Michael Clarke Duncan: a gentle giant

Movies Blog
4 September 2012

Many of us are genuinely sad over the death of Michael Clarke Duncan.

He wasn't the most high profile star in Hollywood, but thanks to that massive frame but surprisingly gentle demeanour, he was one of the most instantly recognisable. A gentle giant.

[Related story: Michael Clarke Duncan dies aged 54]

Duncan is most famous of course for playing John Coffey in 'The Green Mile'. Frank Darabont's stately tearjearker would earn Duncan a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars, and his performance was described by film critic Roger Ebert as "both acting and being".

"The goodness of Coffey… is embodied by Duncan".

While promoting the movie, Duncan told CNN about his days working as a ditch digger for a gas company during his 20s.

His co-workers would call him "Hollywood" because of his dreams of being a movie star. "I'd be digging a ditch and they'd say, 'Hey, man, Bruce Willis wants to talk to you about a movie.' And they'd just crack up laughing."

"Those co-workers had no way of knowing how that joke would turn on them."

As fate would have it, Duncan became good friends with Willis and it was playing Bear alongside the 'Die Hard' star in 'Armageddon' that first bought him to a mass audience. On his website, the film's director Michael Bay paid tribute to Duncan… by admitting he almost fired him.

"He cried at the first audition because he was so proud to audition for a "Michael and Jerry movie", he just wanted to make his mom proud. We gave him the role in the room.

"[But on] His first day on 'Armageddon' he sucked.

"I remember looking to Ben Affleck and thinking we might need to fire him. But I told him 'Mike, I hired you for you, I want the sweet, Mr. Clarke Duncan I met in that room'. I said, 'the audience is going to fall in love with you'. He looked and smiled with [his] deep voice and said 'Ok'. From then on out he became the most improved actor on the set. That was the award he got at the end of the film. Everyone loved him, his infectious spirit and great belly laugh."

Duncan would appear with Willis on three further films ('Breakfast Of Champions', 'The Whole Nine Yards' and 'Sin City'), but it was the 'Die Hard' star's phone call to Frank Darabont, after reading the script for 'The Green Mile', that helped seal Duncan's place in Hollywood history.

Duncan said: "Bruce told me, 'Michael, I've just read this script and you are this guy John Coffey. I just know it.'" [via the L.A. Times]. He said the part was a 'a gift from God.'

Perhaps Duncan's essential goodness that came across so clearly in 'The Green Mile' was shaped by a tough upbringing in Chicago's south side. Brought up his single mother Jean, Duncan resisted the temptations of drugs and alcohol and instead focused on school and acting.

She would pull him aside when he was a little boy and tell him, "You're going be a big star when you grow up."

When he did make it, Duncan told CNN: "I think she's been crying ever since I made it to Hollywood. She's been the greatest inspiration in my career. She's the one."

According to his IMDB page, Duncan would give five dollars to anyone who recognised him on the street and knew what his full name was. Possibly apocryphal, it still speaks volumes about a man who was obviously one of the nicest guys in the business, but also - unlike many stars - constantly aware just how lucky he was.

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