Strange but true

Special to The Times

Crispin Glover drives a vintage Bentley he bought on EBay and a Checker cab. He lives in a Silver Lake house with a spectacular view of the L.A. basin and a decor that appears to have been the result of a collaboration between Edward Gorey and Norma Desmond. He likes to wear sports jackets, ties, vests, starched shirts and lace-up Oxford boots. His thick mane of hair is graying at the roots.

His Christmas tree is still up.

"It's a good thing," he explains of the still-decorated, still-lighted fire hazard adorning his living room, knitting his brow as if to confirm to himself what he's about to add. "It means I've been busy. I've had a busy year."

He always has been, although it hasn't always been obvious. His Hollywood trajectory includes TV stints on "Hill Street Blues" and "Family Ties" as well as the classic '80s horny teen movie "My Tutor." His role as Michael J. Fox's father in "Back to the Future" seemed to cement his commercial potential. And two years later, in 1987, his turn as a wired murder witness in "River's Edge" won him critical acclaim.

The acclaim did not lead to conventional stardom. One reason may be that Glover's career, like Glover, follows a discrete trajectory. "He's happily found a place where he can work in the industry and continue to thrive as an artistic person without having to compromise too much," says director Neil LaBute, who used Glover in "Nurse Betty."

"He's not in it for anyone to like him. He's in it to act," says "Charlie's Angels" producer Nancy Savonen. Speaking of his "Angels" role Thin Man, she says, "He actually wrote a Thin Man 'sidequel,' which was a side story for his character." She says making the Thin Man a silent role was Glover's idea. "He really goes all the way, and that can be really fun and sometimes it's really hectic, and you wanna scream, 'It's just a movie!' "

LaBute concurs. "He's one of a kind, that's the beauty of him. I think every actor hopefully comes to realize their secret weapon is themselves, but it's cubed in Crispin. Everybody's got an inner weirdo; he lets it run free instead of taking it to the dog park."

Milos Forman, who worked with Glover in "The People vs. Larry Flynt," offers an example of Glover's inner weirdo at work. "He came with the idea that to distinguish his character, he would have one eyelid dropping down, and I said no because I could imagine the glue and it would be a mess and would it look the same day after day, and he finally tortured the makeup man into doing it and he was right. It gave a distinguishing detail to his face and it was unforgettable."

No matter how small the role, Glover is no pushover, it seems. And no matter how nuts he may drive filmmakers, they often end up seeing it his way.

Moviegoers will see the results of some of this business Friday, when "Willard," a remake of the 1971 kitsch-horror classic, opens with Glover in the lead. This summer, Glover reprises his villainous Thin Man in "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle."

Settling posture-perfect into a painted rocker in his living room, he explains he is directing the "Willard" music video, for which he will sing "Ben," the title song from the sequel to the original film, which was a '70s hit for kitsch-horror classic Michael Jackson.

Glover has released one album (in 1989) and several books -- titles like "Oak Mot," "Rat Catching" (a coincidence, he insists) and "What It Is, and How It Is Done" -- through his own Volcanic Eruptions Press. He once got kicked off the David Letterman show for appearing to nearly kick Letterman in the head with a platform boot. He has sued Steven Spielberg's company, Amblin Entertainment, and Universal Pictures.

Is he crazy?

He's still working. The suit -- over the use of an actor made up to look like him in the sequels to "Back to the Future" -- was settled to the satisfaction of all parties and resulted in the Screen Actors Guild adopting strict rules for the simulation of actors' participation in films they don't make. He's been back on Letterman several times.

"I think he kind of plays in Hollywood," says "Willard" director Glen Morgan. "He's like that cousin that floats outside the family, but you let him in at Christmas; he seems to fulfill that need in Hollywood."

First-time director Morgan, whose previous work includes screenplay and producing duties for "Final Destination," was won over by the work. "He has what I think is an unfair reputation." After he finished filming, "I realized what a sacrifice he made for the movie, staying out of the sun, eating a certain way, staying melancholy. I really like the guy."

Another troubled character

"I had a lot of emotional stuff to do" on "Willard," Glover says. An understatement. For much of the story, Willard is a man -- a boy, really -- surrounded by emotional vampires, trying to retain some shred of dignity and self in the face of unresolved loss and humiliation. When he finally does snap, it's as much a relief for the audience (and heaven for rat fans) as it is for Willard.

"Every week I had one scene where I had to be in this extreme sadness in particular. I'm not a lachrymose person, it's not my nature. I knew if I became jovial and easy and yakked on the phone to my friends, I wouldn't be able to do it."

Some of his better roles seem to be somewhat troubled, put-upon people. As for his apparent affinity for those parts, he says, "I'm sure I'm drawn to that. I like angst, I suppose," he chuckles. "It's always appealing, dramatically. It seems that those are good things to play."

Now about those rats.

""I notice that a lot of people don't like rats," he says conspiratorially, indicating that he is not one of them. "They never bothered me. I had a rat infestation once and they are terrible pests, but these were trained, domesticated, very nice, intelligent creatures. I was really impressed with how well these rats were trained.... The dog was actually harder to work with than the rats," most of which were real.

For "Charlie's Angels," Glover studied martial arts. "I had taken some tae kwon do, for the first film, and then kung fu and then I took some woo shoo, which is a form of kung fu. 'Charlie's Angels' was fun." Plus he is not unaware of the benefits of being in big, mainstream movies. "It made a lot of money, it's been good for me. I'm sure it helped me to be in 'Willard' too."

When he's not helping grease the wheels of entertainment commerce, Glover is working on film projects of his own direction. One of these is cast mostly with actors with Down syndrome. In another, the lead actor-screenwriter was someone with cerebral palsy. "I'm producing these on my own with my own finances," he explains. "There isn't really a countercultural film movement right now. And with the climate of the nation and the world, I just know there's not going to be one for a long time. And so, I realize I have to work in the pro-cultural film business and fund my countercultural films with it."

He likes such filmmakers as Werner Herzog (with whom he is friendly), Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Luis Bunuel, Stanley Kubrick: "They use film to bring you into a realm other than what you're used to. I prefer films that let me think about things rather than telling me what to think."

Growing up in L.A., he was designated a gifted child and was fortunate enough to attend a school for gifted children, the Mirman School. That might just be part of the key to Being Christian Glover.

"It was very secluded from what the rest of the culture was like," he says of the first 10 years of his education. "If you were good at something, it was well regarded by the other students .... Thinking was regarded at public school very differently. I think it's more of a 'You don't wanna do that, think. You wanna get by.' I was really glad I had that experience between adult life and child life. It still amazes me that that is not how society works."

But he's learning. "I recently read 'How to Win Friends and Influence People,' by Dale Carnegie, and you know, logic and debate and intelligence is a very admirable thing, but the thing about debate is the idea is to persuade people, get the audience on your side. It's good in academics maybe, but it isn't good in real life." He laughs. "If you prove somebody wrong in a debate, it's admirable. If you do it in real life, they hate you."

Did we mention how firm and friendly his handshake was when he introduced himself?

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