When I first read The Green Mile in its original, monthly serialized form, I was struck by two thoughts. First, that it would make one hell of a movie. Second, that it would be unlikely to ever become one, because it would be nigh impossible to cast the character of John Coffey, the black 6′ 8″ hulking simpleton who was falsely accused of the rape an murder of two young white girls in the novel.
Michael Clarke Duncan was three inches shorter than John Coffey, but other than that he was perfect for the role. He had been an actor for five years prior to landing the role, typically in small roles as bouncers (in Married With Children, Bulworth and A Night at the Roxbury) or guards of one sort or another (in Back in Business, Living Single and The Players Club) in a number of films and TV shows. Arguably, his largest role prior to The Green Mile was as a member of Bruce Willis’ crew in Armageddon.
But his playing John Coffey was a thing that happens all too rarely in Hollywood–the absolutely ideal marriage of an actor and role. His physical appearance matched the fearsome and imposing figure Stephen King described in his novel, but Duncan’s acting captured the nuanced characterization–the sweet innocence and simple nature–that King wrote into the character. It’s telling that in a film where awards season favorites such as Tom Hanks, David Morse, Patricia Clarkson, James Cromwell and Sam Rockwell gave bravura performances, Duncan was the only member of the cast to get a Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actor, which he lost to Michael Caine for Cider House Rules).
Unfortunately, while Hollywood has no shortage of roles that Duncan’s physical presence would be ideal for, few of these roles would play up to his acting talents. Regardless, he would fulfill his dream of becoming a working actor, typically in science-fiction and comic book genre films.
He played Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. The Kingpin, in 2003’s Daredevil, played Manute in 2005’s Sin City, and voice the alien trainer Kilowog in 2011’s Green Lantern. In addition, he had pivotal roles in 2001’s Planet of the Apes, 2002’s The Scorpion King, and 2009’s Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li.
Duncan would also appear in a number of comedies, notably 2000’s The Whole Nine Yards, 2006’s Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby and School for Scoundrels, and 2009’s The Slammin’ Salmon. And his deep baritone lent itself to voice overwork in animation and numerous video games.