LOS ANGELES: Michael Clarke Duncan was a big jumble of contradictions.
His presence was formidable, even intimidating. The former bodyguard had a muscular, 193 cm frame, but it was topped by the brightest of megawatt smiles.
His gravelly baritone was well suited to everything from animated films to action spectacles, but no matter the role, a warmth and a sweetness was always evident underneath.The prolific character actor, whose dozens of movies included an Oscar-nominated performance as a death row inmate in “The Green Mile” and box office hits including “Armageddon,” “Planet of the Apes” and “Kung Fu Panda,” died Monday at age 54.
Although he only turned to acting in his 30s, it’s clear from the outpouring of prayers and remembrances he received across the Hollywood and sports worlds that his gentle-giant persona made him much-loved during that relatively brief time.
Duncan died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he was being treated for a heart attack, his fiancee Omarosa Manigault said.
Tom Hanks, star of 1999’s “The Green Mile” – the film that earned a then-little-known Duncan a supporting-actor nomination at the Academy Awards – said he was “terribly saddened at the loss of Big Mike. He was the treasure we all discovered on the set of ‘The Green Mile.’ He was magic. He was a big love of man and his passing leaves us stunned.”
Other sad and shocked reactions came from a diverse field that included Dallas Mavericks basketball team owner Mark Cuban, actresses Alexa Vega, Niecy Nash and Olivia Munn, and former boxing champion Lennox Lewis.
In the spring of 2012, Duncan had appeared in a video for PETA, the animal rights organization, in which he spoke of how 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 accolades and fame. The 1999 film starred 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 Hollywood favorite. He owed some of his good fortune to Bruce Willis, who recommended Duncan for “The Green Mile” after the two appeared together in “Armageddon.”
His industrial-sized build was suited for everything from superhero films to comedy, but he could have made a career out of his voice work alone, with appearances in several animated movies including “Kung Fu Panda.”
Born in Chicago in 1957, Duncan was raised by a single mother whose resistance to his playing football led to his deciding he wanted to become an actor. When his mother fell ill, he dropped out of college 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 among others. The murder of rapper Notorious B.I.G., for whom Duncan had been hired to protect before switching assignments, led him to quit his job and pursue acting full time.