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For Both, It's Been Quite a Ride

Nominees Michael Clarke Duncan and Richard Farnsworth have much more in common than you might imagine.

March 26, 2000|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

One is the oldest best actor nominee in Academy Award history. The other is arguably the biggest--in size. Yet, while Richard Farnsworth, nominated for best actor in "The Straight Story," and Michael Clarke Duncan, nominated for best supporting actor in "The Green Mile," might seem like the "Odd Couple" of this year's Oscars, they are remarkably similar.

On the big screen, both men play characters who exude warmth and a homespun wisdom that changes the lives around them--Duncan as the gentle giant John Coffey, imprisoned for a double child murder he did not commit, and Farnsworth as Alvin Straight, an elderly war veteran who drives a lawn mower to see his ailing brother.

The two actors, who never met before the Oscars brought them together, recently sat down for a conversation at the Four Seasons Hotel. The 79-year-old Farnsworth, who when not making films runs a cattle ranch in Lincoln, N.M., was a stuntman for 40 years before he found prominence in 1978 in "Comes a Horseman," for which he was nominated as best supporting actor. Duncan, 43, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and once worked as a celebrity bodyguard before he found fame in "Armageddon."

Hobbled by a bad hip, Farnsworth arrived on a cane. Duncan was still shaking his head about how the loss of his keys nearly made him miss the recent academy nominee luncheon.

Michael Clarke Duncan: I'm telling you, that movie ["The Straight Story"] had me in tears and I am so grateful to finally meet you, sir.

Richard Farnsworth: Well, bless your heart. And I feel the same about your performance.

Question: Richard, so you've seen "The Green Mile"?

Farnsworth: Yes, I've seen it twice. [To Duncan] Well, you're a big man and you really came through [in the movie] like maybe you really had some tough times in your life.

Duncan: Oh, I have. I have. Yes. Drawing off a lot of personal experience.

Farnsworth: Well, me too. I had it rough as a kid. I tried to identify with Alvin Straight.

Q: Michael, did you identify with John Coffey?

Duncan: Nobody understood him [Coffey] by looking at him. You fear him right away. . . . And he wasn't the one you had to fear. It was "Wild Bill" that was the crazy one. John was the nice one, but just by looking at him, you'd think, "Oh, man, this guy is ruthless." It's like you have to identify with what you're doing because if you don't, you're not going to do a good job.

I identified with John Coffey in the fact that we both had troubled times, we are both big, and by looking at us, you would be fearful of your life if you met us in a dark alley.

I got on an elevator one time, it was late at night, and I was coming from a friend's house, and the elevator doors open. I had my hat pulled down, I had my scarf on and you could only see my eyes. I'm standing there [with my arms crossed]. I was cold. It's like 12:30 at night and the elevator doors open and this lady is standing there, and she looked at me up and down. I'm not even thinking of her. And she looked up and looked around and she stepped back from the elevator and the elevator doors close. She was not getting on that elevator with me looking like that. All she saw was this big, black hulking figure and she's like, "I'm not taking no chances with that guy." But really, I'm the nicest person but not just by looking. So that's what I took from John Coffey.

[Turning to Farnsworth] You were Alvin Straight. I mean, every time I hear that [name] now, I'm going to think of Richard Farnsworth. But when you were sitting there telling that war story about that guy who was [shot], I'm like . . . My mother says, "Are you OK?" I said, "You just don't know. I'm there with him. I can see him doing it. He feels bad about what he did and he never told anybody." It was just so emotional, him going on this journey by himself.

How fast was your [lawn mower] going? About 30 [mph]? Cause it looked like it was going really slow.

Farnsworth: The most I could get out of it was 5 mph and on a hill, 3 1/2.

Duncan: Oh, man!

Q: It's unusual that you both got nominated for some of your earliest films as far as principal roles are concerned.

Farnsworth: I think he and I are very close, because that was his first role of any consequence, and "Comes a Horseman," I got a nomination for that. It just goes to show you, by gosh, there is a lot of talent out there if you give it a chance.

I think this film that I did might give some of the older guys a chance. There is a lot of talent in 70- [and] 80-year-old guys and maybe somebody will say, "Look, let's give the old guys a chance." I bet, somebody, maybe somebody like Mary Sweeney [who co-wrote "Straight Story"] will come up with something for older men.

Q: What about African Americans? You don't get a ton of roles to choose from.

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