Actor Michael Clarke Duncan Was A 'Gentle Giant'

Sep 4, 2012
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An actor whose remarkable size made him seem invincible on screen has died. Michael Clarke Duncan, known to friends and fellow actors as Big Mike, was 54 years old. He's perhaps best known for his role in "The Green Mile," also starring Tom Hanks. Hank says he's terribly saddened at the loss of Big Mike, while comedian Tommy Davidson calls him the most gentle of giants.

At 6-foot-four, with a deep baritone voice, Michael Clarke Duncan was a charming but formidable presence, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The prison drama, "The Green Mile," is set in the 1930s. Michael Clarke Duncan played John Coffey, who is on death row. He's a gentle soul who is more like an innocent child than a murderer.


MICHAEL CLARKE DUNCAN: (as John Coffey) Will you leave the light on after bedtime? Because I get a little scared in the dark sometimes if it's a strange place.

BLAIR: "The Green Mile" wasn't Michael Clarke Duncan's first acting job. He played bouncers in three other movies, a profession he knew well since he'd worked as one himself. He also starred with Bruce Willis in "Armageddon."


JESSICA STEEN: (as Co-Pilot Jennifer Watts) Bear.

DUNCAN: (as Bear) Yes?

STEEN: (as Co-Pilot Jennifer Watts) Do we have a problem?

DUNCAN: (as Bear) No.

BLAIR: But he'd never had any formal training. In 1999, Michael Clarke Duncan talked to NPR along with the acting coach who was hired to work with him on "The Green Mile," Larry Moss.

LARRY MOSS: And I said, Mike, what do they call you? And he said, they call me Big Mike. And I said, well, Big Mike, you can't play this part. I said only Little Mike can play it. And Michael said, well, Mr. Moss, I don't believe I know who that is.


DUNCAN: I didn't. I mean, I had hid behind muscularity for so long. I mean, I concentrated on being the biggest and strongest in the gym at all times. You kind of use that as your shield and nobody messes with you. But for this role that wasn't important.


DUNCAN: (as John Coffey) Tired of being on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain. I'm tired of never having me a buddy to be with, to tell me where we is going to, coming from or why. Mostly I'm tired of people being ugly to each other.

BLAIR: Duncan's nuanced performance made the character too flabbergasting a figure to be easily pigeonholed, said The New York Times. For "The Green Mile," Duncan won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar.

Michael Clarke Duncan was raised by a single mother in Chicago. He was a jock but his mother was reportedly too afraid of the injuries to let him play football. He worked as a bouncer, a ditch digger, and later a bodyguard to such stars as Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. More recently, Duncan starred in the TV show "The Finder."

Michael Clarke Duncan suffered a heart attack in July. He died at a Los Angeles hospital on Monday.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.