Michael Clarke Duncan Leaves Mark on Hollywood; Leaves Life Too Soon
By Elaine Hegwood Bowen
Special to the NNPA from the Chicago Crusader
More than 15 years ago, when Michael Clarke Duncan was working as a ditch digger for Peoples Energy, I can imagine that he may never have thought that his life’s work would mean anything to anyone other than his family and close friends. And, of course, little did he know back then that he would make an impact on the Black community as an esteemed actor with an Oscar nomination.
But the world was astonished to learn of Mr. Duncan’s death on September 3 at the age of 54 due to a heart attack. He had suffered the heart attack in mid-July—and it is one from which you would expect that a burly man such as himself could recover—so his death was totally unexpected.
His Oscar nomination was for the 1999 The Green Mile and, while I liked other Duncan performances, I must say that the Oscar nod was well deserved. His role as a Death Row inmate named John Coffey was at once commanding and sensitive, due to his stature. He tried to bring a calming balance to the craziness and bigotry that permeated the prison in which he was incarcerated, as his character possessed extraordinary healing powers.
This wasn’t Mr. Duncan’s first role. He was cast in the 1998 Armageddon, as a member of the drilling team sent into space to blow up an asteroid heading to Earth, a role for which his co-star Bruce Willis recommended him. But these early movies led the way for the “big guy” to gain acceptance and casting in other Hollywood movies. Reportedly, he settled on becoming a movie star after having dropped out of college to tend to his ailing mother. Afterward he worked for the utility company and as a bouncer to support his mother, Jean, and sister, Judith. Later he ended up in Los Angeles working as a bodyguard for the likes of Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and other stars, before he quit to pursue his acting career.
At first glance, Duncan’s large frame could be intimidating, and he cut quite an impressive figure with his stature and booming voice. But he always exhibited such a warmth, no matter what role he played. Of late, Mr. Duncan had been dating reality television star Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, most notably of The Celebrity Apprentice fame. The two were engaged, and she announced Mr. Duncan’s death through her publicist. Reportedly Mr. Duncan credited Manigault-Stallworth with helping him shed nearly 35 pounds from his 6’5” frame when he became a vegetarian.
Mr. Duncan was a Chicago native and King High School graduate, and his death was a shock to local fans and those in the entertainment industry. “I was shock- ed at the passing of this great talent and young spirit,” wrote the Goodman Theatre’s Artistic Associate Regina Taylor in an email. “I wish the best to his family and loved ones.”
Austin resident Valincia Woolridge said: “I loved Michael Clarke Duncan’s role as “Bear” in Armageddon. It showed a serious side of him as well as a comedic side. I am going to miss him on the big screen, because he was one of Chi-Town’s finest.”
Duncan will also be remembered for his contributions to the entire Black acting community. “I was stunned to hear about the loss of Michael Clarke Duncan. America, and especially the community of working Black actors, has lost a fine man and humanitarian,” said Deila Davis, a South Side resident. “May his rich legacy in film, community service and mankind live on for generations.”
Other Duncan films included The Players Club, A Night at the Roxbury, Breakfast of Champions, The Whole Nine Yards, Planet of the Apes, Cats & Dogs, See Spot Run, The Scorpion King, Daredevil, Brother Bear, D.E.B.S., Sin City, Racing Stripes, The Island, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, School for Scoundrels, The Last Mimzy, Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, and The Finder television series.
Private and public memorials were being planned for Mr. Duncan at Crusader press time. He leaves to mourn his death and remember his booming, gentle presence, his mother, sister, Manigault-Stallworth and fans the world over.