Michael Clarke Duncan (1957-2012) was born in Chicago where he was raised by a single-mom, before going from homeless to bodyguard to aspiring actor to a Hollywood star. His career took off after delivering an Oscar-nomination performance in the pivotal role of gentle giant John Coffey in “The Green Mile.”
I had the privilege of interviewing Big Mike numerous times over the years. Below is our last chat, which took place in 2011. He leaves behind his beloved fiancee’, the Rev. Omarosa Manigault, best known as a contestant on Donald Trump’s reality show, “The Apprentice.”
KW: I think the last time we spoke was when you were doing “The Island. “
MCD: Man, that was a long time ago. But I remember that we share the same birthday. Isn’t that right?
KW: Almost. Mine is Dec. 11; yours is the 10th. But I also have a few years on you.
MCD: That’s alright. It’s all in your mind.
KW: I have a lot of questions for you from fans, so why don’t I jump right into them. Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier says: I think you’re a great actor and you should have won the Academy Award when you were nominated for The Green Mile.
MCD: Thank you, Patricia. I have to admit that I agree with her. I think I should have won the Oscar and I believe The Green Mile should’ve won for Best Picture. It was the best movie made by anybody that year, hands down.
KW: Patricia asks: Is there a movie genre or type of role that you haven’t had the opportunity to do that you would like to?
MCD: Yes, what I have not done is play the lead in a romantic comedy. I have a comedic side and I bet people would enjoy seeing me get the beautiful woman in the end. Something like that would definitely work.
KW: Patricia also asks: What advice can you give to young people who want to follow in your footsteps?
MCD: First off, have a plan. Know what you want to do, because if you don’t know what you want to do, you’ll get stuck. It’s not as easy as people think. A lot of kids think they can just go to Hollywood and become an actor or actress. It’s not that easy. There are millions of kids who come out here wanting to act. So, you have to have a plan, and you have to stick with that plan, because it’s not going to be easy by any means. You’re aware of that, Kam, because of all the degrees you have. You had to go to school and study. And aspiring actors need to take acting classes… know your craft inside and out… and get a job when you arrive in L.A. Don’t depend on acting as your sole source of income. Work nights, so you can have your days off to attend auditions. Have something to fall back on. That’s what my mother taught me, and it’s critical in Hollywood.
KW: You are the voice of Kilowog in Green Lantern. Did you ever have to be on the set for this role?
MCD: No, I was never on the set, Kam. Martin had me in a studio in Burbank. He knew what he wanted and was very specific. He’s an excellent director who really drives you and pushes you hard.
KW: Teresa Emerson wants to know whether you enjoy doing voiceover work.
MCD: Oh, of course you have to love it any time you can go to the studio in pajamas, and the only preparation you have to do is take a shower and brush your teeth. You don’t even have to memorize your lines. The script is right there in front of you. So, yeah, I love voiceover work. It’s right up there with acting.
KW: Harriet Pakula Teweles says: Because of your size, you are often cast in a role of “The Heavy.” Since that is not the real you, how difficult is it to assume that role?
MCD: It’s kind of difficult, because once people enjoy you as “The Heavy,” they want to see you as that all the time. And if you become pigeonholed, then there are only certain limited roles you can play. To help, I’ve trimmed my weight down to a solid 275 instead of being over 300 pounds.
KW: Judyth Piazza asks: What is the most important lesson that you have learned working in Hollywood?
MCD: Save your money. Save your money, because you could be very busy for a year, but then have the next one off. That’s happened to me, but I put my money in the bank, Kam. I don’t splurge. So, my best advice about working in Hollywood is: Save your money!
KW: Judyth also asks: If you could change one thing about Hollywood, what would it be?
MCD: How they do business. Kam, if you shake my hand and tell me we’re going to do this or that project together, I’d believe you. But when I first got to Hollywood, I’d believe all the people who’d tell me they were going to put me in a movie. And I still haven’t heard back from a lot of them to this day. I don’t like it when someone can look you in the eye and lie to you, or pretend that they’re more than you.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
MCD: No, I just like answering the questions posed, because people can really come up with some off the wall stuff.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
MCD: I made myself some pancakes this morning that were off the chain. I have to admit that I love pancakes and vegetarian meatloaf. I am a food connoisseur, although I don’t eat pork. I’m lucky my girlfriend is a great chef, since eating is one of my favorite pastimes.
KW: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
MCD: Cheesecake! I just had some Cinnamon Chocolate Cheesecake, some German Chocolate Cheesecake and some Pineapple Upside-Down Cheesecake at The Cheesecake Factory the other night. So, I had to work my butt off the next day, because I’m trying to get in shape for my new television series, “The Finder.”
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
MCD: An accomplished actor who was homeless twice. A person who was down on his luck in Chicago in 1996, crying his eyes out on the lakefront. I see a guy who told himself: There ain’t no use in crying because nobody cares. You can either be a bum or follow your dream and try to make it. Today, I see a successful person when I look in the mirror.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
MCD: My earliest memory is of the Christmas my mother bought me an Aurora race car set. That was the only gift I got that year, but I was the happiest kid in the world when she bought me that. I didn’t care about anything else. But that was back in the day, I don’t even know if Aurora’s still in business anymore. That and Electric Football were my favorites when I was a kid
KW: Tudor Electric Football! I had that, and an HO-scale race car set, too.
MCD: See, you know what I’m talking about, Kam. I can reminisce with you without sounding weird.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
MCD: That’s a no-brainer. Just to have my mother’s health restored. Arthritis and other ailments have taken their toll, and she’s not as vibrant as she used to be. My wish would be to have her health back the way it was in the Sixties when she would play catch with me, throw a football with me, and teach me how to hold a bat. Yeah, my wish would be for my mother to have excellent health.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
MCD: Yes, extremely happy. You gotta remember I was homeless. Whenever I think I have something to complain about. I go outside, walk across the street and look at my home, and remind myself of the time I was living on the damn lakefront in a car full of garbage bags with clothes, and ask myself, “What do you possibly have to be upset about?” Kam, I have nothing to complain about. A friend of mine was just murdered, shot five times last Thursday as he was driving on a freeway entrance ramp. The last thing he did was dial 911. Another thing my mother told me as a child was, “Always wake up with a smile on your face, because a lot of people who went to sleep last night are not with us this morning.” So, I’m extremely happy, Kam.
KW: Looks like your mother has given you a lot of sound advice over the years.
MCD: Yeah, she’s never steered me wrong. I remember when Martin Luther King was shot and people started rioting in Chicago. My mother whacked me on my butt just because I balled up a piece of paper and threw it out the window. She asked me, “Why did you do that?” I said, “Because they killed Martin Luther King.” She said, “just think, where are we gonna buy our groceries, if they burn all the stores down?” I hadn’t thought of that.
KW: I had the impulse to riot when King was killed, too, but I was lucky to have a teacher who suggested that maybe I should channel my energy constructively and become a revolutionary student instead of a rioter.
MCD: And look what happened, from those words to you now. That teacher had a profound impact on the way you think by saying that one phrase. And then you went on to Ivy League schools. Growing up back then, people cared about you. If you misbehaved, the elders in the neighborhood would pull your coat. You got all your degrees because of the way that your parents, your teachers and your community raised you and helped you get there. You probably had some excellent teachers who inspired you whose names you can still recall to this day, just like I did.
MCD: Did you know that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is from Chicago? His mother ran a center for underprivileged black kids in the hood. I told him to let me know whenever he wants me to speak on behalf of education. I believe that teachers committed to the community are the ones who deserve to earn the top dollar, a starting salary of a quarter-million dollars a year, because they’re the ones that get the Michael Clarke Duncans and the Kam Williams ready for our careers. I’m sorry for going a little off topic, Kam.
KW: No need to apologize.
MCD: Believe me, Kam, I’m the biggest sports fan there is, I love sports, but I’m still convinced that it’s teachers who deserve the big salaries, not athletes. When I reflect on my childhood, I could always count on my mother and my teachers the most.
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
MCD: I try to have a good laugh every day. Every day, Kam!
KW: Well, thanks for another great interview, Mike.
MCD: Hey, much love, Kam, and give your wife and son my regards.
KW: Will do, brother.
MCD: Take care, man.