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'Green Mile' star and Chicago native Michael Clarke Duncan dies at 54

Michael Clarke Duncan, the strong, tall actor from Chicago with the shaved head and deep voice who received an Academy Award nomination for his moving portrayal of a gentle death row inmate in the 1999 prison drama “The Green Mile,” died Monday. He was 54.

Duncan died at a Los Angeles hospital, according to a statement from his publicist, Joy Fehily. He suffered a heart attack in July and did not recover.

Duncan, a former ditch digger for Peoples Gas in Chicago, began his Hollywood saga as a celebrity bodyguard in the mid-1990s. He received his first big acting break playing a member of the drilling team sent into space to blow up an asteroid heading to Earth in the big-budget 1998 movie “Armageddon,” starring Bruce Willis.

But it was “The Green Mile,” starring Tom Hanks as a death row prison guard in a Louisiana penitentiary during the Depression, that thrust the 6-foot-5, 300-plus-pound Duncan into the limelight.

He portrayed John Coffey, a gentle giant with supernatural powers who has been sentenced to death for the murders of two white girls.

“There was something about him that I just couldn't ignore,” writer-director Frank Darabont said of Duncan in a 2000 Daily Variety interview. “After his first reading, he kept haunting me. Given that he was a fairly inexperienced actor at that point, obviously, there was a concern about, ‘Gee, how would this guy do?'

“But once we put him on film, it became apparent that he was up to the task.”

Duncan credited acting coach Larry Moss with teaching him “how to dig within myself” for the heavily emotional crying scenes in the movie.

“I'm an emotional person, a very emotional person,” Duncan told Tribune Newspapers in 2000. “All those tears you see in the movie were mine.”

In 2002, two years after the Academy Awards ceremony, Duncan told The Orange County Register: “Realistically, I didn't think I would win the Oscar, but the nomination was a personal validation for me. It proved to me that I was a good actor. More important, it showed other people that I was a serious actor.”

Duncan appeared in several films after that, including “The Whole Nine Yards” (2000), “Planet of the Apes” (2001), “The Scorpion King” (2002), “Daredevil” (2003) and “The Island” (2005). He also did voice work in films and television, including “Brother Bear” (2003) and “Kung Fu Panda” (2008).

He was born Dec. 10, 1957, and grew up in the North Kenwood neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. His father left when he was 6, and he and his sister, Judith, were raised by their mother, who steered him clear of gangs, drugs and alcohol.

Growing up, he harbored dreams of becoming an actor, a goal he shared with his co-workers at Peoples Gas before he left the company.

“I always told them they'd have to pay to see me again,” Duncan said in 1999. “They thought I was crazy.”

After high school, Duncan played basketball at Kankakee Community College and attended Alcorn State University in Mississippi but left before graduating to help support his ailing mother. Back in Chicago, he landed a job as a gas company ditch digger.

On the job, he talked so much about his dream of going to Hollywood and becoming an actor that his co-workers dubbed him “Hollywood Mike.” He finally quit his job and became a security guard for a traveling show. Once the show reached Los Angeles, he decided to stay.

Working first as a bodyguard for Martin Lawrence, Will Smith and other celebrities, he began landing small parts in films and television.

Among Duncan's friends in Chicago was White Sox general manager Ken Williams, who said Duncan “was the nicest, kindest guy anyone could ever know.”

“He was a great fan of the Chicago White Sox and often called me to offer advice,” Williams said in a statement Monday. “His friendship will be missed.”

According to Duncan's publicist, he is survived by his fiancee, Omarosa Manigault; his mother, Jean; and his sister, Judy.

Tribune reporters Carlos Sadovi and Ryan Haggerty contributed.

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