My cat can eat a whole watermelon!”
It's lines such as these, delivered while floating on an inner tube and wearing ridiculously high-heeled clogs, that have helped make veteran actor Crispin Hellion Glover one of Hollywood's most beloved cult figures. He is probably best known for playing the original George McFly in “Back To The Future,” or for supporting roles in box office hits “Charlie's Angels,” “Hot Tub Time Machine” and “Alice in Wonderland.” But Glover uses the money from these studio jobs to finance his own surreal counterculture films that tackle taboo subjects, asking the audience to question cultural norms.
He has finished two films of a planned trilogy featuring handicapped actors: “What Is It?” (2005) and “It is Fine! Everything Is Fine” (2007) the latter of which will be shown by Glover at the Byrd Theatre alongside his one-hour narrative slideshow featuring original collages of 19th century works. The autobiographical “It is Fine!” stars its screenwriter, Steven C. Stewart, who was born with severe cerebral palsy. Stewart died in 2001 right after filming ended.
“This is the best thing I've been involved with my whole career,” says Glover, 46, over an echo-plagued phone from his home in Los Angeles. “There's true pathos in the script … and I love that there are certain mysteries I will never know.”
Stewart wrote the film in the style of a 1970s murder mystery with himself as the bad guy, and co-director and producer Glover has described it as a “psycho-sexual, fantastical retelling of [Stewart's] point-of-view of life.” Wheelchair-bound and hard to decipher, Stewart is instantly understood by the women he is attempting to seduce — before he kills them.
Glover is a vocal critic of corporate Hollywood and its increasing levels of self-censorship; his first film featured nearly an entire cast with Down syndrome. But film reviewers have not attacked him for exploitation or shock tactics, instead praising his surreal imagery and, as one critic noted, the refreshing use of actors with real disabilities in these roles.
Raised in Hollywood by actor parents, Glover began performing at 13 and is exceedingly polite and talkative about his career. He'll tell you at length, for instance, about how his model of slowly touring and distributing his own films is a better method to recoup his investment of roughly a quarter million. “I have more wherewithal than if I went through corporations that end up spending money on their overhead,” he says. “What I'm sacrificing is visibility in the short run. In the long run, once I recoup money, I'll know it's time to let another entity put it out.”
Glover's most lasting legacy in show business, however, may be a lawsuit he brought against the producers of “Back To The Future Part II,” who could not reach a contractual agreement with him and instead used an actor in prosthetic makeup. The suit led to new clauses in the Screen Actors Guild to prevent such abuses.
“[Writer and producer] Bob Gale has been telling people I asked for the same amount of money Michael J. Fox asked for, which is totally false,” Glover says. “The last negotiation, I was asking to make the same amount as Tom Wilson or Lea Thompson. They were offering me less than half the money and that wasn't fair. They didn't like me for various reasons — this was after ‘River's Edge' and Letterman.”
Glover was booted off David Letterman's show in a now infamous 1987 appearance for nearly kicking the host in the face (he was in character as Rubin Farr, which few knew at the time). Glover and Letterman later made up, but the actor's reputation as an eccentric was sealed and a YouTube video of that segment now has over 2.8 million views. “What I say in press is that I neither deny nor confirm whether I was ever on Letterman,” he says. “I like to leave it mysterious. To this day, people still think that is a genuine crazy person.”
“I love that there are certain mysteries I will never know.” Anna Stave and Steven C. Stewart co-star in Glover's independent feature, “It is Fine! Everything is Fine.”His fans actually prefer when he plays genuine crazies. Greatest hits include an Olivia Newton John impersonator in “The Orkly Kid;” the spunout Lane in “River's Edge;” an anti-social Republican obsessed with his dead cat in “Rubin and Ed;” and who could forget Cousin Dell in David Lynch's “Wild at Heart” — a Christmas-obsessed kook who chopped sandwiches all night and placed cockroaches on his anus. These are the kind of roles that allow the expressive Glover to unleash his manic intensity, which can be both hilarious and unsettling.
“I'm probably good at portraying obsession of any kind. My nature in general is if I'm interested in something, I can think about that subject matter a lot,” Glover says, adding that he often changes the intentions of characters but not their lines. “The character of Lane in ‘River's Edge' was written on the page to be a stand-up guy looking out for his friends. I made it so the character was more interested that the outside world believed he was interested in sticking up for his friends.”
In order to stay mentally healthy, Glover says he keeps a sharp differentiation between himself and his business persona. “People become characters within the media and that is outside your control,” he says. “The media is serving the purpose of the corporation maintaining that media. Depending on what your character is, the media will utilize that character to serve itself.” Always being labeled the crazy guy has been good in a sense that it's been a disguise allowing him to operate more freely, he says.
For the foreseeable future, Glover plans to keep touring his films on his own, which is the only way you can see them. He recently ran into one of his favorite directors at an airport, legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog, an old friend and major influence.
“He said very seriously, ‘Whatever you can do to produce your own films is something you should do.' He hasn't been producing his own films lately,” Glover says. “But he understands there is no such thing as truly independent film — and I know what he means. You always work with someone.” S
The James River Film Society presents An Evening with Crispin Hellion Glover at the Byrd Theatre on Friday, Dec. 3, at 9:30 p.m. The event also features a question-and-answer session and book signing. Tickets are $20 and are available at Chop Suey Books, Video Fan and the Byrd box office the day of the show after 9 p.m. For information, visit crispinglover.com and jamesriverfilm.com.