Men of goodwill dread the moment when an autocrat morphs into a tyrant, when a power-hungry dictator descends into outright madness.

With Robespierre, it was the decision to have himself declared a demigod. With Hitler, it was the homicidal response to the Reichstag fire. With Idi Amin, it was the directive to expel Asians--the linchpins of the economy--from Uganda. Now, in a fearful development suggesting that Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez is rapidly transmogrifying from a generic South American thug into a fiend straight from the bowels of Hell, the Venezuelan government has announced plans to bankroll Danny Glover's fledgling career as a producer.

Experts agree that even the most violent dictators can usually be pacified by bribes or diplomacy, and only become dangerous when they start to behave in an unpredictable fashion. This is the difference between a crook like Vladimir Putin and a lunatic like Kim Jong Il.

For the longest time, it appeared that Chávez would remain a respectable neo-Peronist goon, more a nuisance than a threat. Like Castro and Noriega, he would adhere to the tried-and-true banana republic script: shutting down television stations, suppressing student protests, making enemies disappear, using the nation's treasury to buy the proletariat's support, redistributing farmland to urbanites with no expertise in the horticultural arts. But now, by agreeing to provide the has-been Danny Glover with $20 million to bankroll a film about Simon Bolivar, and a second film about Haitian legend Toussaint L'Ouverture, Chávez has begun to manifest a bizarre, Maoist streak that is genuinely terrifying.

Glover was recently seen in the formulaic Dreamgirls, getting fourth billing in a film that only had four stars. In it, he played a talent agent who gets outmaneuvered by a sharper talent agent. This pretty well describes the arc of his career. While appearing in several passable films early in his career (The Color Purple, Witness, Grand Canyon), Glover is best known, if not actually respected, for his work as Mel Gibson's sidekick in the Lethal Weapon series. Rarely asked to carry the ball, he has often appeared in slop like Silverado, Good Fences, The Saint of Fort Washington. Lowlights include the first Saw movie, an evil, moronic slimefest in which manacled captives must sever their own limbs in order to escape death. There have been three sequels to Saw, the most recent of which is currently in theaters. Thanks, Danny.

The hapless Glover also appeared in the 1997 Everglades caper Gone Fishin'. Arguably the least comic comedy ever made, Gone Fishin' stars Glover and Joe Pesci as barely animate, middle-aged knuckleheads who go on a fishing expedition and get into a whole heap o' trouble. I personally was so devastated by the sight of an elderly man trudging out of the theater dejectedly after watching the film that I not only refunded him the nine-dollar ticket price, but created an alter ego known as the Bad Movie Angel, who would patrol the streets of Gotham issuing refunds to anyone unlucky enough to have paid to see a film starring Demi Moore, Ashley Judd, Shaquille O'Neal, Glover, or Pesci.

Let me underscore that I had seen thousands of dejected old men trudge out of crummy movies before I spied that defeated, teary-eyed, broken-down old gent dragging himself from Gone Fishin', and had never once been tempted to give any of them a refund. But that poor fellow was the saddest human being I had ever laid eyes on. Still is.

Glover's chumminess with South America's most depraved dictator is neither surprising nor disturbing: He is a toad, and toads get toady. Glover is neither the first nor the last has-been to get all palsy-walsy with a well-heeled scumbag, though this may be the first time on record that anyone from -Hollywood has toadied up to a Venezuelan scumbag.

What is of particular concern is Chávez's gratuitously cruel resuscitation of Glover's career. The charitable view is that Chávez is only bankrolling Glover because it is an ingenious way to insult Americans. Glover's recent films are widely available in South America, so it is almost impossible to believe that Chávez expects his productions to make any money. And since Glover once appeared in Operation Dumbo Drop, Chávez has to be aware that the artistic merits of his Heroes of Latin American Democracy series are unlikely to be high.

Chávez's decision to pony up the cash for such a forlorn enterprise can mean only one of two things: He has finally gone completely off his rocker, or he is deliberately trying to screw with the American people.

I, for one, hope that his actions are an indication of dementia rather than a crass attempt to insult Americans. If Chávez, who has always had a few screws loose, is funding Glover because he's gone around the bend, then he will quickly be on to his next madcap adventure, and this will be the last we hear of his incipient career as a Caracasian Cecil B. DeMille. If, on the other hand, Chávez is funding Glover because he is trying to make life miserable for the American people, the prospects are far more troubling.

A man who is willing to give a Danny Glover $20 million on Monday might be willing to give Steven Seagal $40 million on Tuesday. A man willing to bankroll the star of The Cookout today is a man who might be ready to bankroll The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag II tomorrow.

Armed with the immense revenues gushing from Venezuela's oil fields, Chávez finds himself in a position to breathe life into corpses as varied as Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Skeet Ulrich, Joe Piscopo, and yes, The Boz.

If Chávez is bankrolling the star of Chu Chu and the Philly Flash because he's mentally ill, we can all relax; this, too, shall pass. But if Chávez has put Danny Glover on the payroll because he thinks it's funny, then maybe it's time to nuke the son of a bitch. As the old saw goes: You mess with us, we're gonna mess with you.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.

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