Family & Companions
Stand-up comic and actor Bernie Mac exploded onto the screen with "The Original Kings of Comedy" (2001) after years of working comedy stages in his native Chicago. His edgy and largely autobiographical material about his background and African-American culture fell in step with a new wave of high-profile black comedians like fellow "Kings," D.L. Hughley and Steve Harvey. And like his "Comedy Kings" co-stars, his hilariously frank material led to Mac's own successful sitcom, "The Bernie Mac Show" (Fox, 2001-06). An increasing presence on the big screen as well, Mac's sometimes gruff but always memorable character roles began to give way to more challenging dramatic work. With the feature film, "Pride" (2007), it was clear Mac as artist had the depth and humanity to bring to the table, and was intent on raising the bar of what audiences and critics had come to expect from run-of-the-mill stand-ups-turned-actors. At the same time, Mac was promoting "Pride," he shocked the comedy world by announcing his retirement from stand-up, devoting himself to screen acting and producing after years of success on the comedy club circuit. Unfortunately, a year later Mac would die of an undisclosed illness, shocking fans of all stripes who grieved his premature departure.
Bernie Mac was born Bernard McCullough on Oct. 5, 1957, in Chicago's south side neighborhood. He grew up with an extended family - an environment that would provide endless material for his future career as a stand-up comic. Early on, his funny voices and vivid imagination earned him the reputation as the family clown, so under the guidance of a supportive school teacher, Mac started channeling his energy by acting in school plays in fourth grade. Before long, he was soon staging his own productions for neighborhood kids. His first lesson in the controversial nature of comedy came after he performed a dead-on impression of his grandmother for a church audience, receiving a great reception from the audience but punishment at home. When he was not entertaining the south side, the powerful young kid - he would grow to six feet three inches - was hanging out at the recreation center, boxing and playing sports; thriving under an especially encouraging group of coaches and leaders he credited for his drive to succeed. His most inspirational force, his mother, died of cancer when Mac was he was only 16 years old.
Mac took some vocational career training after high school, working as a delivery driver and furniture mover, before returning to the South Central Community center as its athletic director. After hours, he honed his comedy act on the platforms of the El train and at local parks, launching his own weekly variety show at Chicago's Regal Theater. In 1977, he began hitting the stages on the local comedy circuit, unknowingly beginning a 30-year career as a stand-up comic. For over a decade, Mac developed his edgy style of commentary and endured the grueling lifestyle of the wannabe comic - being away from home and his new wife for nights at a time, performing for little or no money to gain exposure, and dodging the arrows of fickle late night audiences.
Finally, in 1990, Mac started seeing rewards for all of his hard work when he won the Miller Lite Comedy Search. The honor led to unimaginable opportunities, like opening for headliners Dionne Warwick, Redd Foxx and Natalie Cole. He made his feature debut as a club doorman in "Mo' Money" (1992), and guested on the HBO specials, "Rosie Perez Presents Society's Ride" (1993) and "Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam" (HBO 1992-97; 2006- ). In 1994, he snared a bit as the ribald Uncle Vester in "House Party 3" and also put together his own "Who Ya Wit Tour," which included a 10-piece band and the five "Mac-A-Roni Dancers." The following year, HBO thought Mac's in-your-face persona lent itself to late night programming, but after a month of the network taming down his material, "Midnight Mac" (1995) was cancelled. He knew he wanted to return to TV with a series of his own someday, but he turned his attention back to film work, bulking up his acting resume with appearances as a preacher in "Friday" (1995) and one of the funnier members of the ensemble cast of Spike Lee's "Get on the Bus" (1996). A recurring role in the popular UPN series "Moesha" (UPN, 1996-2001) earned him even more mainstream recognition.
The year 2000 had audiences finally asking, "Who IS this guy?" The hulking frame and bulging-eyed funnyman who had been popping up everywhere, knocked it out of the park, comedically speaking, as part of the "Kings of Comedy" tour. Starring alongside fellow African-American stand-ups Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer and D.L. Hughley, the tour was captured by director Spike Lee and released as the documentary "The Original Kings Of Comedy" (2000). For the first time, millions of viewers got to see what Bernie Mac was all about - hilarious tales of self-deprecation, family life, tough love, and the etymology of his favorite curse word. The documentary was a smash, earning over $38 million at the box office, and Mac seemed closer than ever to his dream of landing his own show. He had been developing a sitcom idea based on the real life experience of raising his sister's three children while she was in rehab. His re-telling of the tale in "Kings of Comedy" was enough to convince producers at Fox, who signed on for "The Bernie Mac Show" in 2001.
In his self-titled sitcom, Mac played the husband of a professional, childless couple who suddenly become guardians of his sister's three children. Risky and outrageously funny for Mac's often politically incorrect ideas of child rearing, the show also incorporated a creative twist - Mac regularly breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. These pieces were a way to incorporate his material into the show, and his character's career as a stand-up comic was also a way to incorporate real life comedians and actors into the show as guests. The show earned a Peabody Award, an Emmy for writing, and honored Mac's acting with several Golden Globe nominations and four NAACP Image Awards. The departure of key creative personnel and Mac's burgeoning film career caused "The Bernie Mac Show" to recede into the background - to say nothing of moving the series into no less than 12 different timeslots, vexing even the most loyal viewers - and production was slowed when Mac came down with a bout of double pneumonia. The show was finally cancelled in 2006.
During the lifespan of "The Bernie Mac Show," Mac made regular appearances on the big screen, stating in interviews that he held classic films and classic values seriously; that he did not want to take part in films with gratuitous sex and violence, preferring more quality, offbeat, films. In 2001, he co-starred as one of the 11 casino robbers in "Ocean's Eleven" (2001), bringing comic relief to Steven Soderbergh's crime caper piece and the subsequent sequels, "Ocean's Twelve" (2004) and "Ocean's 13" (2007). He supported fellow comedian Chris Rock in the misguided flop, "Head of State," (2003) and stepped into the role of TV's Bosley in "Charlie's Angels 2" (2003), before taking on the weirdly hilarious role of a chain-smoking, vitamin C-craving, department store detective in the cynical Christmas comedy "Bad Santa" (2003). After supporting a number of A-listers, Mac took on his first starring role with the well-received "Mr. 3000" (2004), playing an aging major leaguer whose hit record is revoked after retirement, inspiring him to return to the game to reclaim his title. He teamed with Ashton Kutcher in "Guess Who?" (2005), a broad-comedy reversal of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" but threw critics for a loop with his impressive turn in the drama "Pride." In the "Rocky"-like (1976) take on swim meets, Mac revisited his past by playing a municipal worker at a recreation center that housed an inspirational sports program.
While promoting "Pride" in March of 2007, Mac appeared on "Late Night With David Letterman" (CBS, 1993- ) and announced that he would retire from doing stand-up comedy after he completed filming "The Whole Truth, Nothing But the Truth, So Help Me Mac" in the fall of that year. His announcement was met by saddened fans who had hoped to still catch him on a stage or cable special in the future. But Mac insisted he needed a "real life," choosing instead to focus on films and producing TV programs.
Part of the pull toward retirement was due to wanting to spend time with his family. Married to wife Rhonda McCullough since 1970, the couple had one daughter, Je'Niece, who was earning a Masters degree in mental health counseling. On his own health front, Mac suffered from a tissue inflammation disease called sarcoidosis, which thankfully did not affect his daily life and which went into remission in 2005. In addition to his work onscreen, Mac was also a successful author, with his tomes I Ain't Scared of You: Bernie Mac on How Life Is (2001) and the memoir Maybe You Never Cry Again (2003) to his credit.
Meanwhile, he created a bit of a stir in July 2008 when he made a surprise appearance at a fundraiser for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. After joking about menopause, infidelity and promiscuity - with the liberal use of blue language, of course - Mac was rebuked by Obama's campaign for his "inappropriate" comments. Then a month later, Mac was hospitalized and treated for pneumonia in his native Chicago. On Aug. 9, 2008, Mac died from complications due to his pneumonia, though it was believed to be unrelated to sarcoidosis. His death at just 50 years old shocked and saddened his fans, as well as those not as familiar with his comedy career but who knew him as a constant presence on the big and small screen. Said "Oceans" co-star George Clooney, "The world just got a little less funny." Three months after his sudden death, Mac was billed for two of his final films, voicing Zuba in the animated sequel, "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" (2008), and starring alongside Samuel L. Jackson in "Soul Men" (2008), a buddy road comedy about two former members of a soul band who begrudgingly travel together across the country to attend the funeral of a former band mate.
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Won the Miller Lite Comedy Search
Made feature film debut in a bit part in "Mo' Money"
Produced and starred in the comedy act, "Who Ya Wit Tour"
Appeared in a supporting role in the feature "Friday"
Had one-month comedy series on HBO, "Midnight Mac"
Played recurring role on the UPN comedy series "Moesha"
Joined the ensemble cast of Spike Lee's "Get on the Bus"
Had supporting roles in "B.A.P.S" and "How to Be a Player"
Participated in "The Kings of Comedy" tour
Was featured in Spike Lee's documentary film "The Original Kings of Comedy"
Co-starred as a fence in the Martin Lawrence-Danny DeVito comedy "What's the Worst That Could Happen?"
Headlined the TV sitcom "The Bernie Mac Show"; earned Emmy (2002, 2003), Golden Globe (2003, 2004) and SAG (2003) nominations for Best Actor in a Comedy
Appeared in Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Eleven," a remake of the 1960 heist film
Co-starred as Chris Rock's big brother and presidential running mate in " Head of State"
Played Bosley in the comedy sequel "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle"
Reunited with the original cast for Soderbergh's sequel "Ocean's Twelve"
Starred as an aging baseball star who retuns to baseball to reach his goal of 3,000 hits in "Mr. 3000"
Co-starred with Ashton Kutcher in the comedy "Guess Who," loosely based on the 1967 film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Announced his retirement from standup comedy
Announced to David Letterman on CBS' "Late Show" that he would retire from his 30-year career after he finished shooting his latest film
Re-teamed with Soderbergh once again for "Ocean's 13"
Cast as a car dealer in Michael Bay's live action adaptation "Transformers"
Co-starred with Samuel L. Jackson as former backup soul singers in "Soul Men" (released three months after his death)
Co-starred with Robin Williams and John Travolta in the comedy, "Old Dogs" (released a year after his death)
Had final role as the narrator on TV movie "Welcome to the Family"