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On paper, it's a role that reads more like a symbol than a man: John Coffey, whose very initials signal his status as a cinematic Christ-figure. He possesses supernatural powers of healing. And he's on Death Row, a hulking black man in the 1930s South, about to die for terrible sins it's impossible to believe this gentle giant committed.
But when Michael Clarke Duncan walked "The Green Mile" he imbued Coffey with a touching humanity and dignity in an unforgettable performance that elevated the 1999 film – and all too briefly made a star of an actor who died far too young Monday at age 54.
The muscular Duncan, a former bodyguard, certainly looked the part of the larger-than-life characters he often was called on to play. But his effectiveness as an actor, a profession he didn't take up until his 30s, rested far more in his eyes and voice, endlessly expressive and tightly controlled instruments that let him convey, on a visceral level, fear, anger and a certain transparency of heart.
The full range of his skills was on display in the classic, chilling execution sequence near the end of “The Green Mile.” When Coffey grips the hand of Tom Hanks' prison guard character, it's a more powerful jolt than the electric chair charge that's about to come. We're watching two great actors at work – and a rare instance of Hanks giving the second-best performance in a scene.
Duncan earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for "The Green Mile," which was based on a Stephen King book. He lost to the great Michael Caine, but sealed his place in movie history. While Duncan never matched the impact of “The Green Mile,” he went on to a strong career as a character actor, taking on roles in action flicks like “Sin City” and “Daredevil.” He also showed a winning talent for humor – Duncan, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly goofing around in the outtakes that show up in the credits of "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" alone is a hoot.
Only weeks before the July heart attack the started his decline, Duncan accompanied Craig Ferguson to the talk show host's native Scotland for a week of installments on "The Late Late Show." Their easy banter and chemistry made the trip feel like a buddy-movie comedy. When Duncan appeared up at Ferguson's old school, he was the star attraction, outshining the hometown hero.
Duncan’s life and career ended many miles to soon. But we're grateful he left us with a breakout role that offered a depth worthy of an actor whose skill was far more impressive than his physique.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.