It’s pretty much impossible to imagine anyone other than Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey in The Green Mile, but it could have been NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal. Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, The Green Mile was released in 1999 by writer-director Frank Darabont. It stars Duncan as a convict whose arrival on death row sparks supernatural events with Tom Hanks also starring as a prison guard watching it all unfold.
On this week’s The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast, Shaq was asked to name a big role he turned down that he may have regretted in retrospect. O’Neal divulges that he was offered the role of John Coffey in The Green Mile, but he doesn’t regret turning it down. The NBA star praises Duncan’s performance and insists that the right person got the job, so he’s happy with how it all turned out.
“The Green Mile. That was my role, in Green Mile. I turned it down. I didn’t want to play the down-South African American guy during slavery, you know what I mean? I didn’t want to play that role. But the guy who played it did a wonderful job. He’s no longer with us, he passed away. Michael Clarke Duncan did an excellent job, so I think I made the right decision, because he did way better than I could’ve done. But I got offered that role.”
The full cast of The Green Mile was pretty solid, though Michael Clarke Duncan really shined as John Coffey, turning the role into one of cinema’s most memorable characters. At the time of his casting, he had appeared in movies like Friday and Armageddon, but it was really The Green Mile that established Clarke as a bona fide Hollywood star. His performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and resulted in the roles coming quickly for Clarke in following years until his death in 2012.
“Our experience making The Green Mile together was immersive and incredible, a once-in-a-lifetime journey,” said director Frank Darabont of Duncan after the actor’s death. “What sticks most in my mind was his devotion to his craft and the strides he made as an artist during that time, which was beyond inspiring to those of us who took the journey with him. Never has an actor more richly deserved the recognition of an Academy Award nomination than Michael did for his performance as John Coffey.”
This role wasn’t meant to be, though Shaq did manage to snag some other starring roles in the 1990s. He played a genie in 1996’s Kazaam and a superhero in 1997’s Steel, though it’s an understatement to say that neither really compares to the success of The Green Mile. Shaq has often appeared in other movies and TV shows, often as himself, though he played a DJ in 2020’s Hubie Halloween. He also has a cameo in the upcoming sequel Jackass Forever and leads his own TNT series Shaq Life.
If you want to watch The Green Mile, the movie is currently streaming on HBO Max. The interview with Shaquille O’Neal can be heard on The Marchand an Ourand Podcast.