Michael Clarke Duncan: Character actor best known for his role in 'The Green Mile' hard-hitting TV documentaries

 

Character actors, lacking stars' power to twist a project to suit themselves, have a tricky negotiation with their physical natures: a distinctive look can attract attention, but too much of it can lead to typecasting and a narrowing of opportunity.

At 6ft 5in, Michael Clarke Duncan, might have expected to spend his life playing heavies, jocks and similar roles but the prison drama The Green Mile brought a meatier part and well-deserved Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. It pushed his career to a different level but also in new emotional directions, moving him from a threatening presence to a more benign one – which was more in line with his own personality – and eventually he was even able to play his bulk for laughs in films such as Talledega Nights (2006).

Six year-old Duncan and his 10 year-old sister Judy were abandoned by their father and brought up by their his mother, who worked as a cleaner. She resisted his desire to be a football player but while his sporting ambitions were met with basketball at Kankaffee Community College, he developed a taste for acting and studied communications at Alcorn State University. At the same time he was helping support the family – his mother was by now ill – with stints as a bouncer and a ditch digger.

His acting ambitions took him to Los Angeles where he became a private bodyguard for stars Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and others. However after the murder of rapper Notorious BIG in 1997 he gave up the work to concentrate on developing his acting career.The contacts he had made proved useful and he landed small roles in Ice Cube's slacker comedy Friday (1995) and his 1998 comedy thriller The Players Club, as well as a 1996 episode of Will Smith's TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

But these early roles often continued the life he had left, as he played bouncers, bodyguards and heavies – sometimes credited as Michael "Big Mike" Duncan. The biggest of these was in Warren Beatty's political satire Bulworth 1998. In 1998 his first major break came with Armageddon, about a Nasa mission to save earth from an asteroid. The star, Bruce Willis was impressed enough to recommend Duncan to Frank Darabont, who was casting his adaptation of Stephen King's depression-era redemption story The Green Mile.

Duncan played the giant but child-like John Coffey, an innocent man with extraordinary healing powers, on death row for raping and killing two young girls. While in prison he finds and punishes the real killer and exacts revenge on a sadistic guard. At the end, exhausted by life's griefs, he goes calmly to the electric chair, refusing the proffered hood, as he is afraid of the dark. Duncan brought an extraordinary tenderness to the portrayal, balancing strength and tenderness, fear and determination, and easily matching the star, Tom Hanks.

It was a role so perfectly suited to Duncan's appearance and temperament that he would never find anything quite to match it. Nevertheless, it boosted his career, not least as he appeared in three more films with Willis: Breakfast of Champions (1999), Alan Rudolph's chaotic and widely panned adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's novel; the weak comedy The Whole Nine Yards (2000), and the stylish noir comic book adaptation Sin City (2005).

Meanwhile, with a rich and gravelly voice as distinctive as his looks Duncan developed a career as a voice artist – a good way of increasing his range and avoiding audiences tiring of him. He was in several animated films, including an Old English Sheep Dog in Cats and Dogs (2001) and the sequel The Revenge of Kitty Galore (2010), as well as Dinotopia (2005) and Kung Fu Panda (2008).

On screen, his size made him a natural for Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes (2001), playing the gorilla Colonel Attar to Tim Roth's chimpanzee General Thade. He was similarly imposing as the Nubian King Balthazar in the same year's Scorpion King. To play the crime lord Wilson Fisk (aka Kingpin) in Daredevil (2003), he added another 40 pounds to his already massive frame. By 2005 Duncan was able to dominate the screen and his impact in the dystopian The Island – directed by Armageddon's Michael Bay – was far beyond his limited screen time.

In 2009 Duncan became a vegetarian, and in a film he made for Peta he spoke lovingly about his large collection of pets and explained how, when he changed his lifestyle, he gave away the $5,000 worth of meat that was in his fridge. The following year he met the Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice alumna the Rev Omarosa Manigault in a Whole Foods shop and they became engaged.

His last strong film role was in 2010, in Mario Van Peebles' country music- driven Redemption Road. It had something of the flavour of The Green Mile and Duncan brought a subtle ambiguity to his portrayal. The following year he landed a recurring role as a lawyer turned bar-owner in TV's The Finder.

But it is for The Green Mile that Duncan, who died following a heart attack in July, will rightly be remembered. His co-star Tom Hanks and the director Frank Darabont paid tribute to him both as an actor and a man, the director describing him as "the gentlest of souls – an exemplar of decency, integrity and kindness."

John Riley

Michael Clarke Duncan, actor: born Chicago 10 December 1957; died Los Angeles 3 September 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
News
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Sport
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
voices
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
health Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries are at risk of tinnitus
News
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower