Bruce Willis Played A Crucial Part In Getting Michael Clarke Duncan His Green Mile Role

Bringing the literary work of Stephen King to life on the big screen is incredibly difficult. King's novels are layered with complex characters, unique locations, and downright bizarre stories. But Frank Darabont seems to have found the right formula. The director responsible for "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Mist" also brought one of King's most impactful works to life while earning a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

King, always on the cusp of publishing trends, released "The Green Mile" in 1996 as a six-part serial novel. It is told through the eyes of Great Depression-era death row prison guard Paul Edgecomb, but it is ultimately the story of John Coffey. Coffey is a mountainous, simple-yet-magical Black man wrongly accused of raping and killing two young white girls. Coffey faces the barbarous racism of the 1930s South while grappling with being cursed with a healing touch.

One of the parts of Darabont's formula when adapting a King story to film is perfect casting. In the case of "The Green Mile," Darabont had some outside help from someone already busy saving the world.

'I'm gonna call Frank Darabont ... I found John Coffey'

The late Michael Clarke Duncan was known to friends as a gentle giant. You might say the actor was as close a person to the fictional John Coffey as you might find. At a towering 6-foot-4 with a huge frame and trademark deep, smooth voice, Duncan personified what Stephen King put to paper for the extraordinary John Coffey character. But it still took a little bit of luck for all of it to happen.

According to EW, Bruce Willis is a big Stephen King fan (he even starred in a Broadway adaptation of "Misery" in 2015). Willis was working with Duncan on the 1998 movie "Armageddon" when he learned about the production of "The Green Mile." At the time, Willis was a box office megastar, and Duncan was still a small-time Hollywood actor. So, while busy saving the world as Harry Stamper, Willis was also looking out for his costar.

In the documentary "Walking the Mile: The Making of The Green Mile," Duncan credits Willis for the role of a lifetime. Duncan said:

"Bruce Willis was the main person that first told me about 'The Green Mile.' He said, 'Michael, they're gonna be making a movie about this dude named John Coffey.' He said, 'I'm gonna call Frank Darabont and tell him that I found John Coffey.”"

But even with all his physical similarities to the character, it didn't make Duncan a sure thing for the role.

'Somewhere in him is John Coffey'

By the late 1990s, Michael Clarke Duncan only had a string of television appearances and roles in small movies. "Armageddon" was his biggest movie to date, but the role of John Coffey was something bigger, and he knew it. "I ate, slept, used the bathroom, almost showered with that script," Duncan said of his preparation for the role. "There wasn't anything that was gonna stop me from bringing John Coffey to life the way I wanted to."

Duncan's screen test was good enough for Frank Darabont to cast the unproven actor, but even the director found himself surprised once filming began. Darabont said:

"Michael's screen test was amazing. But not as amazing as the performance he eventually laid down day to day on the set. That essence that is a part of Michael Clarke Duncan, somewhere in him is John Coffey."

Film critic Roger Ebert agreed, echoing Darabont's sentiments. "An actor must have the technical and emotional mastery to embody a character and evoke him persuasively, and the film must give him a character worth portraying," Ebert wrote of Duncan's performance in the film. "We get a sense of the goodness of Coffey, who is embodied by Duncan in a performance that is both acting and being."

Duncan, who died of a heart attack in 2012 at the age of 54, said he started crying when telling his mother he was going to work with Tom Hanks. He was nominated for his first and only Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in "The Green Mile." As it turns out, Bruce Willis was spot on with his assessment of Duncan — it was the perfect role for the actor now long remembered as a "gentle giant."