Michael Clarke Duncan, right, as John Coffey, with Tom Hanks, centre, in The Green Mile. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Warner Bros
Every character actor who has ever been typecast dreams of a role that will transcend the cliches of his image. For Michael Clarke Duncan, who has died aged 54 of complications from a heart attack suffered in July, that breakout role also drew on the hidden truth of his own personality, and the results were spectacular.
Duncan was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor in The Green Mile (1999), the film of the Stephen King story in which he plays John Coffey, a gentle giant with extraordinary powers, on death row for raping and killing two young girls. The film’s climax, when Coffey, innocent of the crimes but having punished the real killer and an evil guard, goes to the electric chair telling Tom Hanks not to put a hood over his head because he is scared of the dark, left few dry eyes in any audience.
Born in Chicago, Duncan, 6ft 5in and usually weighing about 20 stone, was himself a gentle giant. His father left when he was six, and his mother Jean’s reluctance to allow him to play American football led to his deciding he wanted to become an actor instead.
He played basketball at Kankakee (Illinois) Community College, but when his mother became ill, he dropped out of his communications studies atAlcorn State University, a historically black university in Mississippi. After returning home, he supported his mother and sister, Judy, by digging ditches for a gas company and working as a bouncer at night.
He moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting, again working as a bouncer before getting into the “private security” trade. He had acted as a bodyguard for such entertainment figures as Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx and LL Cool J before breaking into films in 1995 with a bit part in the Ice Cube vehicle Friday. His early film roles, including Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998), saw him typecast as bouncers and bodyguards, often billed as Michael “Big Mike” Duncan. He gave up his day job as a real bodyguard for good in 1997, when the rapper The Notorious BIG was murdered on the first day Duncan was assigned to him.
Duncan’s break came following a part in Armageddon (1998) alongside Bruce Willis, who recommended him to director Frank Darabont for The Green Mile. He went on to work with Willis in three more films: two comedies – Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (1999) and The Whole Nine Yards (2000) – and the noirish blockbuster Sin City (2005).
Although he never found another role with the impact of John Coffey, Duncan remained in demand with substantial parts in blockbusters such as Planet of the Apes (2001), The Scorpion King (2002) and perhaps his best later work as The Kingpin, in Daredevil (2003). To play the comic-book villain he went from weighing less than 20 stone to more than 23.
His career blossomed, as his look made him easily cast for supporting roles in films and frequent guest parts in television series, and his resonant baritone voice made him a popular choice for animation voice-overs, in films such as Cats & Dogs (2001), George of the Jungle 2 (2003), Dinotopia (2005) and Kung Fu Panda (2008). He starred in the comedy The Slammin’ Salmon (2009), as a boxer turned restaurant-owner who stages a competition between his waiters to pay off a debt to Japanese gangsters, and was the villain, Erlik, in the straight-to-video Cross (2011), a supernatural action film that also featured Vinnie Jones as a Viking named Gunnar transplanted to the present.
In 2010 Duncan undertook something of a reprise of his Coffey role in Redemption Road, as a man with a secret who brings home an alcoholic for his father’s funeral. His last television role was a recurring part in the crime series Finder.
In 2009 Duncan converted to vegetarianism. The following year, he met his fiancee, the Rev Omarosa Manigault, in the aisles of a Whole Foods supermarket in Los Angeles. Manigault, a considerable presence in “reality” television, made her name as a controversial participant in the American version of The Apprentice with Donald Trump, and feuded with Piers Morgan in The Celebrity Apprentice.
In May this year, Duncan made a film for the animal-rights group Peta, talking about his conversion to a vegan lifestyle, and how he had thrown away $5,000 worth of meat when he did. Two months later, he suffered a massive heart attack.
He is survived by his mother, sister and fiancee.
• Michael Clarke Duncan, actor, born 10 December 1957; died 3 September 201