By Suzanne Le Mignot

CHICAGO (CBS) — It’s a true rags to riches story, and Tuesday night, Oscar-nominated actor and Chicago native Michael Clarke Duncan was being remembered as a man who never forgot his roots after making it big-time in Hollywood.

Duncan, the hulking actor with the shaved head and deep voice, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in “The Green Mile,” died Monday at the age of 54.

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He died at a Los Angeles hospital, several weeks after suffering a heart attack in July.

CBS 2’s Suzanne Le Mignot reports, before Duncan gained Hollywood fame, he grew up in the infamous Robert Taylor Homes housing project, played basketball at a local community college, transferred to Alcorn State University in Missisippi, left before graduating to care for his ailing mother, and later worked as a ditch digger for Peoples Gas in Chicago.

Retired Kankakee Community College basketball coach Denny Lehnus said Duncan was special to the college long before he became a movie star in Hollywood.

“He had such a positive attitude. He was such a hard worker, but always had a smile,” Lehnus said.

At 6’5” and relatively trim 205 pounds in college — at least, compared to the 300 pound giant he became by the time he was an actor — Duncan was a towering presence on the Cavaliers men’s basketball team at KCC. He was a post player, and starting center from 1979 to 1981.

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Lehnus said you’d never know by Duncan’s trademark smile that the Chicago native was facing incredible hardship. He recalled a time when he told Duncan he would be doing a recruiting visit, and heading to the Robert Taylor Homes where Duncan lived, to meet his mother.

“He said, ‘You can’t.’ I said, ‘What do you mean I can’t?’ He said ‘No, you can get into the projects with me, but I’d just have to ride back out with you, because you wouldn’t get out.’”

Lehnus said Duncan was determined to succeed at school, hitchhiking 17 miles to and from campus each day.

Duncan’s struggles would continue while working hard to become an actor. He lived in a car under a bridge at first.

“He said, ‘I didn’t know what I’d tell Coach Lehnus if I quit,’” Lehnus said.

It’s that never give up attitude from Duncan that has inspired current members of the Cavaliers men’s basketball team at KCC.

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Lehnus said he last spoke to Duncan in May. At that time, Duncan promised to return to Kankakee to be part of a mentoring program for junior high students – a clear sign Duncan never forgot his roots.

Suzanne Le Mignot