02/10/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
ON A WHIM ONE DAY IN 1982, DURING his acclaimed Broadway performance in Master Harold...and the Boys, actor Danny Glover entered the Lyceum Theatre not by the stage door but through the lobby. There, he found himself witness to a mugging. Instinctively the star took off after the perpetrator. "When he saw I was gaining on him, he turned and threw the woman's wallet in my face," said Glover, 44, who sports 218 rock-solid lbs. on a 6'4" frame. "You wouldn't believe how much the incident angered me. Really, you can't allow this type of thing to happen."
It is, then, perhaps more than coincidence that when we meet Glover's character, Simon, the philosophical tow-truck driver in the current thought-provoking film Grand Canyon, he too thwarts a mugging. "There's a lot of Danny's spirit and personality in this part," notes director Lawrence Kasdan. "Both he and Simon have this sadness, because they are sensitive to what's going on in the world. They are not oblivious to the suffering around them."
For all his imposing presence—and the celebrity of his best-known character, Lethal Weapon's Roger Murtaugh—Glover just may be the most saintly guy in Hollywood. "He's always doing something for underprivileged people. I don't know anybody who allots that much time to helping others," says buddy Mel Gibson, now filming Lethal Weapon 3 with Glover. And Grand Canyon costar Kevin Kline describes a serenity "that is at [Danny's] center." Glover has supported black filmmakers like Bill Duke (A Rage in Harlem) and Charles Burnett (To Sleep with Anger) by starring in their small independent pictures. He has also barnstormed across the country for the Coors Foundation for Family Literacy and flown to St. Louis to visit a home for troubled children. "It's what I'm supposed to do," he says with a shrug.
Glover comes by his activism naturally. Both his father, James, and his mother, Carrie, who died in 1983, were NAACP members, postal workers and union organizers in the late '50s. Growing up in San Francisco, Danny, the eldest of five children, was a gawky kid and a loner who suffered from dyslexia and, later, from epilepsy, which he developed at 16 but which hasn't recurred since he was 30. Yet by his junior year at San Francisco State University in the turbulent '60s, he was delivering rousing civil rights speeches for the Black Students Union. "I was a young man confronted with issues, he recalls, "and I had to take a position."
He was also a young man in love. On campus, while working toward his degree in economics. Glover met Asake Bomani, an English major from Wilmington, Del. "I've always been infatuated with Sake," he says of his wife of 17 years. "She has a strong sense of morality, coupled with a strong sense of herself."
Asake a jazz singer, backed Glover up when he decided to quit his job as an evaluator for the San Francisco Model Cities program and join the Black Actors' Workshop of the American Conservatory Theatre in the mid-'70s. She supported him through the trying times and shared with him the triumphs that came later—Athol Fugard's plays The Blood Knot and Muster Harold, the 1987 HBO movie Mandela and films like Places in the Heart, Predator 2 and the Lethal Weapon series.
"We've been friends for so long," she says. "It's like we grew up together." Her chief complaint? "Danny tends to love people unconditionally, and I want him to have conditions. Danny is less judgmental than I."
The Glovers, who live in a three-story Victorian house in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood where Danny grew up, have created a warm atmosphere for their only child, Mandisa ("sweet" in Swahili), 16, a junior at a private high school in the city. Says Asake: "Mandisa's a loving, generous spirit like Danny. She can talk to him about stuff you normally don't tell your dad."
At work, too, Glover tries to make a difference. Recalling how the Grand Canyon cast trekked to the Canyon's rim to watch the sunrise on the morning after the wrap party, be says simply. "I felt good about the film and what we offered up. In some small way, we made the world a better place to live in. That's all I'm here for."
LOIS ARMSTRONG in San Francisco