That smile, that deep voice, that hulking frame and towering height. He certainly had a memorable presence. Like most people I’m sure, I was shocked to hear about the untimely death of Michael Clarke Duncan. It’s another sad case of an actor gone too soon. A lot of what’s been talked about in the coverage since his death references his memorable, Oscar-nominated role in The Green Mile. It was a truly incredible performance that I honestly didn’t expect from him. He embodied the character of John Coffey with such believability that it seemed he wasn’t acting at all; he was being the character through and through. The gentleness, sensitivity and goodness of John Coffey and his inexplicable ability to miraculously take infection, disease and death away was characterized so persuasively by Duncan. He portrayed a gentle giant who exudes goodness and I can’t help but think that Michael Clarke Duncan was very much like John Coffey in that regard.
Though The Green Mile is widely considered his most notable role, a few others come to mind when I think of Duncan’s films. I remember seeing him for the first time in Armageddon. Seeing his hulking presence and hearing his deep voice, I expected some strong-arming and heavy-lifting from his character, and he delivered that, but he was so funny too. Perhaps his comedic ability, which he also put on display in The Whole Nine Yards, is what made his dramatic and powerful performance in The Green Mile so unexpected for me. I had seen him do action and I had seen him do comedy, but I hadn’t seen him delve that deeply or darkly to portray a character of such depth and emotion as he did to play John Coffey.
Playing on his strength (literally), he was a forceful presence in Tim Burton’s lackluster Planet of the Apes remake. Raging war against the humans, he was big, bold and frightening, and although covered in make-up and unrecognizable, there was no mistaking Michael Clarke Duncan’s presence because his signature voice gave him away.
Whenever I see photos of Duncan, and I’ve looked at several since hearing of his death, he’s smiling. His face is alight with happiness with a twinkle in his eye. In high school, he dreamed of becoming a famous actor and he headed to Hollywood and made it happen. Though not a marquee actor, audiences knew his face well. It’s been said that whenever fans recognized him on the street and knew his full name, he gave them five dollars. A funny guy. A memorable guy. A talent taken far too soon.