Tuesday, September 4, 2012

In Character: Michael Clarke Duncan

I suppose I just thought everything was okay. That’s the world we live in. We hear news that a celebrity has had a heart attack, and once he’s said to be recovering steadily, we move on. Maybe it’d be wiser to speak for myself, but anyway I shape it, I’m goddamn sad that gentle giant Michael Clarke Duncan has left us.

Passing away yesterday as a result of the heart attack in had in July, Duncan is yet another well-revered celeb that has left far too soon. Although the majority of his many credits limit him to his massive physique, there are several roles in which Duncan was given a chance to flex all he had.

His acting was filled with the compassion and sincerity that was so apparent in how he chose to live his life. He will most certainly be missed.

Five Essential Roles
Married with Children/The Player’s Club/Bulworth/A Night at the Roxbury/etc. (various years)
Pre-1998, Duncan popped up in a number of movie and television shows playing the pusher. He got paid to stand and look intimidating, and not much more. And when he spoke, he let out that voice. That giant, booming, commanding voice. It’s difficult to pick a specific favorite role of his because in all honestly, they kind of mesh into one character. Either way, playing The Pusher got him known; it’s the way in which he capitalized on such seemingly thankless roles that matter most.

Armageddon (1998)
When we first meet Bear in Michael Bay’s colossal headache that is Armageddon, he’s setting a pick for Ben Affleck to escape from Bruce Willis. Equipped with little clothing and a very large metal tool, Bear steps in front of Willis, letting his frame do that talking. Willis demands he move, and Bear politely obliges. It’s a great, albeit brief, character introduction, and from that point on, we thankfully get more of Duncan than we had seen yet.

Whether it’s motorcycling away from the cops, dancing in leopard-print underwear, or requesting to spend a night in the White House, Duncan manages to steal damn near every scene he’s in. I never thought I’d credit Michael Bay for his exquisite casting, but credit is well deserved here.

Cats & Dogs/Brother Bear/George of the Jungle 2/Racing Stripes/Kung Fu Panda/Green Lantern/etc. (various years)
Voice only
As mentioned earlier, equally as big as Duncan’s imposing size was his thunderous voice. His voice made every performance that much more memorable, and when the role required only his speech to do the talking, it was impossible to deny who you were listening to.

Like his many Bouncer roles, it’s difficult for me to signal out a voice over performance that stands above the rest. The important thing is that they stand. With vigor.

The Whole Nine Yards (2000)
Frankie Figs
Duncan often credited Bruce Willis as the unsung hero of his career. After working together amicably on Armageddon, Willis encouraged Frank Darabont to cast Duncan in his upcoming film (which we’ll discuss in a bit), and when Willis’ next star vehicle came around, Duncan was Willis’ first and only choice to play his right hand man.

Luckily for everyone involved, The Whole Nine Yards is a solid comedy romp. And to watch Duncan here, humorously capitalizing on his physique, it’s impossible to not enjoy every minute he is on screen.  A terrific comedic performance of intruding power.

Sin City (2005)
Now, who better to nearly crush Rosario Dawson’s head to a pulp than Michael Clarke Duncan? His brief time on screen as the evil, one-eyed Manute is by far my favorite villain Duncan portrayed.

During one of the first moments we see him onscreen, Manute is holding Dawson’s head like a grapefruit, literally squeezing information out of her. Every slight movement makes us cringe with anticipation – just how close is he to making her head go pop?  So supremely badass.

The Best of the Best
The Green Mile (1999)
John Coffey
And here it is, the powerhouse performance. The flawless incarnation of the good that is John Coffey. There isn’t a false note or misspoken word in Duncan’s quiet, controlled portrayal of Coffey. It is, quite simply, a perfect performance, well deserved of the many award nominations (and wins) it garnered.

Two scenes that have most stayed with me: first is when we finally find out what Coffey is all about, and that he is able to cure people of their afflictions. If you’ve ever doubted that there was an actor alive who could captivatingly grab and hold onto Tom Hanks’ balls, well, here’s your case.

Next, and perhaps more tellingly, is the first and only time John Coffey watches a film. He sits center aisle, mesmerized by Fred Astaire singing and dancing his way through “Cheek to Cheek” with Ginger Rogers. Duncan’s entranced face is the personification of superb acting. It’s also the sort of tender moment that reminds me why I love movies as much as I do. Many are to thank for that. Stephen King, for writing the novel, Frank Darabont for visualizing it, but chiefly, I choose to give credit to Duncan.

I certainly hope they left the light on for you, you kind kind man.

Other Notable Roles
In Daredevil
Planet of the Apes (2001)
The Scorpion King (2002)
Daredevil (2003)
The Island (2005)
Talladega Nights (2006)
Slipstream (2007)
The Slammin’ Salmon (2009)
The Finder (2012)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Steve Buscemi
John Cazale
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
Chiwetel Ejiofor
William Fichtner
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
Philip Baker Hall
John Hawkes
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
William H. Macy
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Joe Pantoliano
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Danny Trejo
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright


  1. We'll miss him. He was indeed a talented, gentle giant.

  2. The dude will be missed. He seems like a totally nice guy. A big badass with a big heart. My favorite role of his is in Talladega Nights. Every moment he tells off Jack McBrayer is always a golden moment.

    1. "Big badass with a big heart..." couldn't have said it better myself. I'm not a fan of Talladega Nights, but he is pretty funny in it.

  3. He was a welcome presence in any film, and I couldn't describe his performance as John Coffey any other way. Simply perfect.

  4. Great post, it's so sad that he passed away. He was definetly unforgettable whenever he was on screen and I love his work in Green Mile, he was absolutely heartbreaking in this movie.

    1. Heartbreaking indeed. It was really quite sad to go back and watch that movie the day he died. That's a performance that people will remember for a great long while.

  5. Will def miss him. made me sad to learn of his passing. It's even harder to watch The Island now...specifically this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ihd-NwI030c

    It chokes me up. Sad that he is gone.

    1. Ah that's such an impactful scene, especially in hindsight. Thanks for linking it here.

  6. Good tribute. After The Green Mile I was always disappointed that he never really got another opportunity like that to shine. He just got shunted back into the "intimidating black guy" roles, albeit with a lot more dialogue.

    1. Yeah, I honestly cannot argue with that at all. It was like he was given his moment to shine then never given a proper chance again. Kind of sad, really.

  7. Nice tribute bud. To be honest, Duncan was no legend of cinema but the guy had talent and it's sad to see him go. Of course, everybody knows and loves him for The Green Mile and if there is one flick to watch and remember him perfectly by, it's that one.

    1. Yeah, completely agree with you. The man was no legend, but he was a solid actor and a seemingly great guy. Sad to see him go indeed.

  8. I only saw him in The Green Mile, and he was magnificent. One of those actors who just kind of became the role -- you couldn't imagine anyone else playing that character. It's a tragedy that he died so young.

    1. I agree - he was the only person who could play that role. And I also agree... too young indeed.

  9. Duncan had such a presence on screen due to his size and that voice. He seemed to be having fun even in lesser fare. I can't believe you left off Daredevil! I'm kidding, but he does have the right stature to be the kingpin.

    1. HA, well, I put in a Daredevil picture, so that's gotta count for something, right?

      But seriously, glad to hear you appreciate his work. The man will certainly be missed.

  10. Retrospectively, it is his voice work I'm beginning to think he really excelled at...perhaps it was simply down to luck with the roles..but his voice was so distinctive and worked well in that medium. I agree, of course, that the stand out was The Green Mile, though.

    1. His voice work really was so unique and dynamic. Dude had the boom.

  11. Great tribute, Alex. I didn't know he did so much voice work. Can't believe I didn't catch that he was Atlas in God of War!

    1. Thanks man. Just so sad to go so so young. Loved this guy.

  12. Daredevil is a piece of shit. I said it. I hate it.
    Kingpin in the comics (and the catoon that I loved) was a fat WHITE guy. When I first saw the film I said 'wtf why did you cast this guy'. But after I watched it I understood. He was perfect in the role. One of the best performance in a bad film that I ever saw. The film is bad but he (and Colin Ferrell) were great in the film. I remember his voice as Tug in Brother Bear (I should re watch it, I loved it), Manute is one of my favorite character of that amazing film (and the film has just memorable characters), he is my favorite part about Armageddon. I remember him in Kung Fu Panda and Green Lantern. Memorable characters just because of his voice. I didn't see nothing with him made before Armageddon but I'll watch them at some point. The Green Mile and The Whole Nine Yards sound intresting.
    He did some good work in some shit I watched: Kim Possible: A Stitch in Time, The Scorpion King, The Island, See Spot Run, Talladega Nights.

    1. A very fine actor gone too young. Actually forgot he had passed. So very sad.