Actor Spotlight: Michael Clarke Duncan
Michael Clarke Duncan passed away at the age of 54, leaving behind a solid body of work in film. With his rich, booming voice and towering physique, Duncan was a commanding presence any time he was on screen. One of his first film roles was in Armageddon, where he struck up a friendship with Bruce Willis. That, in turn, led him to be cast in his most recognized performance as John Coffey in Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella, The Green Mile. Duncan’s performance was tender, endearing and moving; audiences easily sympathized with the doomed character and the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences recognized him with a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work.
I’ll defer to other obituaries to recount the trajectory of his career and life’s story. I was touched by his performance in The Green Mile, but I didn’t see it until years after its release. It wasn’t until 2002 that I really took notice of Duncan, when he was announced to play The Kingpin in Daredevil. I vividly recall the roiling debate over him being cast in the role, as Wilson Fisk has always been illustrated as a white guy in the comics. Accusations flew that the film wasn’t even trying to be faithful to the source material, that it was some kind of “stunt” casting.
Daredevil is a flawed film (the theatrical cut, anyway; Mark Steven Johnson’s director’s cut is significantly stronger), but it did hew much closer to its source material than the naysayers anticipated – particularly to some of the key stories written by Frank Miller, who appears in a cameo as a victim of Bullseye, credited as ‘Man with Pen in Head’. One of the strongest aspects of the whole film is Duncan’s performance. It isn’t until the film’s end that the character really shows his truest nature, but Duncan hints at it throughout the film. Something sinister lurks behind every smile he flashes. It isn’t just that he’s a mountain of a man; his Kingpin is cool, but clearly simmering just beneath the surface. There’s a sort of casual cruelty befitting the comic book character. In short, he was the perfect casting choice.
The 2-disc DVD includes some genuinely great interviews in the bonus content, and what struck me most was Duncan’s unabashed enthusiasm for geek culture. Even among comic book geeks – for that matter, even among Marvel Comics fans – there’s often a sense that Daredevil and his cast of characters are fringe players. Duncan, however, clearly relished the chance to play The Kingpin. I’ve heard lots of actors discuss their interest in various roles and it’s pretty obvious when what they’re saying is code for, “It’s a job and I don’t want to alienate the people who care about this a lot more than I do.” There was no such charade to Duncan’s discussion of The Kingpin. And that’s when I realized why I liked him so much: He was one of us.
Two years after Daredevil, Duncan played Manute in the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City. Again, anytime he was asked to speak about the role, he lit up with enthusiasm. Some of the cast took the film as a chance to work with director Robert Rodriguez or some of the other actors, but there was a sense that Duncan took the film because he was excited to be part of an adaptation of Sin City. This was a guy who knew, and loved, comic books.
Last year, in addition to playing Kilowog in Green Lantern, he starred as crime boss Erlik in Cross, an homage to geek culture. The best scene in the entire film is one in which Erlik and his underlings have gathered to play cards. It turns out that they’re playing Go Fish, and Erlik takes the game very seriously. It could have been a shark-jumping scene, but Duncan deftly plays the straight man and allows the absurdity to work. Suspicious that he’s being cheated, Erlik becomes increasingly dangerous. The scene morphs from ridiculous to scary, the mood transformed entirely by Duncan’s inflections and expressions. Neither the characters nor we the audience quite know whether he’s joking with us or not, until it’s too late.
It was easy to overlook that Michael Clarke Duncan was a geek. After all, geeks aren’t usually the size of a linebacker. Plus, his work in The Green Mile was so intrinsically connected to him that I think most audiences connect him with that emotional performance – something far deeper than comic books generally go. It’s fitting, really, that he would be a native son of Chicago. Say the name of the city and people think of the Cubs, Capone and deep dish pizza. Chicago, though, has been part of geek culture from the earliest days and has hosted major comic book conventions for decades. In recent years, Chicago has also been a shooting location for such geek-centric movies as Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy,” Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Marvel’s The Avengers – all of which should have included Michael Clarke Duncan!
When asked by Rotten Tomatoes last August about roles he would like, Duncan said, “I’d want to play Panthro from ThunderCats. I like Panthro. I always have. He was cool, he did the nunchucks… I think Panthro would really suit me.” Mind, Duncan made those remarks before the current Cartoon Network animated series debuted. Some viewers continue to think of him as John Coffey, the tragic character who broke our hearts. Many will conjure images of him as an imposing giant to be feared. I will always remember that he was one of us: a geek. He didn’t just share in our culture with us; he helped enrich it through his work on screen. Somewhere out there is an alternate universe where he got to play Panthro, and I cannot help but to be envious of the people who live there.