Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Michael Clarke Duncan

The Green Mile began appearing in bookstores way back in 1996, and like lots of other readers, I snapped each installment up and read it as soon as possible.  It was -- and is -- an utterly entrancing tale, but something about it bothered me in a mild way: it will never, I thought, make a good movie.  My rationale was simple: finding someone to play John Coffey was going to be nearly impossible.  The only actor -- and I use that word in the loosest-possible sense -- I could think of who would be even vaguely qualified for the job would have been Shaquille O'Neal (who had recently starred in a minor hit called Kazaam).  O'Neal couldn't act, though, and surely anybody who played John Coffey would have to be able to act, right?

So a movie version simply seemed unattainable, at least to me.

Ah, but there are people in Hollywood who know way more than I know, and one of the things they knew was that this guy existed:

That, of course, is Michael Clarke Duncan, shown here in a moment from Armageddon.  He didn't have a huge part in that movie, but he made enough of an impression on Bruce Willis that the star (who was being considered for the Paul Edgecombe role) recommended him to Frank Darabont.  And the rest is history.

Armageddon was still two years in the future when I was reading The Green Mile for the first time, and while reading the novel, I could have successfully told you that whoever was eventually cast as John Coffey would need to be big, black, and male, and also that he would need to be able to cry on camera, convincingly portray a simpleton, exude an almost Christlike goodness, AND somehow manage to seem like both a giant and a meek little lamb.  It wouldn't hurt if he was unafraid of mice.  He'd need to be able to play at being terrified, too.

I could have drawn you up a very good bullet-point list of the attributes you would need in order to successfully play John Coffey on film, but I simply could not entertain the notion that such an actor existed.  And yet, he DID exist, and Frank Darabont eventually cast him, and Michael Clarke Duncan will probably be remembered for that role as long as people continue to watch movies.

How many times in cinematic history has there been a role that difficult to fill that was filled that well?  Not many.  In fact, I cannot off the top of my head think of a single one.  It is really quite an amazing achievement, when you think about it.


A lot of people have been writing things about Duncan this week, and that's as it should be.  I initially had no plans to add my voice to those, because I didn't think there was anything I could contribute that wouldn't be pure redundancy.  However, I woke up this morning with an idea: to pay a bit of tribute to Duncan by listing some other roles from the Stephen King canon that I would have loved to see him play.  Because here's the thing: he was a great on-screen presence, and a solid actor in roles both dramatic and comedic.  He was one of the rare actors who could have convincingly played Santa Claus and then turned right around and convincingly played a Bond villain.  Hollywood never put him to proper use; he had a few solid roles post-Green Mile, but I always felt as though he ought to have become a superstar, and nobody ever put the right material in front of him for that to happen.

He's got a sort of superstardom, though, by virtue of appearing in The Green Mile, which is a bit of a classic.  He was perfect for the role of John Coffey.  What other Stephen King characters might he have been perfect for?

  • Dick Hallorann, The Shining:  This one is a bit of a no-brainer.  First of all, simply from a visual point of view, it would be fun to see the massive Duncan playing opposite a tiny little Danny Torrance.  Apart from that, though, Duncan always had a gleam in his eye that made him look as though maybe he knew something the rest of us didn't know.
  • The General, The Long Walk:  The General doesn't appear much in this book, but the threat of him lurks behind every page.  Here is a man so powerful, so charismatic, so compelling, that he has successfully convinced society to support a game in which a hundred young men start walking, and 99 of them are eventually shot to death.  Duncan's role as Kingpin in Daredevil showed that he could pull off imperious, unyielding menace.  If he could do it there, he'd've also been great popping up at the end of The Long Walk as the man motivating the entire bloody competition.

  • Andy McGee, Firestarter:  Could Duncan play a man running across the country, trying to keep his daughter from being kidnapped by nogoodnik government agents?  You bet your life he could have done that one.  And his physicality would have brought some extra menace to the scenes in which Andy uses his own abilities.
  • John Rainbird, Firestarter:  Hey, if Rainbird can be a white guy (George C. Scott), he can be a black guy, too.  And imagine how scary Duncan would seem as a ruthless assassin.  He'd excel in the scenes in which he was earning Charlie's sympathy and trust, and then he'd be terrifying once he turned the corner toward trying to kill her.
  • Ben Richards, The Running Man:  I always thought it was a shame that Hollywood didn't try to turn Duncan into a Schwarzenegger-style action star; I think he could have made an outstanding one.  (Of course, he may have resisted those sorts of roles, for all I know.)  Duncan would have been great in a version of The Running Man that stuck closer to the bleak, oppressive novel.
  • Dan Killian, The Running Man:  Duncan would also have made a terrific Killian, the smarmy network head who runs The Running Man.  His big personality would help it seem palatable that someone could actually pull off a show of that nature.
  • Speedy Parker, The Talisman:  Duh.
  • Clayton Blaisdell, Jr., Blaze:  Blaze has a few similarities with John Coffey, so we know Duncan could have pulled this character off.
  • Jerome Wireman, Duma Key:  Duncan would have been able to bring the charm and the sense of humor he naturally possessed to this role.  He'd've made a great foil for Edgar, and he would have been good with the darker elements of the story, as well.
  • Dale Barbara, Under the Dome:  Michael Clarke Duncan playing a badass war vet trying to regain control of a town trapped underneath an impenetrable force-field?  Oh yeah, sign me up for that.
There are probably others, too, especially supporting roles.  Duncan was an actor whose talents were broader than you would ever tell from watching any of his movies that weren't named The Green Mile.

I really wish we'd gotten a chance to see more of him, and in better roles, but such is life.  We'll always have The Green Mile, after all, and a role like that one is better than 99% of all actors will ever get in their entire careers.


  1. A fine tribute, sir.

    RIP, MCD.

    (As Wireman? Not bad!)

  2. I've always felt that if The Stand were to be adapted again as a film or miniseries, Duncan would have made an excellent choice for Ralph. I remember you pointing out (correctly, in my view) that the cast would need to be more diverse than King's in 78, and Ralph is a character whose ethnicity could easily be changed.

    1. Yeah! Ralph, right on. He would indeed have be good for that.