Saturday, October 13, 2012


Michael Clarke Duncan: A personal Reminiscence

On September 3, 2012, King fandom -- along with the rest of the world -- lost a major light. Michael Clarke Duncan, the actor who burst onto the scene as John Coffey in "The Green Mile", died from ongoing complications caused by a heart attack he had suffered in July, and from which he never recovered. Over the next few days, countless tributes to him poured in, appearing in newspapers and magazines, blogs , virtually everywhere. At his funeral, many people attended and spoke of their memories, including Tom Hanks and Frank Darabont; Stephen King sent in a tribute as well. The tributes lasted for hours.

I was not able to be there, but if I had been, I would have said something like this:

When I learned that Michael Clarke Duncan had died, it affected me much more deeply than most celebrity deaths do. It was not just because he had died at such a young age, and that he had only begun building up a body of work which will stand the test of time. It was because I had once had the very great privilege to work with Michael Clarke Duncan right at the moment he achieved his meteroic fame, and to get to know him, and to regard him as a friend. Here's how it happened.

Back in the spring of 1998, I contacted Frank Darabont about visiting the set of "The Green Mile" when they were shooting on location in Tennessee or North Carolina. Shortly thereafter, I received a voice-message from Frank, wanting to know exactly what I'd like to do. I had reviewed Frank's "dollar baby" version of "The Woman in the Room" during my time at the Castle Rock newsletter, and he had read it and knew who I was from that. I called back and left a message for him, saying, half tongue-in-cheek, that I'd like to visit the set for a "Cemetery Dance" article, read the script, do the making-of book for the movie, have a cameo -- little knowing that I would actually get to do every single one of those things.

Some time after that, I got a call from Dave Johnson, who was one of Frank's assistants on the production, asking if I had anything I had written that I could pass along to Frank. I offered to provide them with a copy of my Book, THE UNSEEN KING, as well as a story I had just done about my set visit to "Storm of the Century" (where I first encountered "Green Mile" actor Jeffrey DeMunn), which had just taken place.

"That would be good," Johnson told me. I asked why Frank wanted this, and he told me, "Frank wants to do one of these making-of-the-movie books, and if you had something he could show them, it might be easier to convince them."

A light began flickering very dimly in the back of my mind.

"Wait a minute," I said. "Let me get this straight. Does he want me to do this?"

"Yes, he wants you to do it."

You have to understand -- THE GREEN MILE is my absolute favorite King novel. Between reading various editions of the novel and listening to it on tape, CD and on my iPod, I've been through the story dozens of times. As I told Darabont later, if someone had spread all of King's work out on a table -- a helluva BIG table -- and told me to take my pick of any of them upon which I'd like to be involved in the film version, this is the one I would have picked. And they picked me!

I'm always reminded of that scene in "Field of Dreams", where Kevin Costner talks about how at certain moments, the Universe opens up and says, "Here's what we've got for you -- try not to mess it up."

I agreed before they could come to their senses and change their minds, and things went on from there. As each new casting decision was announced, I grew more and more excited. Everyone in the cast was someone whose work I had enjoyed, and seemed perfect for their role. An exception was Sam Rockwell, with whom I was not familiar, but the role of Wild Bill Wharton proved a breakout for him, and I've followed his career from that point onward.

But as the production wound on toward the start of shooting, one crucial role remained open -- that of John Coffey, the central figure in the story. About four or five weeks out, my daughter Sarah, who was at that time managing a theater in the Rochester suburb of Webster, came home from work and told me, "You should go see 'Armageddon" -- there's a guy in there I think would be really perfect for John Coffey."

So I went to see the movie, and at first I wasn't sure. He was big and bald, and looked the part, but at first, his character of Bear was loud and boisterous, not at all like the calm, somehow sad character King had created. But then came the scene where Bear is getting his mental health exam to see if he could handle space flight, where he's crying and sobbing. That did it for me.

The next time I spoke with Dave Johnson, I asked about the casting for John Coffey. Still no decision, he said.

"My daughter has a suggestion," I told him. "There's this guy in 'Armageddon', she tought he'd be good. I do, too."

Dead silence for a second. I had no idea at this time that the production was thin king along the same lines as well, having been referred to Duncan by Bruce Willis.

Finally, alarmingly close to the start of shooting on the film, I asked Johnson once more if a decision had been made on John Coffey.

"Oh yeah," Johnson said. "It's that guy your daughter picked, Michael Clarke Duncan."

As soon as I hung up, I called Sarah at work and told her she should become a casting director. It was also a real delight a few months later to introduce her to Michael when we visited the set during the Nashville location shoot.

I met Michael Clarke Duncan during my first visit to the set of "The Green Mile", and from the moment I met him, I was impressed. I'm 6' 3", and he was 6' 7", a few inches taller. He was not the giant he was made to appear onscreen (he towered over co-star David Morse (who is actually the taller of the two) by standing on a ramp made of apple boxes nailed together), but he was nonetheless a big man. But despite his imposing appearance, he was humble and unassuming, with none of the movie-star airs, no entourage of handlers (although no one in the cast fit that mold; everyone was open and approachable at most any time). His handshake was firm and warm -- not the pressureless limp gesture of many celebrities.

I interviewed him several times over the course of my visits to the set, and he was always generous with his time, answering all my questions. He told me once that he was determined not to let his sudden success go to his head. "If you run into me two years from now, I'm going to be just the same person I am right now." I wish I 'd had the chance to find out first-hand, but I never heard otherwise. And the huge turnout for his memorial service indicates that he was true to his word.

He had a sense of humor, too. I remember an incident during the night shoot at the set for the warden's house, the scene where the guards bring John Coffey to cure Melinda Moores. It was after midnight, and the October night in Tennessee was growing chilly. It was between setups, and Duncan, a down vest thrown on over his John Coffey overalls and yellow shirt to ward off the cold, was standing at the back of the stake-bed truck in which he and the guards had arrived, speaking with Frank Darabont and Tom Hanks. I came up and asked if I could get a picture with them.

Duncan's face went blank. "No," he said abruptly. It was so out-of-character that I stood there for a moment, startled. A second later, Duncan's huge vanilla grin lit up his face, and he chuckled.

"You should see your face!" he laughed, and gestured me over. My son shot the picture.

My last contact with Michael Clarke Duncan took place on  September 14, 1999. After the film's lengthy hiatus and the final shoot in North Carolina for the bookending scenes, Darabont reshot the scene where the posse finds John Coffey cradling the bodies of the two dead girls and howling at the sky. He had never been satisfied with the appearance of the dummies of the dead girls (made smaller than the real actresses in order make Coffey appear bigger), and so reshot the scene with new ones with, hopefully, more realistic movements.

I couldn't be there for the scene, the final one shot for the film, and so I called Duncan's agent to see if I could get his comments on what it was like to be there on the final day of this epic production. I had barely had time to hang up the phone and turn away when it rang.

"Tyson," said that deep, warm voice I remembered so well.

"Michael," I said, "thanks for calling me back."

We exchanged pleasantries, and he told me he'd had a good time at the WWF the night before. Then we turned to his last day on the picture. He explained that when Darabont had called him to come back, he didn't question it.

"I knew that if Frank saw it with his eye, then it needed to be changed," he told me. "I was still very ecstatic to get back there, even though I'd lost like twenty pounds, and they had to make me a fat pad to put around my stomach. You know what the funny part was? The minute we wrapped last year, i was so emphatic on getting that weight off. I really worked out hard, and then I find out that they wanted me to put it back on!" he chuckled. "But it worked out fine, so I didn't mind going back at all."

He recalled that filming that single scene, which last only a few seconds on the screen, took a regular eight-hour day. He got there at 4 a.m., and was done by noon.

"I had forgotten I had to get scars," he said. "And the regular makeup people weren't there. But they had a guy named Don, and he did an excellent job."

It was also hard on his voice to scream and howl all that time. "It didn't leave me," he recalled, "but I had to look at the tape of what I did in Tennessee to actually duplicate that. But it was cool, though. It worked out."

Then he looked back on the entire experience.

"You know what? It was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the kind of thing that literally, comes around once in a lifetime. And it's something you'll never forget."

And it was. Although Duncan went on to play memorable roles in "Daredevil", "Sin City" and more recently voicing the character Kilowog in last summer's "Green Lantern", he never got a role that was quite the same as his Oscar-nominated performance in "The Green Mile". I'm not sure there's been a part that would measure up to John Coffey for Michael Clarke Duncan.

I followed the careers of most of the people I met on "The Green Mile" over the years, and tried to watch their work. That included Duncan, and I always hoped I'd get to meet him again. Sadly, that will never happen. He was a warm, open, unassuming, generous person, a truly Kind man. i will miss him.


WAGING HEAVY PEACE is the title of Neil Young's autobiography, just published by Blue Rider Press, and, like the mercurial rock icon himself, it is a unique, constantly shifting work.

Unlike most autobiographies, or biographies, for that matter, which trace their subject's life in a linear fashion from start to finish, Young has chosen instead to jump from place to place, writing about topics which interest him at that moment, rather than telling a straightforward, David Copperfield-type story of his life. This is far from the first time someone has chosen to tell his life story in this fashion. After several failed attempts, Mark Twain finally decided to write his autobiography in that fashion, resulting in a fascinating, 5,000-page manuscript, the second volume of which is supposed to appear this year from University of California Press' Mark Twain Project.

It's not even a first for a musician. Bob Dylan's autobiographical CHRONICLES, VOLUME ONE was also episodic in nature.

Young skips around from topic to topic, touching on going up into the attic of his home in Omemee, Ontario, to visit his father while he was writing. Young's father, Scott Young, was a legendary Canadian writer, who authored forty or so books, fiction and nonfiction, and may well be better known in Canada than his son. I have read about half of Scott Young's books, and would recommend him highly to those who are interested. He also talks about having polio at a young age; of the bands he's played with -- the Squires, the Mynah Birds (with Rick James), the legendary Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills, Nash and Young, and mostly the one to which he keeps returning, Crazy Horse.

Young touches again and again on his love of old cars, model railroading, recording, instruments, his obsession with developing a viable electric car and PureTone, his high-end sound system which will reproduce the true sound artist hear in the studio on a platform which can be enjoyed anywhere, to take the place of MP3's, CDs, and lesser systems, which, he feels, are just not good enough.

This method ultimately reveals more about Young than would a straight life-story biography. The way in which he brings topics up, the number of times he returns to them and what he says about them, tells us what his driving interests are, what he wants to do with his life, his goals, the important events in his life, all done in a more intuitive fashion. It is more involving for the reader as well, more like what it would be to sit down and have a conversation with this most versatile, ever-changing, mystifying and yet open of all musicians working today.

Since the late 1960's, I have been following Neil Young anywhere he wants to take me, and if those journeys are not always satisfying, they are always interesting. The same thing is true here, on this journey through his life. I would recommend this highly to anyone who is at all interested in Young's story.


Blogger Julie Blue said...

I'm a tad behind on my blog reading...this is an excellent tribute to Michael Clarke Duncan.

1:06 PM  

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