Whatever you do, don't call Danny Glover a role model.
You can call him an actor, a husband, a father, a former cab driver. You can mention his volunteer work with literacy programs, sickle cell anemia and youngsters. If you want to be daring, you can even suggest he's a seemingly all-around good guy. But unless you want to watch him scrunch up his face and grow slightly exasperated, skip the role model stuff.
"I never talk about being a role model," said the 43-year-old, who was in Baltimore yesterday to promote his upcoming film, "To Sleep with Anger," which opens Oct. 26. "I don't think it's fair. I jTC don't even like the words. In my life, I've made choices because there was some direction I needed to go in. . . . You do the work because it comes out of what you're about."
But judging from the picture-taking and autograph-hounding that went on as he spoke at Morgan State University yesterday, his fans feel otherwise. The man who has acted in such films as "Places in the Heart," "Silverado," "The Color Purple" and the two "Lethal Weapons," is more than a run-of-the-mill role model: He's idol.
At least, that's the way Shanda Washington sees it. "That's my boy," the 18-year-old freshman cooed as the actor walked onstage. "He's really something. He stands for black pride."
Before he could even utter a word, the audience showered him with applause and a standing ovation. Professors had even excused students from classes for the speech, which ended with a question-and-answer period.
"To see your faces, to see your enthusiasm is inspiring," said the awestruck actor.
His message to the students was simple and heartfelt: "Life is obstacles. In attacking those obstacles, we grow . . . we gain confidence in ourselves. We renew ourselves."
One of the personal obstacles he faces is a mild form of dyslexia, he said, which hindered his schoolwork as a child. Because of that experience, he's become active in literary programs during the last two years.
And in the "City That Reads," that counts for a lot. So much, in fact, that Mayor Kurt Schmoke was on hand to proclaim yesterday "Danny Glover Day" in Baltimore.
Although Mr. Glover stayed at the school a half hour later than scheduled, he still lamented having to leave, finishing with this thought: "It's not enough to just be here . . . You have to make changes. Leave your mark. Please do."
As he was driven back to his hotel, however, he admitted to feeling ambivalent about the praise people lavish on him for doing what he loves best: acting.
It happens to be something critics think he does very well. A late bloomer, he didn't take up the profession until he was 30. Before that, the son of two postal employees was a student activist, instrumental in helping to create an ethnic studies program at San Francisco State College in the '60s. After graduation, he evaluated social programs for San Francisco and later drove a cab.
But it was the work of South African playwright Athol Fugard that brought him to acting in a serious way. He became so dedicated that he turned down a role on "Hill Street Blues" in 1980 to do Mr. Fugard's "Blood Knot" off-Broadway.
His cinematic breakthrough came in 1984 when he played a sharecropper opposite Sally Field in "Places in the Heart."
It was a role he understood well. "I come from a family of sharecroppers . . . who haven't gone past the fourth grade," he said. "They are incredible people."
Since then, he's charted a somewhat unconventional career path, alternating box-office blockbusters with PBS programs and HBO movies.
"If anything, in my work I want to become more fearless," he said. "You get so associated with one genre . . . people think that's all you do."
Fans can see him on the big screen next in "To Sleep With Anger," a low-budget drama in which he plays a conniving Southern charmer. (He was also co-executive producer on the film.) He'll follow that up with a starring role in "Predator II," which opens later this year.
"The fun part of doing this is the journey," he said. "You never know where you're heading or where your soul or spirit is going to take you."
But as he enters the elite group of big-name actors, he's found himself being called on more frequently to make judgments about the roles other blacks are taking. It's a situation that makes him supremely uncomfortable.
"That's not my responsibility," he said. "I'm not here to be some omnipotent being judging Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington or Spike Lee."
But when a student asked him whether Mr. Freeman should have accepted the role of a chauffeur in "Driving Miss Daisy," Mr. Glover defended the actor's portrayal. "I thought Morgan Freeman brought great dignity and beauty and humanity to the role," he said. "I thought he was wonderful."
He acknowledged that being black can limit the roles available to him. "But I'm not going to belabor that," he said. "I'm not going to sit on the toilet and cry for hours about it."