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Michael Clarke Duncan

Hollywood actor best known for his turn as convict John Coffey in 'The Green Mile'

Michael Clarke Duncan, who died on Monday aged 54, was a bodyguard and bouncer before making a successful career as a character actor in Hollywood.

He was best known for his performance as John Coffey, a convicted murderer on death row with a gift for healing, in The Green Mile (1999), adapted from the novel by Stephen King and starring Tom Hanks. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including one for Duncan as best supporting actor. In the event, the Oscar went to Michael Caine for The Cider House Rules. Duncan was also nominated for a Golden Globe.

At the time he landed the role, he was already in his 40s and had made little impact in the movie business.

Duncan was a big bear of a man, 6ft 5in tall, and seen by casting directors as suitable principally for the role of a bouncer, hardly stretching his thespian potential.

But in 1998 he appeared in the box office success Armageddon, playing an oil driller helping to save the world from destruction by an asteroid, alongside Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi and Billy Bob Thornton. It was Willis who encouraged Duncan try for the part of Coffey in The Green Mile.

Having secured it, Duncan set about perfecting the portrayal of a killer who was "a little kid at heart, afraid of the dark. Big Mike [as Duncan was known] could never have done that. I had to drop all that and start all over as a five-year-old kid". With his acting coach, Duncan "talked about childhood, we talked about the things that I want in life, and the next thing I know we're sitting there crying".

Michael Clarke Duncan was born in Chicago on December 10, 1957. He later said in an interview that during his boyhood he had been picked on by local youths and his mother had refused to allow him to play football, despite his size.

After college, Duncan's first job was digging ditches for the People's Gas Co in Chicago.

After six years, he made his way to Los Angeles where, at first, he failed to find a job. When he asked his mother to buy him an air ticket back to Chicago she allegedly told him: "Pull up your bootstraps and get tough."

Accordingly, he stayed put and found work as a bodyguard with a security firm. Among his charges was Will Smith, then starring in the television series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Smith got Duncan a small part in one of the shows, and Duncan graduated to other walk-on roles.

In 1995, he made a fleeting, and uncredited, debut on the big screen in the Ice Cube comedy Friday, going on to appear in Back in Business (1997), Caught Up, The Player's Club and Bulworth (all 1998); in the last two of these he was cast as a bouncer.

After his success in The Green Mile, Duncan was seldom idle. He played a mob enforcer in The Whole Nine Yards (2000); a gorilla warrior in the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes; the Nubian king Balthazar in The Scorpion King (2002); the Kingpin, the Marvel Comics supervillain, in Daredevil (2003); and a mercenary in Sin City (2005).

Among Duncan's assets was his deep baritone voice, which he used to good effect in commercials and video games, as well as in a number of animated and family movies, such as the Disney vehicle Brother Bear (2003), Racing Stripes (2005) and Kung Fu Panda (2008).

An animal lover, Duncan became a vegetarian three years ago. In July, he suffered a heart attack from which he never recovered. He is survived by his fiancee, Omarosa Manigault, whom he had met in a health food shop.

Sunday Independent