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Michael Clarke Duncan, R.I.P.

It’s very strange to hear that an actor who really emerged during your life time has passed away. I was actually already an aspiring movie buff when Michael Clarke Duncan gave his breakout performance in The Green Mile. Duncan, of course, had been around for a while before that. He’d been working in the entertainment industry even before he decided to seriously pursue acting as a career – the early nineties saw the guy working as a bodyguard for Will Smith among others. He turned earnestly to acting in the mid- to late-nineties, and had a small but memorable role in Armageddon that led Bruce Willis to recommend him for The Green Mile. In many ways, I watched Duncan become a recognisable screen presence, and I was very shocked and saddened to hear of his passing.

Of course, this isn’t going to be the most thorough examination of the actor’s life or his times. There are countless superior pieces written by far better authors that can offer an overview of Michael Clarke Duncan’s life. My knowledge on Duncan’s background is limited to a few articles I’ve read here and there, and I wouldn’t consider it anywhere near appropriate for me to discuss the actor’s life outside of film. I only knew him through his work, and I think that it was quite a testament to the man.

Duncan’s career is remarkably varied. Looking at the credits on his IMDb page, the actor looked to have a tremendous work ethic. He balanced both film and television remarkably well. While never really a marquee name, he was never too far from most film or television viewers. He had that wonderful combination of a tremendous physical and vocal presence – the very rare example of an actor who worked just as well in live action as he did in voice-over work. In fact, Duncan’s distinctive deep voice provided at least two of my favourite Family Guy cutaway gags.

He was instantly recognisable and – even if you didn’t know his name – he was very much “that guy.” There was no confusing or mistaking Duncan, who had a rather natural larger-than-life charm, and always managed to make his impressive physical frame and rumbling voice work for him. The first time you saw him, whether in a small role or a featured part, you remembered him. He was never a bona fides headlining actor, but he was a formidable screen presence, one of those distinctive actors who gets shuffled around in small but important roles.

However, despite an impressive filmography, Duncan is probably best known to the public at large for his role in The Green Mile. On Sunday night, I was watching television with my grandmother. She is hardly the most in tune with popular culture. An advertisement came on the Universal Channel for a new television show, The Finder. Duncan filmed thirteen episodes of the show, and it was beginning a broadcast in the United Kingdom.

The trailer was brief, and Duncan isn’t the main star. He appeared for – at most – a second. And he was wearing one of those stereotypical “I’m a quirky guy in a tropical climate” hats that meant his full face wasn’t on display. However, as soon as he appeared, my gran elbowed me. “That’s the fella from The Green Mile, isn’t it?” she asked, with a smile on her face that let me know how proud she was to have caught him. This is a woman who doesn’t know Michael Fassbender or Leonardo DiCaprio. And she recognised Duncan instantly.

It speaks to how wonderful his performance was. Playing the gentle giant Jack Coffey, Duncan wasn’t even the main character of the film. Tom Hanks was the name above the credits, the face on all the marketing. Being honest, looking at it on paper, the role of Jack Coffey looks like a nightmare. A poorly-educated black man accused of a murder he didn’t commit who has special powers and a wonderfully innocent world view, you could argue that Coffey was more of a plot device or even a stereotype than a character in his own right.

I’m a cynical guy. I like to think that it takes a very special type of “weepy” film to get to me. I’m frequently accused of being a little too cold when it comes to “sappy” movies. At the time, as a teenager, I expected to dislike The Green Mile. I had never warmed to The Shawshank Redemption, and the promise of another Stephen King and Jonathan Demme prison melodrama was not appealing to me. I actually think – and I admit that this is controversial – that The Green Mile is a much better film. And a large part of that rests with the central performances from Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan.

Duncan took a role that was full of all manner of unfortunate implications, and could very easily have become an awkward racial stereotype in the hands of a lesser performer. Duncan managed to make that role work. He made it work so well that his performance became something of a cultural touchstone. It seems like only a few weeks back I caught an episode of The Simpsons poking a bit of fun at John Coffey. A performance doesn’t become that culturally ubiquitous by chance. There’s a great deal of skill involved, and for something like that to become a meme suggests that it meant a lot to a great deal of people.

Personally, I could barely watch the closing few minutes of The Green Mile, despite the fact that I knew what was coming. I think, as a jaded teenager who could watch horror movies without flinching, I actually covered my eyes. It still takes a considerable amoutn of fortitude for me to sit through the last third of the film. While a large amount of that is down to the writing and direction, it is Michael Clarke Duncan who convinces us to care about John Coffey.

I know that it’s unfair to reduce an actor down to one performance. I love quite a bit of Duncan’s filmography, and I can’t think of a film that was the poorer for casting him. He was great in a small role in Sin City. He was the best part of Daredevil, and I often superimpose Duncan’s body and voice over the character of the Kingpin when I read him in comics. (Duncan even voiced the character in some episodes of Spider-Man.)

However, I think that the vast majority of people will be thinking of The Green Mile when they hear the news. Truth be told, I did as well. That’s not to denigrate the rest of his impressive body of work, but to acknowledge that he managed a truly transcendental performance, one that managed to affect quite a lot of people.

7 Responses

  1. When he was cast as Kingpin, people complained about it solely because the character was white in the comics. It didn’t matter, because Duncan played the role perfectly. His performance had nothing to do with race. I was amazed that a man of his size was able to get so many diverse parts, and he seemed to enjoy all of them–which made watching him that much more entertaining.

    • Good point about ‘Kingpin’ and the rest of the films he participated in, Jamie. The man had presence. He will be missed.

    • I loved his Kingpin. It’s one of those performances I hold up whenever fanboys complain about movies being “faithful” to the comics. I can have a good version of a character on screen and a good version in the comics – I don’t need them to be identical. And I think Duncan captured the best of the Kingpin as a character – the sense of sheer greedy drive and power trying desperately to disguise itself as something more sophisticated.

  2. Fine tribute, Darren. Still in a bit of shock with the news. Far too young. May he rest in peace.

  3. Great tribute. He will be sadly missed. What an amazing smile he has and a what an unforgettable performance in Green Mile. RIP MCD.

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