In his 17 years in Hollywood, Michael Clarke Duncan appeared in nearly 100 movies and TV shows, but he'll be remembered for just one. And maybe that's enough. The understated yet towering performance he gave in 1999's "The Green Mile" gave him a career, and it was the key to why audiences loved him, even in more forgettable films.
Duncan broke into show business as a bodyguard, so it's a miracle that he didn't get stuck in the hulking character parts he played (generic bouncers and tough guys) in his early movies. Credit goes in part to Bruce Willis (Duncan played part of his crew in "Armageddon"), who recognized something more in the six-foot-five, 315-pound actor and recommended him to director Frank Darabont for the key role in "Green Mile." (Willis and Duncan would go on to make three more movies together.)
On paper, the "Green Mile" role of framed death-row inmate John Coffey shouldn't have worked. He's more an allegorical symbol than a person: His initials are J.C., he has miraculous healing powers, and he voluntarily submits to execution by the state as a way of doing penance for the sins of others. He's the kind of character critics call a "Magical Negro," meaning that he's a black person with special gifts who exists only to provide the white protagonist with guidance; he has no hopes, dreams, desires, or inner life of his own. A "Magical Negro" character is often the sign of lazy writing at best, or of patronizing cynicism at worst.
Yet Duncan managed to breathe life into John Coffey. He deftly played up the contradiction between Coffey's physically menacing presence and his lamb-gentle soul -- a dynamic that would prove key to many characters Duncan would eventually play. Yet his performance was subtle, with Duncan letting his eyes and rumbling baritone voice do most of the work while his body remained still. His John Coffey may not have had much of a life, but Duncan convinced viewers he had a soul. It's no wonder his turn earned him an Oscar nomination; the film wouldn't have worked without his performance, and it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.
Duncan went on to show a gift for comedy as a grinning-but-dangerous gangster opposite Willis in "The Whole Nine Yards." It was a gift he would go on to exploit in many more movies, especially kiddie movies and animated films ("Cats & Dogs," "Kung Fu Panda,"), where his deep barking tone was always instantly identifiable.
Not that Duncan couldn't deliver pure menace. He was suitably scary as a gorilla general in Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes," and he made for a truly frightening villain as crime lord Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. the Kingpin, in "Daredevil." (There was some mild controversy over this bit of non-traditional casting, since Fisk is drawn as white in various Marvel Comics titles, but one look at Duncan in the part, and you can see why the filmmakers chose him.) And he was hissably evil as Manute, a corrupt cop in "Sin City" (another movie featuring Willis).
Still, playing a walking paradox as a giant softie was just too irresistible to him and to casting directors, which generally led to comedic roles like his standout turn opposite Will Ferrell in "Talladega Nights" as Ricky Bobby's tough-love pit crew boss. Some of their funniest scenes together were in outtakes, suggesting that Duncan was skilled with improvisation as well as scripted acting.
Duncan was just 54 when he died Monday, though he appeared ageless. He might well have continued along his same path for the rest of his career, switching with ease between comic roles, cartoon characters, and tough guys and villains. Or maybe he might have found another "Green Mile" eventually that would have called upon his seldom-used dramatic gifts. All we can know is that he leaves behind a legacy of moviegoing pleasure, a glowering face that dissolves into a surprising grin and infects the viewer with unexpected joy.
Earlier on Moviefone:
Michael Clarke Duncan
"The Green Mile" actor Michael Clarke Duncan died at the age of 54 on Sept. 3, 2012 in a Los Angeles hospital after nearly two months of treatment following a July 13, 2012 heart attack.
"Sesame Street" puppeteer Jerry Nelson, shown here with "Sesame Street" character Count von Count in New York in June 2012, died at age 78 on Aug. 23, 2012, in Massachusetts after battling emphysema.
Actress/comedienne Phyllis Diller, who was best know for her stand-up act, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/20/phyllis-diller-dead_n_1812818.html">died at the age of 95</a> on Aug. 20. 2012 in Los Angeles.
"The Music Man" star <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/05/susan-luckey-dead-music-man-actress-dies-age-74_n_2245690.html">died at the age of 74</a> in Dec. 2012.
Director Tony Scott, whose projects include "The Hunger," "Top Gun," "Enemy of the State," died after jumping off a bridge in Los Angeles on Aug. 19, 2012.
"San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" singer Scott McKenzie, seen here in the center with "The Mamas And The Papas" 1967, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/20/scott-mckenzie-dead-dies-san-francisco-73_n_1809989.html">died on Aug. 18. 2012</a>, after battling Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disease that affects the nervous system.
A 1980 file photo provided by CBS shows actor William Windom, who won an Emmy Award for his turn in the TV comedy series "My World And Welcome To It," died Aug. 16, 2012, of congestive heart failure at his home in Woodacre, north of San Francisco. He was 88.
This June 8, 2008 file photo shows actor Ron Palillo at the TV Land Awards in Santa Monica, Calif. Palillo, best known as the nerdy high schooler Arnold Horshack on "Welcome Back, Kotter," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/14/ron-palillo-dead-dies-welcome-back-kotter-heart-attack_n_1776155.html">died Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012</a>, in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., of an apparent heart attack. He was 63.
This Oct. 7, 2008 file photo shows actress Lupe Ontiveros at Padres Contra El Cancer's 8th annual "El Sueno de Esperanza" benefit gala in Los Angeles. Ontiveros, the popular Texan actress known for her portrayal of Yolanda Saldivar in "Selena," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/27/lupe-ontiveros-dead-star-_n_1709783.html">died Thursday, July 26, 2012</a>, of cancer at the Presbyterian Hospital in the City of Whittier, Calif., according to friend and comedian Rick Najera. She was 69.
In this Aug. 11, 1986 file photo, actor Sherman Hemsley poses for a photo in Los Angeles. The manager for Hemsley says the late star of the television sitcom "The Jeffersons" refused treatment for lung cancer in the weeks before he died of what a coroner says were complications from the disease on July 24, 2012. (AP photo/Nick Ut, File)
In this Feb. 14, 2004 file photo, Academy President Frank Pierson arrives at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Scientific and Technical Achievements Awards dinner in Pasadena Calif. Pierson's family announced that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/23/frank-pierson-dead-dog-day-afternoon-dies_n_1696126.html">he died of natural causes on Monday, July 23, 2012</a> in Los Angeles after a short illness. He was 87.
Deep Purple's Jon Lord, seen here in 2004, died at age 71 on Monday, July 16, 2012, after battling pancreatic cancer.
This May 1986 file photo shows country music singer Kitty Wells in Nashville, Tenn. Wells, the first female superstar of country music, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/16/kitty-wells-dead-queen-of-country-dies_n_1677532.html">died at the age of 92 on Monday, July 16, 2012.</a> The singers family says Wells died at her home Monday after complications from a stroke. Her recording of "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" in 1952 was the first No. 1 hit by a woman soloist on the country music charts. Other hits included "Making Believe" and a version of "I Can't Stop Loving You." (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, file)
Perhaps best remembered for his<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/08/ernest-borgnine-movies-films_n_1657787.html" target="_hplink"> Oscar-winning performance in the film "Marty",</a> <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/09/ernest-borgnine-dead-remembered_n_1658937.html" target="_hplink">Borgnine</a> continued to act until his death, voicing a character on "SpongeBob SquarePants" and earning an Emmy Nomination on the TV series "ER." He was 95 when he passed away on July 8 due to renal failure.
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/03/andy-griffith-dead_n_1645969.html" target="_hplink">Andy Griffith,</a> the star of beloved television programs "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Matlock", <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/05/andy-griffith-cause-of-death-heart-attack_n_1652599.html" target="_hplink">died of a heart attack</a> on Tuesday, July 3. He was 86.
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/28/don-grady-my-three-sons-obituary_n_1633047.html" target="_hplink">The multi talented musician, composer, and actor</a> who memorably starred on the television series "My Three Sons" lost his battle with cancer on June 27. An original Mouseketeer, Grady was 68 he passed away.
Director, author, journalist, playwright, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nora-ephron/" target="_hplink">HuffPost blogger</a>, and three-time Academy Award nominated screenwriter, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/26/nora-ephron-dead-dies-age-71_n_1627757.html" target="_hplink">Nora Ephron passed away</a> on June 26 after a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/26/nora-ephron-leukemia-cancer-illness-death_n_1629152.html" target="_hplink">secret multi-year battle with acute myeloid leukemia</a>. With genre defining films like "Sleepless In Seattle", "You've Got Mail", and "When Harry Met Sally", Ephron, 71, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/26/nora-ephron-influence-movies_n_1628700.html?utm_hp_ref=entertainment" target="_hplink">left an indelible mark on the film industry.</a>
Comedienne most famous for her hilarious roles on TV shows "Moesha" and "The Parkers", Wilson <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/15/yvette-wilson-star-of-moe_n_1600037.html" target="_hplink">lost her battle with cervical cancer</a> on June 14. She was 48.
This Nov. 5, 1971 file photo shows actress Ann Rutherford in New York. Rutherford, who played Scarlett O'Hara's sister Carreen in the 1939 movie classic "Gone With the Wind," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/12/ann-rutherford-dead-gone-_n_1589753.html">died at her home in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Monday, June 11, 2012</a>. She was 94. (AP Photo/HF)
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/23/barry-gibb-tribute-video-robin-gibb-bee-gees_n_1539954.html" target="_hplink">Co-founder of The Bee Gees</a>, Gibb was 62 when he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/20/robin-gibb-dead-bee-gees_n_1531648.html" target="_hplink">lost</a> his battle with colon cancer on May 20.
From AP: Bob Welch, a former member of Fleetwood Mac who went on to write songs and record several hits during a solo career,<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/07/bob-welch-dead-fleetwood-mac-gunshot_n_1579166.html"> died June 7, 2012</a>, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police said. He was 65.
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/18/donna-summer-queen-of-disco_n_1526799.html" target="_hplink">The Queen of Disco</a> lost her <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/17/donna-summer-dead-queen-of-disco-dies_n_1524410.html" target="_hplink"> battle with cancer</a> on May 17. Summer, 63, earned that title with dance hits like "Last Dance", "MacArthur Park", and "Hot Stuff".
In this Feb. 13, 2011 file photo, Chuck Brown arrives at the 53rd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. Brown, who styled a unique brand of funk music as a singer, guitarist and songwriter known as the "godfather of go-go," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/16/chuck-brown-dead-godfather_n_1522375.html">died Wednesday, May 16, 2012</a> after suffering from pneumonia. He was 75.
Mitchell Guist, who appeared in segments of the "Swamp People" with his brother, Glenn, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/14/mitchell-guist-dead-swamp-people_n_1515423.html">died after collapsing Monday, May 14, 2012</a> while working on a houseboat he was building on Belle River.
Best known as one of the founding members of the<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/23/mca-ad-rock-adam-horovitz-beastie-boys-interview_n_1539705.html" target="_hplink"> trailblazing hip-hop group the Beastie Boys</a>, Yauch, also known by his stage name MCA, was also a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/04/adam-yauch-films_n_1478993.html" target="_hplink">film director</a> and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/04/adam-yauch-dead-tibet_n_1478359.html" target="_hplink">human rights activist</a>. At age 47, Yauch unfortunately lost his almost three year battle with cancer on May 4.
George Lindsey, seen here in character as Goober Pyle on "The Andy Griffith Show" in 1982,<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/06/george-lindsey-dead-andy-griffith-show-goober-pyle-dies-83_n_1490083.html"> died early Sunday, May 6, 2012.</a> He was 83.
In this May 15, 2010 photo, Levon Helm performs on the mandolin during a Ramble performance at Helm's barn in Woodstock, N.Y. Helm, who was in the final stages of his battle with cancer,<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/19/levon-helm-dead-the-band-cancer-battle_n_1434772.html"> died Thursday, April 19, 2012 in New York.</a> He was 71. He was a key member of The Band and lent his distinctive Southern voice to classics like "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
Radio personality, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/18/dick-clark-quotes_n_1435713.html" target="_hplink">TV host</a>, and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nelson-davis/dick-clarks-business-less_b_1466150.html" target="_hplink">beloved producer</a>, Dick Clark died of a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/18/dick-clark-heart-attack-death_n_1435551.html" target="_hplink">massive heart</a> attack on April 18. The host of classic programs such as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120418/us-dick-clark-highlights/" target="_hplink">American Bandstand</a> and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/19/dick-clarks-new-years-eve_n_1437040.html" target="_hplink">Dick Clark's Rocking New Years Eve was 82.</a>
Lead singer of hit 60's band <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/29/davy-jones-dead-monkees-moments-video_n_1310837.html" target="_hplink">The Monkees</a>, Jones' <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/01/monkees-davy-jones-obituary_n_1312799.html" target="_hplink">heartthrob status</a> was cemented with hits like "Day Dream Believer" and "I Wanna Be Free". He died at age 66 on February 29 after <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/05/davy-jones-autopsy-report_n_1406273.html" target="_hplink">suffering a heart attack</a>.
With perhaps one of the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/21/whitney-houston-celebrate-jordin-sparks-sparkle_n_1532870.html" target="_hplink">greatest voices</a> of her generation, Houston was a multi-Grammy winning singer and actress left an indelible mark on both the pop and R&B genres. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/15/whitney-houston-xanax_n_1279947.html" target="_hplink">Houston's well documented struggles with drug addiction</a> are thought to have contributed to her unexpected and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/11/whitney-houston-dead-sing_n_1270889.html" target="_hplink">untimely demise</a> at age 48 on <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/05/whitney-houston-death-report-last-day_n_1405206.html" target="_hplink">February 11</a>.
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/01/don-cornelius-dead-soul-train_n_1246642.html" target="_hplink">Cornelius</a>, creator and host of the long-running, groundbreaking<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/01/don-cornelius-dead-celeb-tweets_n_1247021.html" target="_hplink"> TV dance show "Soul Train,"</a> <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/24/don-cornelius-autopsy-depression_n_1450184.html" target="_hplink">unfortunately committed suicide </a>Wednesday morning, Feb. 1. He was 75.
In this Sept. 17, 2005 file photo, actor Ian Abercrombie is shown during the British Academy of Film and Television Arts/Los Angeles and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences third annual Emmy Nominees Tea Party in Los Angeles. Abercrombie, a veteran British stage and screen actor whose TV roles included Elaines boss Mr. Pitt on "Seinfeld" and Professor Crumbs on Wizards of Waverly Place,<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/28/ian-abercrombie-tv-moments_n_1239120.html"> died Thursday, Jan. 22, 2012</a> at a Los Angeles hospital from complications of kidney failure. He was 77.
The "At Last" crooner <a href="http://http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/20/etta-james-dead-legendary_n_1219083.html" target="_hplink">passed away</a> on January 20 due to complications from leukemia. James, also known as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/22/etta-james-singers-passio_n_1222010.html" target="_hplink">The Matriarch of R&B</a>, was 73.