I was hoping to avoid having to write one these posts for a while once it was decided that we would begin to highlight some of our favorite performers’ lives and careers at their passing. But sometimes we don’t get what we want, and news hit yesterday that actor Michael Clarke Duncan had died at age 54 from complications of a myocardial infarction he suffered in July, never being fully able to recover. For any fan of the actor, the fact that his heart gave out on him is a bitter irony as he exuded nothing but warmth, vulnerability, humor, and gentleness in a majority of his performances—unless called to do otherwise—and, most important, in his life as well, exhibiting a zest for life that most can only envy.
The first time I can recall seeing this mountain of a man on film is probably the first time you did as well, as Bear in Michael Bay’s Armageddon. Say what you will about Bay’s big-budget, box-office bonanza, one of the things he got right in the film was introducing the world to Duncan’s hulking 6′5″, 300-pound frame by blocking Bruce Willis, in hot pursuit of Ben Affleck on an oil rig, all the while having an equally massive wrench thrown over his shoulder. Duncan would go on to steal the majority of the film out from under his more well-established stars, leaving an undeniable impression on audiences and industry-types alike, and most important, creating a friend in Willis whose support would help land him his signature role.
Up until this point in his career, the Chicago native had played mostly background, bit-parts in Warren Beatty’s Bulworth and F. Gary Gray’s Friday; roles that required a viewer’s liberal use of the pause button to catch a glimpse of the actor, as he was relegated to nonspeaking roles, shooting craps with Deebo in a driveway or bouncing Senator Jay Billington Bullworth out of a nightclub. All that was about to change forever as Duncan’s next role was considerably more high profile that any he had taken on in his past, that of John Coffey, a rare instance when there is a perfect physical translation from novel to film. His masterful work in Frank Darabont’s adaptation of a Steven King serial didn’t leave a dry eye in movie houses from Miami to Seattle, and ultimately earned the actor a richly deserved Academy Award nomination, an honor that would come to represent the pinnacle of his all too short career.
From that point on, the former ditch digger and bodyguard for Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, and The Notorious B.I.G. would enjoy a solid run of supporting performances in films both large and small: Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake, the evil Manute in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, Broken Lizard’s The Slammin’ Salmon, and as Marvel villain extraordinaire Kingpin, in a misguided and generally awful attempt to bring Daredevil* to the silver screen. He would highlight his comedy chops and surprising improvisation skills as Ricky Bobby’s pit crew boss in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (“Don’t you put that evil on me, Ricky Bobby!” Or in one of my personal favorite scenes from the film, suggesting they remove the knife from Ricky Bobby’s leg with yet another knife: “Let’s use this knife to pry it out!”), and lent his signature baritone voice to numerous animated films (Kung Fu Panda, Racing Stripes) and television shows (Family Guy), helping him to nourish a rather diverse career in a 14-year time span and, for a time, becoming one of my favorite character actors.
At the time of his death, Michael Clarke Duncan had several projects in development, including a reprisal of Manute in the upcoming sequel to Sin City, A Dame to Kill For, and a prominent role in Robert Townsend’s In the Hive. Right now, it’s hard for any film fan to imagine that we are about to see his last work, but at least he leaves several performances and films behind that should be able to stand the test of time. Thanks for the laughs, the tears, and the memories.
*For this role, Duncan went a little bit method, gaining another 40 pounds to his already colossal frame.