Before he moved to Hollywood to pursue an acting career, the late Michael Clarke Duncan -- who died Monday morning at the age of 54 following a July heart attack -- used to get teased by his coworkers that Bruce Willis was calling for him. Little did they know Willis would eventually come calling.
In 2000, Duncan appeared on "Larry King Live" alongside Willis to promote their film "The Whole Nine Yards." When prompted, Duncan talked about one of his jobs prior to acting -- digging ditches for the gas company in Chicago. It was something he always saw as temporary until he became an actor. "It was hard work. The guys used to call me 'Hollywood' because they didn't think I was ever going to make it," Duncan said. "The big joke was that they would always call and I'd be like six feet below the surface of the earth on this big main [pipe] getting all this dirt from around. They'd say, 'Hey Big Mike, Bruce Willis is on line two, he wants you to do a movie.' And everybody would crack up, and I'd just sit there and I said, 'You know what, one day you guys are going to have to pay at least $8 to see this face.' And here I am [points to Willis] sitting beside him."
Yes, Duncan did eventually move to Hollywood, first working as a bodyguard for the likes of Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, LL Cool J, and The Notorious B.I.G. The 6-foot, 5-inch, 300-plus pound Chicago native took on small television roles then got his big break in 1998's "Armageddon" -- where he first worked with Willis. The film's director, Michael Bay, paid tribute to Duncan on his website, describing the actor he hired to play Bear. Bay said Duncan wasn't a natural born actor at first: "I remember looking to Ben Affleck and thinking we might need to fire him. But I told him 'Mike, I hired you for you, I want the sweet, Mr Clarke Duncan I met in that room'. I said, 'the audience is going to fall in love with you'. He looked and smiled with [his] deep voice and said 'Ok'. From then on out he became the most improved actor on the set. That was the award he got at the end of the film. Everyone loved him, his infectious spirit and great belly laugh."
Surely it was that infectious spirit that led Willis to recommend Duncan for his biggest role yet -- as the gentle-spirited death row inmate with magical healing powers, John Coffey, in "The Green Mile." "Bruce told me, 'Michael, I've just read this script and you are this guy John Coffey. I just know it,'" Duncan told the Ottawa Citizen in 2001 [via the L.A. Times]. Willis called writer-director Frank Darabont, who was adapting the Stephen King novel of the same name into a film, recommended Duncan for the role and eventually he was cast.
The 1999 film, also starring Tom Hanks, went on to gain four Oscar nominations, one of which was a best supporting actor nomination for Duncan. When he got news of his nomination, Duncan was so excited that he claimed he could have fought Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and the Rock. When a reporter suggested he could do that anyway, he replied, "Not all at the same time, man." Duncan, who had described his "Green Mile" role to the New York Times as 'a gift from God,' was also nominated for a Golden Globe the same year.
While filming "The Green Mile," Duncan had one scene in particular that he found challenging. "I think the toughest scene for me to film was the two dead girls, simply because I had a lot of crying to do, a lot of howling to do, and it took a long time to do it and it really drained me," he told The Akron Beacon Journal in 1999 [via the New York Times]. Duncan said he felt literally scared each time Darabont yelled "roll" because it seemed so realistic to him. Indeed, Darabont remembered Duncan's commitment to the role: "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."
Along with a long list of television and film projects, Duncan went on to appear in three more films with his friend Bruce Willis: "Breakfast of Champions," "The Whole Nine Yards" and "Sin City."
Tom Hanks paid tribute to his costar, saying, "I am 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."