A personal goodbye to ‘Green Mile’ star Michael Clarke Duncan

The term “gentle giant” is a cliche, but in the case of Michael Clarke Duncan, it was completely appropriate.

I find it difficult to believe that Duncan is gone.  I find it hard to write about his passing, because it doesn’t seem real.  Duncan was one of the most genuine wide-open souls I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, and my many encounters with him over the years all left me convinced he was someone who would work for the rest of his life, always in demand, always good when he’s hired.

I remember hearing about him first.  Harry Knowles came back from his visit to the set of “Armageddon” completely and utterly in love with him.  No other way to put it.  Harry was convinced that of the entire sprawling ensemble, positively dripping with testosterone, Michael Clarke Duncan was the biggest personality, the guy he couldn’t stop watching.  He was doing other films, busy with TV work, but “Armageddon” was a major jump into the foreground for him.  You can see him in “Bulworth” and “A Night At The Roxbury,” and he’s good considering what he’s given to play, but he had to find the right thing, something that really showcased him.

Then came “The Green Mile.”

When it went into production, it was a location shoot first.  I heard some things about his performance from friends working on or around the movie, and then they moved back to Hollywood for the soundstage work.  Frank Darabont used the stages at Formosa and Santa Monica, what used to be the Hollywood Warner Ranch where they filmed the castle sequences for “The Adventures Of Robin Hood,” a sort of satellite of the main Burbank property.  At the time they went into production, Warner Bros. had already sold it off, and it was simply known as The Lot.  With Jones across the street and the Formosa Cafe across another street and a location pretty much in the heart of Hollywood, it also happened to be right around the corner from my apartment.  I could walk to The Lot from where I lived, and thanks to the generosity of Frank, I was allowed to do that repeatedly over several weeks, observing, quietly hanging back and watching what was pretty much a master’s class in film acting.

After all, it was Tom Hanks, James Cromwell, Sam Rockwell, Bill Sadler, Patricia Clarkson… David Morse, for god’s sake, a monstrously good actor, one of those guys who always, always, always delivers.  Bonnie Hunt.  The great Michael Jeter, one of those guys who was such a particular presence that you simply have to put “the great” in front of his name when you refer to him.  Graham Greene.  Doug Hutchison as Percy, one of the most natural matches of material and actor I’ve ever seen.  Barry Pepper.  Jeffrey DeMunn, always great.  Always.  Harry.  Dean.  Melonfarming. Stanton.  What a cast.  What a great collection of people.  All of them there because they loved the book, because they loved “Shawshank,” because they trusted and connected with Frank.  Hanks was about as big a movie star as there was in the world at that particular moment in 1999, and while he may have been the face on the poster and the name that guaranteed the budget, Michael Clarke Duncan is the reason “The Green Mile” is “The Green Mile.”  With a cast as dense with talent as that one was, Duncan’s performance as John Coffey was special.  And because I was allowed to hang back and watch, and because that cast was so comfortable, I felt like I got to see that close-up.  I watched Duncan rise to the role, really throwing down with every single cast member, and I watched each person on that cast have their “holy cow” moment with Duncan at some point during that time, when they had some great, true moment with him in front of the camera.  One of the best of those was when Stephen King himself visited the set so he could sit in Old Sparky, and watching him meet Michael and talk to him and realize how John Coffey was being brought to life, it was amazing.  King seemed so pleased, so surprised to be dealing with this tangible near-perfect realization of the character he created.

Off-camera, Duncan was an incredibly easy person to talk to, open and friendly and well aware of his own iconic visual impact.  He knew that he was a mountain of a man, and even if his presence was exaggerated using forced perspective and old-fashioned apple boxes and camera angles to make him bigger, he was huge in real life.  The sort of person who filled a space, and in Michael’s case, he filled the space with a great laugh, a sense of humor and play, and a real love for the work he was allowed to do.

There was a night after the film had been finished and released when Frank invited several of us to see the movie at a private screening room because a filmmaker didn’t want to see the movie alone.  When we got to the screening room, it was Billy Wilder, and at the end of the film, we got to listen to him talk about Duncan’s work, his admiration evident.  When Michael got an Oscar nomination, it made perfect sense, and it felt like the industry opened up and invited him in, the way it does so often for actors when they have that lightning bolt moment.

But as with many character actors, Michael was not the easiest person to cast for Hollywood, and they didn’t really know what to do with him.  He does nice work in “The Whole Nine Yards,” and even in movies like “The Scorpion King,” he’s trying to find something that will make it work.  He rocked some Rick Baker make-up in “Planet Of The Apes,” and he was a controversial choice to play the Kingpin when Ben Affleck, his co-star from “Armageddon,” signed on to play Daredevil.  For every “Talladega Nights,” there are several “Racing Stripes” or “The Island”s on his filmography.  He worked, but a lot of it marginalized him.  And instead of being bitter about it or complaining, Duncan found work and he did his best to make it worth something.  He could often make a scene come to life during the blocking of it.  He just had that sort of personality.

When I was working a few years ago with producers to make “Bat Out Of Hell,” Joe Dante was set to direct the film, and the main character was a former professional wrestler who was retired, haunted by something awful that happened to him.  There aren’t many actors who can credibly bring a pile of mass and a certain finesse in terms of character work, and Duncan’s name was on a very short list that we discussed.  We all liked him as a choice, and the more we thought about it, the more excited we all were.  An offer was made and a tentative yes was sent back, and we started to move forward thinking of “Bat” as a movie starring Michael Clarke Duncan.  What happened after that broke my heart for a number of reasons. 

We were told to wait out the time table that had been built into the offer to Michael.  We were told just to let the clock tick out and then we could start looking for a new lead.  They started pushing the name Michael Chiklis on us, and i had trouble believing that Duncan, who had an Oscar nomination and a huge monster hit like “Armageddon” was worth less to us than Chiklis.  We were told in no uncertain terms that Duncan was impossible to sell to the overseas financiers as a lead, and that it was because he was black.  We were told in no uncertain terms that Will Smith and Denzel Washington were box-office of sorts overseas, but that there could be no room for any other black leads, that Europe and Asia simply wouldn’t see it.  The thought that we were going to have to pass on Michael over the color of his skin upset me to the point that we started to disconnect from the producers.  I couldn’t accept that as a reason not to use him, and the idea that financing comes down to this ruthless crunching of certain numbers on certain tables against certain other numbers with no real regard for what an actor brings to a film just offends me.  Especially when it means we lose what could have been a really wonderful piece of work by him.

In the end, the producers waited out Michael, and when they moved on, so did we.  Joe left the film and we watched from a distance as they tried to cast the film.  They blew it when they let Michael get away.  I felt cheated out of that experience, out of having my own chance to see him bring something to life that I wrote.  I’m envious of everyone who ever worked with him.  I’m not sure how many of you have seen “The Slammin’ Salmon,” Kevin Heffernan’s restaurant comedy, but Duncan is outstanding in it, funny every single time he’s onscreen.  It’s a great representation of just how much he could bring to something that started off strong on the page.  Even when you didn’t see him, and that was often considering how much voice-over and animation work he did, you knew it was him.  Aside from having a bass so resonant you can feel him talking when you’re face to face, Duncan also had a great sense of timing, instantly recognizable in the choices he makes.  I may not have liked last summer’s “Green Lantern” very much, but he was well-cast as the voice of Kilowog, and even though they only ever saw trailers, both of my kids were in love with the glimpses they caught of that character.

Big Mike.  54.  Leaving this life suddenly to those of us not part of his daily orbit.  I didn’t know he’d had a heart attack a few months ago, but certainly recovery from that is not easy, and it sounds like it was just a natural hiccup, the result of never quite catching his wind again after his last near-miss.  I am crushed to think that I’m never going to run into him on a set again or see a new performance by him.  It took me a full day to sort of process it to the point I could even write this.  I’ve been in and around Hollywood long enough that some of these passings are going to hit closer to home, and in this case, I feel a real mixture, a conflict between gratitude that I got to see him in his element, finding his voice from take to take, and frustration that I was just an observer there, and that I never get to collaborate with him or hear an idea he pitches. 

I imagine there are people all through the industry who probably felt a very deep and personal loss when they heard this news, and my condolences go out to all of those who were close to him, friends and family.