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Top 10 Michael Clarke Duncan roles

By Michael Murphy,
10 great roles by the late, great Michael Clarke Duncan

We have said our goodbyes to a number of celebrities and pop culture figures in the year 2012 and it’s with great sadness that we must now say goodbye to another one, the spectacular character actor, Michael Clarke Duncan.

At just the young age of 54, the highly recognizable actor was receiving treatment for a nearly fatal heart attack he suffered in July of this year when he passed away on September 3. Duncan was a definitive presence on screen in multiple capacities. His massive and muscular physical frame in addition to his height of six feet five inches made him incredibly memorable and was only buffered by his impeccable ability to act.

From his breakthrough in 1998’s Armageddon until his recent passing, Duncan also dipped into a great deal of voice work, in both television and film, which he was perfectly suited for because of his booming baritone voice. Regardless of the form Mr. Duncan took on screen, he was always a reliable and welcomed actor to have amongst a talented ensemble and he will be surely missed. Here are ten roles that perfectly represent the talent and legacy of Michael Clarke Duncan.

10. A Night at the Roxbury, The Player’s Club, Bulworth (1998)
“Bouncer/Bodyguard”
Though three different movies, they all count as one on this list because of Duncan’s role within the three films. Due to his real life job as a bodyguard in the 1990s, he was tagged to play a role related to that of a bodyguard: A bouncer (actually, he did play a bodyguard in Ice Cube’s The Player’s Club). Though these were small, and not particularly standout performances, every actor does get their start somewhere and due to the celebrities that he was employed under as a bodyguard (Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, LL Cool J, etc.) he was an easy choice to fill this very minor role and always came highly recommended. However, he never portrayed a bodyguard again, in either film or in real life, after A Night in the Roxbury because Michael Bay cast him in Armageddon, which was released the same year as Roxbury and that catapulted him into bigger roles. In real life he had decided to leave the bodyguard business after the death of famed rapper The Notorious B.I.G. Duncan was the rapper’s bodyguard and happened to take the night off the night B.I.G. was murdered in Los Angeles. After 1998, Duncan’s acting career really took off.

9. The Island (2005)
“Starkweather”
Michael Bay is Hollywood’s most reliable hack director, the guy furnishes some truly monotonous films but his knack for making everything explode and look undeniably awesome makes for consistent entertainment and more directing and producing opportunities. A number of his films have found fandom, but his film, The Island, from 2004, is one of his [even] more lackluster efforts and was met with minimal acclaim critically or by audiences and is easily the most forgotten Bay film. Interestingly enough, The Island possessed a respected and talented cast including Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Djimon Hounsou, and Michael Clarke Duncan. Though limited in screen time, Duncan brought expected charm and charisma to Starkweather, the clone of Jamal Starkweather (also played by Duncan) who McGregor’s character, Lincoln, witnesses get taken to ‘the island’ – which means that the person who they were the clones of is in serious medical care and requires their harvested organs to survive. The shocking sequence involves a stunned Lincoln watching Starkweather be dragged down a bright white hallway as his nails dig into the floor. A well-acted, albeit brief, role in an otherwise below average action film.

8. School for Scoundrels (2006)
“Lesher”
The Hangover director Todd Phillips is far from perfect and in 2006 he directed the tasteless School for Scoundrels starring Jon Heder and Billy Bob Thornton. In this Dinner for Schmucks-esque comedy, Phillips tagged an eclectic supporting cast including Ben Stiller and Michael Clarke Duncan as a traumatized former member of the titular school and Duncan as the school’s enforcer, working underneath Thornton’s character, respectively. Though not a particularly strong film or comedy, Duncan’s character is one of the film’s shining elements, mostly due to the running joke that is his relationship with Stiller’s character. “Did Lesher rape you too?” is possibly the film’s best line. 2006 marked a strong leap forward in terms of Duncan’s film choices. His standout part in Scoundrels alongside his hilarious turn in another popular 2006 comedy were both very successful attempts in broadening his acting scope.

7. Planet of the Apes (2001)
“Attar”
Commonly perceived as not one of Tim Burton’s finer moments, the Planet of the Apes remake did possess one very strong element: An all-star cast including Mark Wahlberg, Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Roth, Paul Giamatti, and, of course, Michael Clarke Duncan. Like most of his co-stars, Duncan was nearly unrecognizable underneath multiple layers of ape makeup, his role of Attar being a fitting choice due to his brooding physical intensity, but Apes ended up suffering from an overly campy style and unintentional laughs. Burton’s take on the famed tale was not a particular favorite among critics, but Duncan still made the best of what he could in this Burton clunker.

6. Brother Bear, Kung Fu Panda, Green Lantern (2003, 2008, 2011) “Tug,” “Commander Vachir,” “Kilowog”
If any one actor’s voice could command the same kind of presence as their physicality could, it would be Michael Clarke Duncan. His perfectly deep, and many times frightening voice was too perfect for voice cast acting and he took great advantage of that natural talent by providing his voice to a number of animated characters throughout different genres of films. In the cuddly Brother Bear, the unabashedly fun Kung Fu Panda and the CGI-heavy Green Lantern, Duncan is one of the most familiar voices among the casts and his phenomenal control over his own voice matched every necessary characteristic of these animated characters. The finest of the three listed characters is definitely Commander Vachir of Kung Fu Panda, the evil rhino villain of the feature who Po (Jack Black) eventually faces off against. When it came to ideal voice casting, no casting director had to look any farther than Michael Clarke Duncan.

5. Sin City (2005)
“Manute”
For his ambitious adaptation of Frank Millar’s graphic novel of the same name, director Robert Rodriguez acquired an expansive cast of actors to make the interconnecting world of Sin City come to life. The brilliant film features three complete stories, each directly from a Millar novel, that star Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, and Clive Owen respectively facing off against a particular baddie with a laundry list of supporting characters. In Owen’s story, “The Big Fat Kill,” he squares off against the ruthless mercenary Manute, played terrifically by Duncan, who dons a fake, gold right eye, a replacement necessary after a violent encounter with Owen’s character, Dwight. Manute is a role that called specifically for an actor like Duncan, and he portrayed him as a merciless and misogynistic character of great strength and violence. His eventual demise, though from the theatrical cut of the film, is a fantastic sequence. In the grand scheme of things, Manute may not have a great deal of screen time, but Duncan did a whole lot in a short amount of time and left a lasting impression as Manute.

4. The Whole Nine Yards (2000)
“Franklin ‘Frankie Figs’ Figueroa”
Clue director Jonathan Lynn’s outrageous suburban comedy, The Whole Nine Yards features Duncan’s first comedic performance as the enforcer for gangster Janni Gogolak (Kevin Pollack). Alongside Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, and Bruce Willis, whom Duncan frequently collaborated with, Duncan perfectly fit into the ensemble cast and earned a number of big laughs. His step into the field of comedy eventually reached a stride later on in the 2000s, but Lynn’s forgotten gem is one to definitely check out not only for Duncan’s performance but for sheer comedic enjoyment as well.

3. Armageddon (1998)
“Bear”
Michael Bay’s third feature, the disaster-filled Armageddon, is one of the most popular guilty pleasure films to ever exist. From a critical standpoint, there is not a single moment in this film that doesn’t seem clichéd, but due to Bay’s directorial style (he directs his films as if they were music videos), Armageddon manages to be very watchable and surprisingly rewatchable. Like with many of the films he has starred in, Duncan was part of a large ensemble cast that included dramatic and comedic actors alike playing an oil rig team commissioned with drilling into a huge asteroid that is headed directly for Earth and destroying it before it annihilates the Earth. Duncan’s character, Bear, was a gentle giant who in the end turned out to be Duncan’s breakthrough role. The performance turned enough heads for a career in acting to be a very viable option for the former bodyguard. And alas, after all these years and his passing, Bear remains one of Duncan’s best screen appearances. “No Harry, you’re the man.”

2. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
“Lucius Washington”
Michael Clarke Duncan ranked among some of the best contemporary character actors and his leaps into the realm of comedy were always very well received, but none were more praised than that of Lucius Washington in Adam McKay’s Anchorman followup, Talladega Nights which put Duncan alongside comic thespian, Will Ferrell. Lucius was the head of professional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby’s (Ferrell) pit crew and not only did he deliver side-splitting laughs, he was an absolute scene-stealer. From the very beginning of the film, Duncan utilizes all of his natural talents and nuances (deep commanding voice, ‘gentle giant’ nature, etc.) in the direction of comedy and scores every single time. “If we don’t get that car back on the road, our sponsors are going to shit a chicken” is one of the film’s more hysterical lines and it’s because of Duncan’s delivery that that line, in addition to many others, are as quotable and memorable as they are. His during-credits outtake where Lucius talks about dressing up as Donna Summer late at night is another fantastic moment that is made golden by Duncan. It’s truly unfortunate that Duncan will never be able to have another comedy like this one with Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights.

1. The Green Mile (1999)
“John Coffey”
This honestly should come as no surprise, but whenever Michael Clarke Duncan is mentioned, if John Coffey from Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile is not the first thing that pops into your head, then you’ve obviously missed out on one of the finest films from not only the 1990s but from recent years in general, and one of my personal favorite films of all time. The Stephen King-inspired story follows Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), a death row officer who encounters an inmate awaiting execution for the murder of two young girls. The inmate, named John Coffey, does not strike Paul as the cold-blooded murderous type and upon personal investigation he learns that Coffey actually possesses a supernatural gift that allows him to heal any living creature by simply touching them and sucking out the evil that is torturing them. Coffey’s gift doubles as a curse, for every evil that he pulls out of someone it gets sifted through him before it is released to disappear in the air. As Paul and John’s relationship continues to develop, Paul realizes that he has been mandated by the state to execute a gift from God and he tries to figure out a way to save this gifted, and potentially innocent, man’s life. For Darabont’s sophomore feature, he was awarded with an emotionally rich and engrossing performance from Duncan, one that can match Morgan Freeman’s mastery in Darabont’s debut film, The Shawshank Redemption. The definitive gentle giant role, John Coffey has become an eternal character due to Duncan’s performance, which was unanimously well received by audiences and critics and earned Duncan an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The late actor will be remembered for a number of roles, but the one that will forever define him is John Coffey from this 1999 masterpiece.

Michael Clarke Duncan, may you forever rest in peace and thank you for sharing your talent with us.

1957-2012

 
 

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