy of his talents—like, say, return to his alma mater American Conservatory Theatre to play King Lear, Death of a Salesman, or some other imposingly classic stage role? I have to ask.