I didn’t know him, but I liked him. Dug his warm, convivial persona. And whenever I thought of Duncan, who passed away September 3rd at just 54–whenever I saw him on TV, acting, being interviewed or read something about him–I always thought of this story:
It was a sunny Los Angeles afternoon in 2000, and I was driving east on the stretch of Burton Way in Beverly Hills that becomes San Vicente Blvd. and L.A. proper. I’d been sharing the road with an SUV–in the lane to my right–which I stayed about a car’s length ahead of and hadn’t paid much attention to, until I reached the intersection of San Vicente and La Cienega. Just after I stopped at the light, I glanced over at the SUV pulling up next to me and immediately recognized Michael Clarke Duncan at the wheel, by himself.
In L.A., it’s common to see famous faces, and that day in 2000, Duncan’s was freshly famous. His breakthrough role in the 1999 drama, “The Green Mile,” opposite Tom Hanks, had recently earned him both Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role–a dream come true for the Chicago-born, 6’5, then-300-plus pound Duncan, who, while making a living in Hollywood as a bodyguard for the likes of Will Smith, L.L. Cool J., Martin Lawrence and Jamie Foxx, had the audacity to become a star himself. Indeed, the man I sat with on the light that day was red hot.
I’d stolen my glance and was watching the light, when out of my peripheral I saw Duncan’s head turn to look over at me–as if it had just occurred to him to do so-and quickly turn back around, to face the road. I then saw his right hand come up, holding a pair of sunglasses which, using that one hand, he dutifully managed to work onto his face.
The action–prompted, presumably, by the idea that I might recognize him–didn’t appear attached to arrogance or swank. Rather, it seemed the casual impulse emblematic of a man who’d busted his ass to succeed and was now simply trying to do the things he figured expected of a celebrity. I found it endearing.
The light turned green and Duncan, behind his shades, was gone, with me hanging back, lest he get the impression I was somebody trippin’ on having spotted the guy from “The Green Mile.”
However, if I’d followed my fleeting notion that day, I’d have caught up with him in time for the next stoplight. I’d have lowered my passenger window, gotten his attention and, grinning, asked: “Michael Clarke Duncan”–I’d say his full name–”do you really think a little pair of Ray-Bans can disguise your big, black ass?”
And I never met him, but I imagine Duncan would have just looked at me, considered what I’d said for half a second and then burst out laughing.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].