Michael Clarke Duncan, the hulking character actor whose dozens of film credits included an Oscar-nominated performance as a death row inmate in “The Green Mile” and such other box office hits as “Armageddon,” “Planet of the Apes” and “Kung Fu Panda,” Monday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he was being treated for a heart attack, said his fiancee, reality TV personality Rev. Omarosa Manigault. He was 54.
The muscular, 6-foot-4 Duncan, a former bodyguard who turned to acting in his 30s, “suffered a myocardial infarction on July 13 and never fully recovered,” the statement said.
In the spring of 2012, Duncan had appeared in a video for PETA, the animal rights organization, in which he spoke of how much better he felt since becoming a vegetarian three years earlier.
“I cleared out my refrigerator, about $5,000 worth of meat,” he said. “I’m a lot healthier than I was when I was eating meat.”
Duncan had a handful of minor roles before “The Green Mile” brought him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. The 1999 film, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, starred Tom Hanks as a corrections officer at a penitentiary in the 1930s. Duncan played John Coffey, a convicted murderer with a surprisingly gentle demeanor and extraordinary healing powers.
Duncan’s performance caught on with critics and moviegoers and he quickly became a favorite in Hollywood, appearing in several films a year. He owed some of his good fortune to Bruce Willis, who recommended Duncan for “The Green Mile” after the two appeared together in “Armageddon.” Duncan worked with Willis again in “Breakfast of Champions,” “The Whole Nine Yards” and “Sin City.”
His industrial-sized build was suited for everything from superhero films (“Daredevil”) to comedy (“Talledega Nights,” “School for Scoundrels”). He brought his gravelly baritone to animated movies including, “Kung Fu Panda,” “Delgo” and “Brother Bear.” Among Clarke’s television credits: “The Apprentice,” “The Finder,” “Two and a Half Men” and “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.”
Born in Chicago in 1957, Duncan was raised by a single mother who didn’t want him to play football, leading to his decision to become an actor. But when his mother became ill, he dropped out of college, Alcorn State U., and worked as a ditch digger and bouncer to support her. By his mid-20s, he was in Los Angeles, where he looked for acting parts and became a bodyguard for Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and other stars. The murder of rapper Notorious B.I.G., whom Duncan had been hired to protect before switching assignments, led him to quit his job and pursue acting full-time.
Said Frank Darabont, “Our experience making “The Green Mile” together was immersive and incredible, a once-in-a-lifetime journey. What sticks most in my mind was his devotion to his craft and the strides he made as an artist during that time, which was beyond inspiring to those of us who took the journey with him. Never has an actor more richly deserved the recognition of an Academy Award nomination than Michael did for his performance as John Coffey.”