by Kyle A.B.

Danny Glover is one of the greats.

The 72 year-old actor has been in a movie every single year since 1979, with only four exceptions. So, if you’re an 80s kid like me, there’s a fair chance you were born around The Color Purple (1985), learned to ride a bike around Angels in the Outfield (1994), watched The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) a few too many times during high school, and heard about Be Kind Rewind (2008) at a keg party in college.

Because that’s Danny. He’s been there your whole life and you just didn’t know it. He's like your secret, cinematic uncle. To celebrate Danny's latest role as Grandpa Allen in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, I revisited his 40-year career and highlighted a few of my personal favorite performances. Consider this like a slideshow at the family reunion—but one you’ll be happy you sat through.   

The Color Purple
Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The Color Purple (1985) 

Yes, there were some roles before this one. But, no, not really. Glover’s turn as Albert Johnson in Spielberg’s The Color Purple pretty much marks the beginning of his career and lays the foundation for many of his later performances as men with country dispositions who are a blink away from wild emotions.

It’s tough watching Glover play an insecure man who is so desperate for relevancy in his own family that he imposes his presence on them through years of abuse. But Glover’s tyranny is so convincing it immediately introduced him to the world as an actor who could shoulder challenging roles. Also, there is no better schadenfreude than when Albert is reduced to size in the third act by the iconic tag team of Oprah and Whoopi.

Lethal Weapon
Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Lethal Weapon (1987) 

Before there was Die Hard with a Vengeance, Rush Hour, or Training Day, Lethal Weapon set the proverbial stage for the entire black-guy-white-guy buddy cop genre. It grossed $120 million against a $15 million budget, led to three sequels, might yet lead to a fourth some three decades later, and proved commercial viability for this sort of pairing.

But, the racial kumbaya of the duo isn’t what makes this movie special. It’s that Glover and Mel Gibson buck the traditional good-cop-bad-cop routine in favor of a relationship that is more “apoplectic partners-in-arm,” than law enforcement ying-and-yang. While you’d visually assume the wild-eyed Martin Riggs (Gibson) would have to be kept in check by the buttoned-down Roger Murtaugh (Glover), Murtaugh gleefully revels in the film’s chaos too. In the third act, Glover blows up one of the baddies and tells a co-conspirator that his dead friend is “barbecuing his nuts on Hollywood Boulevard.” Classic.

To Sleep With Anger New
TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo

To Sleep With Anger (1990) 

Of all of the movies on this list, To Sleep with Anger is the only one in the Library of Congress National Film Registry. That means something.

The film’s premise is simple enough—a California couple opens their door to find Harry (Glover), a long-lost friend from down South, looking for a place to rest. But, as the patriarch becomes bedridden, brothers threaten to stab one another, and marriages begin to falter, Glover’s seemingly coincidental cameo in the family’s affairs begins to feel like an actual curse. It’s a subtle performance, and although it doesn’t have the violence of, say, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, there’s a similar unsettling friendliness that Glover masterfully uses to create relatable, uncomfortable tension: the absolute horror of a house guest overstaying their welcome in your home.

Predator 2
Allstar Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Predator 2 (1990) 

In the Stephen Hopkins-directed film, Danny plays Lt. Michael Harrigan—a genuine action hero battling against a technologically superior alien soldier. The amazing part about this role is that Glover doesn’t pinball his way around the film as, say, Will Smith does in Independence Day. He ambles around like a guy with bad knees playing pick-up basketball against the local teens at the YMCA. It’s a brilliant bit of acting because as campy as the film might be, it’s reassuring on a personal level to watch a weekend warrior battle an actual intergalactic warrior from a clan of creatures that hunt for sport...and win.

AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Switchback (1997) 

A hitchhiker named Lane (Jared Leto) is picked up by an affable, rolling stone named Bob (Glover) in a white Cadillac full of pictures of naked women—which, you know, is a totally normal thing a well adjusted adult with a healthy relationship with reality would do. Naturally, the two men begin to bond during their bro-trip across Texas but there’s a tiny little detail Bob fails to mention to his new passenger—he’s literally being hunted by the FBI for committing a string of brutal murders.

The film was a box office flop, but Glover’s elusive serial killer performance feels cumulative, as if his preceding roles were prerequisites to it. He’s cunning, deceitful, a master manipulator, prone to violence, and weaponizes that signature raspy laugh to disarm his unsuspecting targets—all of the things we’ve seen before in isolation but come together here like a jigsaw puzzle in this perfect-for-a-sick-day psychological thriller.

Allstar Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) 

Leave it to Wes Anderson to cast down-home Danny Glover against type and place him inside the dollhouse tableau of Tenenbaums. In this film, Glover plays a mild-mannered accountant who falls in love with the estranged wife (Anjelica Huston) of Royal Tenenbaum, the film’s antihero, and in an attempt to win his wife and family back, Royal perpetuates a series of elaborate lies to put an end to Glover’s budding romance.

The fascinating thing about Glover’s performance, aside from seeing him squeezed into tiny spectacles and seersucker suits, is that he’s been stripped of the usual flicker in his eye and unparalleled ability to bully. Whereas Glover’s previous roles as the abusive head of a family, a police officer fighting on a Los Angeles battlefield, or a serial killer evading arrest allowed him to indulge in his aggressive acting chops, Glover’s turn as Henry Sherman required him to exercise more restraint. The role is so memorable in part because it would become such a touchpoint for his later films (Be Kind Rewind, Sorry to Bother You) and further proves how hard it is to see any weak points in the icon’s acting range.

Kyle A.B.
is an entertainment lawyer, film critic, and Twitter enthusiast based out of New York City.