Michael Clarke Duncan was one of Hollywood’s gentle giants for decades, an instantly recognizable presence with intense physicality and a deep baritone voice full of expression. One might think that he’d get cast in a lot of tough guy villain roles but his career path found him often lending talent to comedic characters and lighthearted fare. That’s not to say he couldn’t embody a hulking bruiser when the opportunity came along, but he managed a terrific variety in his work before passing away far too soon in 2012. Here are my top ten personal favourite of his performances:
10. Benjamin King in Saint’s Row
This is voiceover work in a series of video games but I had to include at least one VO performance because of the sheer power and unique energy he could project. A sprawling urban crime epic in the vein of Grand Theft Auto, King is a self made millionaire, organized crime arch-boss, philanthropist, mega businessman and all around badass who commands a vast army, exudes both class and street smarts and reigns supreme. It’s a devilishly enjoyable vocal performance full of witty barbs, dark humour and booming tough talk.
9. Murdoch in See Spot Run
This is a silly, silly film but I’ve got some childhood nostalgia for it. Murdoch is a federal agent who gets a bit too attached to his canine unit partner and just can’t handle it when the dog runs off to assist a young boy (the kid from Two & A Half Men) and his infantile father (David Arquette) in taking down a cartoonish mobster (Paul Sorvino). Duncan plays him as an unflappably alpha tough guy who’s banging a fellow agent (Kim Hawthorne) but is reduced to tears when he can’t find his dog. I think we could all relate.
8. Attar in Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes
Add prosthetic makeup and fur to his already hulking frame and you’ve got one memorable, scary and conflicted turn as head general to a maniacal ape warlord (a scene stealing Tim Roth). Attar is an old school, militaristic individual who resents his boss’s extremism but isn’t above launching a lethal hunt for the human trespassers on their world.
7. Bear in Michael Bay’s Armageddon
Bruce Willis’s ragtag team of oil drillers turned astronauts are an eclectic, entertaining bunch but perhaps most adorable and endearing is Duncan’s Bear. He’s rowdy, lovable, rides a chopper, lends his pipes to Ben Affleck’s impromptu serenade of ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ and his first thought when asked to basically save the world is to request a stay at the White House.
6. Starkweather Two-Delta/Jamal Starkweather in Michael Bay’s The Island
Here he displays heart wrenching emotional range as a clone who wakes up mid surgery as an evil corporation harvests his organs for a rich client. It’s kind of an extended cameo but the outrage, hurt and desperate effort for survival is something haunting to see, and his work drives the film’s themes of ethics and morality home affectingly.
5. Wilson Fisk/Kingpin in Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil
Netflix’s Daredevil and Vincent D’Onofrio’s frightening Kingpin have taken up both the mantle and the critical acclaim these days, but I still have a lot of love for this version and Michael’s imposing, classy yet brutal portrayal of the biggest baddie in Hell’s Kitchen. He rocks the crisp pinstripe suit, massive cigar and has both the keen intellect and bruising physicality of Fisk, illustrated nicely in a bone crunching final showdown with Ben Affleck’s Matt Murdock.
4. The General in Reto Salimbeni’s One Way
This curious, fascinating and overlooked indie drama sees him play a mysterious military general who serves as protector and metaphysical guardian angel to protagonist Angelina (Lauren Lee Smith). She’s a sexual abuse survivor with a tragic past whose trauma has likely manifested him, and at key moments in her life he appears to console and fight for her. He makes grave, compassionate work of such an esoteric character.
3. Manute in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City
Another slightly esoteric character, Manute is a gigantic, nearly invincible mafia enforcer tasked with neutralizing the unruly hookers of Old Town in this arresting noir realm of murder and madness. Attired in a smart suit that’s half military and all business, sporting a giant golden eyeball (that’s another story) and annunciating in disarmingly well fashioned vernacular, he’s a striking, slightly surreal villain played with gentlemanly yet sinister relish by Duncan. He was recast for the sequel after his passing by Dennis Haysbert, who gave it his all but couldn’t quite capture the magic that Michael gifted this role with.
2. Cleon Salmon in Broken Lizard’s The Slammin Salmon
The funniest performance of his career in one of the best entries by Lizard, who are truly an underrated comedic creative team. The egotistical, boorish owner of a swanky Miami seafood hotspot, Cleon has lost a whole whack of money in a game of ‘Japanese Albino hunting’ (strictly catch and release) and is now making his restaurant staff earn it all back for him in one night under the pretence of a contest. Duncan plays this dude as a maniacal loudmouth who always has to be the centre of attention, get the last laugh and bellow out his running joke of a catchphrase “Whateva mothafucka!!!!” to anyone in earshot. A stroke of comic brilliance.
1. John Coffey in Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile
His work as a death row inmate with a mysterious telepathic ability earned him a well deserved best supporting actor. Coffey is accused of child rape and murder, yet there’s more to the story we find as the block’s head guard (Tom Hanks) learns more about his his extraordinary power to absorb others pain both literally and figuratively. It’s a heartbreaking performance, the one that got him acclaim in Hollywood and the beautiful piece of acting that I’ll always remember him for.