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The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Michael Clarke Duncan

When Michael Clarke Duncan was at his peak, he was one of the most recognizable figures in Hollywood. With his massive 6 foot 5 inch frame, distinctive baritone voice, and warm smile, Duncan was one of the most beloved actors in the world. He had the ability to play a huge variety of characters and roles, ranging from serious dramas like "the Green Mile," to hilarious comedies like "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," and he even branched out into voice acting in "Kung Fu Panda."

He started acting in the mid-1990s, with an uncredited role in "Friday," as well as appearances on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "Married With Children." He even appeared in music videos for Tupac and R. Kelly, including the former's famous "California Love" video. His career really took off in 1998 with his cherished performance as Bear in "Armageddon," alongside Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, and his starring role the following year in "the Green Mile," which earned him an Academy Award nomination.

His life was not always as comfortable as it was once he found fame. Duncan grew up on the impoverished South Side of Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s, working multiple hard jobs to support his family. He nearly joined a gang and struggled at times living with his large physique. This is the tragic real-life story of Michael Clarke Duncan.

His father left his family when he was only 5 years old

The early years of Michael Clarke Duncan's life were at times turbulent and tough. Per the New York Times, he was born in 1957 on the South Side of Chicago and spent his childhood growing up there. His father left when he was just 5 years old, leaving him to be raised by his single mother Jean and sister Judy. Jean worked hard to instill a good character in her son, and it was because of her positive influence that he was able to stay out of trouble and eventually become a star actor (via the Chicago Tribune). He spent much of his childhood in Chicago's downtown, often watching martial-arts movies starring Bruce Lee.

Jean herself had dreams of becoming a leading actress when she was younger. She encouraged her son to follow his own dreams of being an actor, and she convinced him to move to Los Angeles to jump start his entertainment career (per the Times). It was not easy for an African American man like Duncan to break out of the devastating cycle of poverty in Chicago; the Civil Rights Act was not even passed until he was nearly 10 years old. Yet, through perseverance and strong will, he was able to make it out and be a role model for younger generations.

He regretted never finishing high school

One of the biggest regrets of Michael Clarke Duncan's life was his dropping out of high school when he was a teenager. Per the Chicago Tribune, Duncan attended King High School on Chicago's South Side but dropped out when he was still years away from graduating. He called his decision to leave prematurely "one of the stupidest things I ever did," and he regretted it throughout his life. He eventually got his GED a few years later, but he always wished he had originally stuck with high school and gotten his diploma with his class. 

Still, Duncan credited the teachers at his alma mater with preparing him for life, and he claimed they were "the only reason why I made it out of [Chicago] and became successful." He especially praised his former football coach, Lonnie Williams, for the help and guidance he provided to an adolescent Duncan. After Duncan left Chicago to go to Hollywood he did not return for nearly a decade, saying he "didn't want to come back a failure." Eventually, though, Duncan was able to return to the South Side, and by then he was one of the most famous actors in the world.

He almost became a gang member

Growing up on Chicago's South Side in the 1960s and 1970s, Michael Clarke Duncan experienced poverty and crime as an unfortunately normal part of life. According to a story Tom Hanks told at his funeral when Duncan was a teenager he may have briefly joined a gang. Per Hanks, there was a gang in Duncan's neighborhood that had the distinctive habit of dyeing a portion of their hair red. Duncan thought the gang was "cool," and he told them nonchalantly "I'd like to be in your gang."

After being jumped into the gang, Duncan immediately dyed a portion of his own hair red, and he quickly went home to show off his mother. She was anything but thrilled. After "Big Mike" proudly exclaimed that he was the new member of a gang, she smacked him upside the head with the frying pan she was using to cook dinner. But she did not stop there. She forced her son to cut the red patch out of his hair and renounce his gang ties. His new gang immediately jumped him out of the gang just as violently as they had jumped him in earlier in the day.

While Hanks was laughing as he told the story, it certainly reflected a dark time in Duncan's life. Gangs are no laughing matter, and for someone to feel the need to join they must have felt immense societal pressure.

He worked digging ditches to support his sick mother

Michael Clarke Duncan worked a variety of odd and tough jobs before he became an actor. Dropping out of high school and having a GED certainly affected his employment choices, and as a result, his career paths were limited. He briefly attended Kankakee Community College in Illinois where he played on the basketball team. He also took courses towards a communications degree at the HBCU Alcorn State in Lorman, Mississippi, but he had to return home to Chicago when his mother became sick (per the Guardian). Upon his return, Duncan became the main financial support system for his mother and sister.

One of his hardest jobs involved digging ditches for a gas company in Chicago. During an interview on Larry King Live, Duncan explained how he would dig huge holes in the ground to allow the mechanics to go underground to service the pumps. He recalled it being extremely physically demanding work, and the other laborers would often satirize his dreams of becoming an actor. However, it was Duncan who got the last laugh, as became one of Hollywood's biggest stars.

He had dangerous jobs as a bouncer and security guard

Among the many other jobs that Michael Clarke Duncan did to support his sick mother was his time as a bouncer and security guard. He started working nights as a bouncer while he was digging ditches for the gas company in Chicago, before eventually getting a job as a security guard for a national touring company (per Biography). Afterwards, he moved to Los Angeles, California, and continued to work in security. Duncan became a bouncer to the stars, working for clients like Will Smith and Martin Lawrence.

However, the job was not always glamorous and could have deadly consequences. Duncan almost experienced that first-hand when he narrowly avoided potentially becoming involved in a shootout. In an interview with TMZ, Duncan explained that he was supposed to be the security guard for the Notorious B.I.G. on the night of his infamous murder. However, at the last moment he traded shifts with a co-worker and worked for another artist. Duncan could have wound up being injured and maybe even killed that night if he had been in the wrong position during the shooting. That was his last night as a bouncer, as he decided to give it up after Biggie's murder.

He was typecast as a bouncer until his role in The Green Mile

Owing to his distinctive size, being 6 foot 5 inches and nearly 300 pounds, Michael Clarke Duncan had difficulty finding diverse roles when he first started acting. According to Biography, he often found himself type cast in bouncer or enforcer type roles. Most of his early TV and film appearances, such as "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "Married With Children," and "A Night at the Roxbury," all feature him as some type of security enforcement character.

At first, per the LA Times, Duncan lacked confidence in trying to branch out to new roles. "I'm used to being the big tough guy, the bodyguard type," he said. He also had to deal with criticism from people who told him he would never make it as a successful actor because of his large frame. "Mikey, you will never be an actor. You don't have the look. You're ugly" people would tell him.

It was not until he saw the script for "The Green Mile" that he started to consider playing bigger and more emotionally charged roles. His friend and onscreen costar, Bruce Willis, encouraged him to pursue the role in the 1999 blockbuster, and the rest is, as they say, history.

He had a hard time performing some of his roles

It was not easy at first for Michael Clarke Duncan to shift away from the tough-guy type persona and roles he had become known for. When he first started to branch out into more comedy-based roles, like his fan-favorite character Bear in director Michael Bay's "Armageddon," Duncan struggled to adapt. Bay recalled being enthralled with Duncan's personality and character, but his acting skills, at first, left something to be desired (via the BBC). Bay said Duncan "sucked" on the first day onscreen, and the director nearly fired him over his poor performance — before Duncan was able to turn it around for the rest of filming.

Duncan said that one of the toughest scenes for him to film in his career was from "The Green Mile," and it involved a serious amount of crying and two dead girls (via the New York Times). In the film, Duncan played an inmate on death row in a Louisiana prison, John Coffey, who had supernatural healing powers. He recalled having to do a lot of "howling," and he noted "it really drained" him emotionally to do the gutsy performance.

He tried to live a healthier life when he got older

Not only was Michael Clarke Duncan's personality and heart bigger than average, but so was his physical stature. He is known for his incredible height, being 6 foot 5 inches, as well as his incredible bodybuilder-like physique. But there could also be a darker side to Duncan's large size. In an interview on Larry King Live in 2012, Duncan remarked that he was trying to slim down and lose some weight, due to both health and professional concerns. He was worried about staying typecast in his roles as the tough guy or enforcer and wanted to slim down to open himself up to new opportunities and movies.

During another interview with CNN in 2012, he recalled a conversation with his doctor that caused him to completely turn his life around health-wise. Duncan knew he was on the wrong track, and he was so ashamed that he struggled to talk with his doctor about it. He ended up losing 90 pounds to get himself back into the condition he was in a decade earlier. He also became a vegetarian and stopped eating meat, both for ethical and health reasons. He became a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and he claimed becoming a vegetarian made him stronger.

He had a tough last few months

The last few months of Michael Clarke Duncan's life were unfortunately spent in multiple Los Angeles-area hospital rooms. While Duncan had been trying to live healthier, in the summer of 2012 his luck started to run out. He was engaged to TV personality Omarosa Manigault at the time, but on July 13 both of their worlds tragically changed forever. She awoke at 2 a.m. that morning to find Duncan's heart had stopped and he was not breathing (per TMZ). Luckily, Manigault revived the 54-year-old Duncan with CPR and was able to get him transported to a nearby hospital immediately. According to his publicist at the time, Duncan had suffered a myocardial infarction that caused him to go into a state of cardiac arrest.

Duncan stayed in the intensive care unit for nearly a month until he was moved in early August 2012 (via the Associated Press). However, he still had to remain in the hospital, and his family was asking for prayers for his health. His fiancé, Manigault, stayed with Duncan in the ICU, keeping his spirits up over his final few months. They were reportedly due to get married in January 2013, and had just started planning their wedding when he had his heart attack (via TMZ).

He had a tragic death

On September 3, 2012, Michael Clarke Duncan passed away at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. According to the LA Times, he was just 54 years old and was survived by his mother and sister, Jean and Judy Duncan, and fiancé Omarosa Manigault. Per TMZ, Michael passed away due to severe complications from his heart attack. Doctors estimated he had been unconscious for several minutes before Manigault found him and revived him through CPR, and the time in between likely caused permanent and irreversible damage. Multiple organs of his began to fail one by one while he was in the hospital, including both his kidneys and pancreas.

His family was incredibly distraught over his death, and Manigault was reportedly "inconsolable" while making his funeral arrangements. She had often gotten her hopes up that Duncan was getting better and his condition was improving, but something always seemed to go wrong, and he was never able to leave the hospital after being admitted in July.

The Chicago White Sox offered a touching tribute to him

Growing up on the South Side as a kid, Michael Clarke Duncan was always a big Chicago White Sox fan. In a 2009 interview with Mouthpiece Sports, Duncan recalled participating in the Sox's famous "Disco Demolition Derby Night" in 1979 at the old Comiskey Park in Chicago. He claimed to have run on the field and slid into the bases, grabbing the bat of famous Sox star Bill Melton from the dugout in the process. Unfortunately, the bat was stolen just a week later when he had taken it out to use it — against his mother's advice.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Duncan recalled that one time he was invited by his "good friend" Kenny Williams, the General Manager of the White Sox, to throw out the first pitch for a game. Duncan nervously prepared for weeks to throw out the perfect pitch, but on the day of, he accidentally overslept and did not make it to the park until it was already the third inning. Duncan felt bad about missing his opportunity and disappointing his friend and always wanted a second chance at the first pitch. When Duncan passed, Williams released a touching statement about their friendship, calling him a "close friend" and "the nicest, kindest guy anyone could ever know" (via Yahoo Sports).

The messy battle of his will

While Michael Clarke Duncan passed on September 3, 2012, the battle over his will and estate was far from over. Still reeling from the tragedy of losing their son, brother, and fiancé, Jean Duncan, Judy Duncan, and Omarosa Manigault found themselves soon fighting amongst themselves. Jean and Judy did not know it when Michael was sick, but he had previously gotten engaged to Manigault and the two were planning a wedding together when he had fallen ill (via TMZ).

After his death, Judy immediately accused Manigault of manipulating Duncan by rewriting his will to leave most of his estate to her (per TMZ). She alleged that Duncan appeared to be unwell when she had seen him the previous December and said that Manigault was fixated on his money. She also claimed that Manigault was selling off Duncan's personal effects, like cars and jewelry, to make money without letting the family know first.

Other celebrities, like Manigault's former "Apprentice" co-star LaToya Jackson, also insinuated that Manigault had something to do with Duncan's death. She called her "conniving" and "cut-throat," and said it was her who "probably pulled the cord" on Duncan's life support and had given him his original heart attack in the first place (per the Daily Beast). Manigault was predictably upset and vowed to sue Jackson for defamation. She claimed that she visited Duncan's grave weekly, and was heartbroken over his premature death.