Michael Clarke Duncan shot to fame after receiving acclaim for his Oscar-nominated role in 1998's The Green Mile. But his life and career would tragically be cut short.
In the early 2000s, it was almost difficult to see a film without Michael Clarke Duncan. Once relegated to smaller roles or roles that suited his musculature, Duncan proved his mettle as an actor with his breakout role as John Coffey in The Green Mile, a Black man in 1953 Louisiana falsely convicted of the assault and murder of two young girls.
Proving that he had the acting chops and star potential of a true Hollywood leading man, Duncan made numerous appearances in films ranging from Daredevil to Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
Unfortunately, the beloved actor’s career came to an abrupt end in 2012, after he died due to complications of a heart attack. Still, more than a decade after Michael Clarke Duncan’s death, his legacy lives on, and the special quality of his talent has not lost its luster.
Michael Clarke Duncan Grew Up Poor On The South Side Of Chicago
Born on December 10, 1957, Michael Clarke Duncan grew up in a poor family in Chicago. The situation was made all the worse when his father left the home. Duncan was just five years old at the time.
Raised solely from then on by his mother Jean and his older sister Judy, young Michael had dreamed of pursuing a career in football. His mother, however, refused to let him play, fearing that he would be injured.
He eventually got his chance once he made it to college, attending both Kankakee Community College in Illinois and, later, Alcorn State University in Mississippi, where he played football and basketball while majoring in communications. When his mother fell ill, he dropped out of school and returned to Chicago to help support the family.
At a towering six-foot-five and 315 pounds, Duncan had no trouble getting work as a ditch digger for Peoples Gas or as a bouncer at various nightclubs around the city. And according to his New York Times obituary, Duncan even worked as a stripper under the name Black Caesar.
This versatility would later be seen in the film roles he took on.
His mother, as always, encouraged her son to do more and dream bigger. She had always wanted to be an actress herself, and she saw the same potential in Duncan. She urged him to give acting a shot, and so Duncan turned away from the ditch-digging lifestyle and set off for Los Angeles, California.
The initial work he found wasn’t all that different from what he was used to, mostly working as a bodyguard for big name stars like Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, and Jamie Foxx. This also gave him a natural “in” for various smaller roles, many of which were as a bouncer — a role he was well prepared for — in movies like Bulworth and A Night at the Roxbury.
Then, in 1998, he landed his first major role alongside Bruce Willis in Armageddon as Bear, a member of the drilling team sent to space to prevent an asteroid from colliding with the Earth. During production, he became close with Willis — and it was Willis who recommended Duncan for his breakout role in The Green Mile.
The Green Mile Made Michael Clarke Duncan A Star
Per his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, Bruce Willis first approached Duncan with the script for The Green Mile and told him, “Michael, I’ve just read this script and you are this guy John Coffey. I just know it.”
Willis reached out to director Frank Darabont and recommended Duncan for the role.
“There was something about him that I just couldn’t ignore,” Darabont would later say. “After his first reading, he kept haunting me. Given that he was a fairly inexperienced actor at that point, obviously there was concern about ‘Gee, how would this guy do?’ But once we put him on film, it became apparent that he was up to the task.”
Duncan was more than just up to the task, though. His performance was lauded across the board for its honest portrayal and the “peculiar innocence” Duncan brought to the character.
Critics were so impressed by Duncan’s acting chops, in fact, that they nominated him for an Academy Award for the role. And even though he didn’t win it, he said in one interview that he was so thrilled he “could have taken on Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield and the Rock.”
When the reporter remarked that he likely could have done that regardless of the Oscar, Duncan replied, “Not all at the same time, man.”
Michael Clarke Duncan’s Later Career
After his breakout success in The Green Mile, Duncan took on a series of other roles that established him as a capable actor in both comedies and action films, as well as a number of guest roles on television shows.
Notably, he followed up The Green Mile with The Whole Nine Yards, See Spot Run, Planet of the Apes, The Scorpion King, and Daredevil, in which he acted against Ben Affleck as the movie’s villain, Kingpin.
He continued to solidify his prominence in The Island and Sin City in 2005, again to critical acclaim. He offset these more dramatic roles by appearing in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby in 2006, as well as providing voices for animated characters in both Brother Bear and Brother Bear 2, as well as Kung Fu Panda.
To avoid seeing Michael Clarke Duncan during this peak era of his career would effectively have needed to be a calculated choice. In addition to his various film roles, he also made countless appearances on television shows ranging from The Suite Life of Zack & Cody on Disney Channel to NBC’s Chuck and a later role as Leo Knox in Fox’s Bones.
This latter performance even spawned a spinoff series, The Finder, with Duncan cast in the lead role alongside Geoff Stults.
The Finder began as a midseason replacement on Fox, running from January to May of 2012, and although it wasn’t picked up for a second season, creator Hart Hanson said in The Hollywood Reporter that he planned to bring Duncan’s character back again for Bones.
Unfortunately, he never got the chance.
The Heart Attack That Killed Michael Clarke Duncan — And The Controversy That Followed
On July 13, 2012, Michael Clarke Duncan was hospitalized following a heart attack and placed in the ICU at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. On Aug. 6 of that year, the Associated Press reported that Duncan had been moved out of intensive care but remained hospitalized.
Then, on Sept. 3, 2012, Michael Clarke Duncan died in the hospital — the result of complications from the heart attack he had suffered nearly two months earlier. He was 54 years old at the time of his death.
He had also been in a relationship with former contestant of The Apprentice — and later Trump White House adviser — Omarosa Manigault Newman. Shortly after Duncan’s death, it was reported that his family was suspicious about Newman and a seemingly last-minute change to Duncan’s will.
The controversy resurfaced again in 2018, per a Daily Beast report, after the publication of Newman’s book, Unhinged, which offered an “insider’s look” at the dysfunctional Trump White House.
In the book, Newman recounts her experience on the day of Duncan’s heart attack, including her call to 911, writing “The paramedics told me if it hadn’t been for my efforts, he would have died.”
A close friend of Duncan’s, Andrea Weltman, bought the book to see if Newman would mention Duncan and report it to his family if she did. Weltman said that Newman had not contacted Duncan’s family about mentioning him in the book — which might not have been an issue, had Newman and the family not had a very public dispute years earlier about Duncan’s will.
Duncan left nearly everything to Newman in his will, leading his family — particularly his sister Judy — to suspect that Newman may have “manipulated” him into leaving most of his estate to her.
“I think anyone can be manipulated at any time. I think there’s always somebody that’s going to try and get something out of you, and I think that’s what it was,” Judy Duncan said. “Because like I said, the last time we saw him, he just wasn’t right. There was something going on, and I know it. So for him to have left her everything, there was some manipulation there.”
She concluded by calling Newman a “serpent,” saying, “I’m not a snake handler, so I stay away.”
In any case, the whole saga is a sad footnote at the end of Michael Clarke Duncan’s story. As an actor, he excelled in multiple areas and overcame numerous obstacles to cement himself as one of Hollywood’s most versatile performers. It is all too unfortunate that his career came to such a sudden, tragic end.
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