The Associated Press is reporting the death of Michael Clarke Duncan, the security guard turned actor who parlayed an Oscar-nominated turn in The Green Mile into a prolific career of playing (mostly) gentle giants. Duncan was hospitalized last month for a myocardial infarction—an attack that might have killed him, according to TMZ, were it not for lifesaving actions of Duncan’s fiancée, former Apprentice villain Omarosa Manigault. Unfortunately, Duncan never fully recovered, and it was Manigault who confirmed his death today. He was 54.
At 6-foot-5 and usually well over 300 pounds, Duncan was an imposing presence who went from digging ditches to working in Hollywood as a security guard, protecting the likes of Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, and The Notorious B.I.G. In 1998, after some bit parts as bouncers in films like Bulworth and A Night At The Roxbury, he starred as the aptly named “Bear” in Michael Bay’s Armageddon, striking up a friendship with Bruce Willis that led to them working together on several more films—and, most importantly, to Willis urging Frank Darabont to cast him in The Green Mile.
In the Stephen King adaptation, Duncan played John Coffey, the overgrown man-child whose terrible charges of rape and murder are at odds with his naïve, soft-spoken nature. That he turns out to be a supernatural vessel who’s capable of taking away sickness and raising the dead seemed only natural in Duncan’s massive hands, as his size and canyon-deep voice already made him seem something like a mythic creature. And although the role was another spin on the well-worn “magic negro” archetype, Duncan imbued Coffey with genuinely felt childlike innocence and humanity. He earned an Oscar nomination for the performance, in addition to many other accolades.
Green Mile kicked off a prolific decade for Duncan that saw him starring in big-budget action films like Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes, The Scorpion King, The Island, and Sin City, as well as lending his unmistakable rumble of a voice to kids’ movies like Cats & Dogs, Brother Bear, and Racing Stripes. He also played his imposing presence for laughs—re-teaming with Willis for the mob comedy The Whole Nine Yards, playing the former heavyweight boxer who gives The Slammin’ Salmon its name (and most of its good jokes), and co-starring as the head of Will Ferrell’s pit crew in Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby. (Duncan’s scene from the outtakes, in which he confesses to an affinity for putting on a dress and singing Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” reveals him to have been a surprisingly great comic improviser.) Among his biggest roles, figuratively and literally, was starring as the Marvel villain Kingpin in the Ben Affleck-led Daredevil, for which Duncan added an extra 40 pounds to his already-menacing frame.
In recent years, Duncan co-starred on the Bones spinoff The Finder, a show that finished its brief run in May. He also was seen that month on the Scotland-filmed week of The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson where he was a regular presence, carrying on a gently teasing friendship with the host, and always revealing himself to be the sweetheart trapped in the behemoth’s body that by all accounts he was.