(Akira Suwa/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)
Comedian and Chicago native Bernie Mac died early Saturday morning from complications due to pneumonia, his publicist confirmed.
Mac, 50, had been hospitalized for about a week at Northwestern Hospital, according to his spokeswoman. A few years ago, Mac disclosed that he suffered from sarcoidosis, a rare autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in tissue, most often in the lungs.
The comic born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough could cut an imposing figure. He stood 6-foot-3, was built like a fullback and carried himself with a bouncer’s reticence. But perhaps the strongest weapon in the Chicago comedian’s arsenal was that voice, that amalgam of thought and a delivery that could rise like a tidal wave, outpace a Gatling gun and remained, to his last days, loud and unapologetic.
He wasn’t scared, he told us time and again, to tell anyone what he thought, to say what others were afraid to say. That fearlessness wasn’t always welcome, considering Mac didn’t get his big break until his 30s. But when he did, the comic skyrocketed to success in stand-up, television and the big screen.
Mac shared screen time with some of Hollywood’s larger-than-life leading men, co-starring with Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Matt Damon in the “Ocean’s 11” remake and subsequent sequels.
Most recently, Mac garnered attention for making unsavory comments at a Barack Obama benefit that the presumptive Democratic candidate had to distance himself from.
Growing up on the South Side a hard-core White Sox fan, Mac discovered early on that he wanted to make a go at being a comedian.
Before his 10th birthday, Mac was performing comedy standup, honing his skills on CTA trains and parks before graduating to well-known haunts like the Regal Theater and the Cotton Club. He came to a realization during those first years as a struggling comic: If he could kill in front of a black crowd, he could kill in any crowd.
“Black audiences are hard,” he told the New York Times in 2002. “You got to come with a little extra to satisfy them.”
He also learned that comedy isn’t a lucrative business when you are starting out. During those lean years in the ‘80s, Mac drove a Wonder Bread delivery truck to pay the bills.
Life changed dramatically for Mac when he was 32. He won the Miller Lite comedy search that year and that performance took him to the standup stage, which ultimately led to regular performances on popular shows like HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam.”
In a few short years, he was able to put a stamp on this tell-it-like-it-is brand of comedy that audiences had come to know him for. He was a hit on the stage, delivering sordid tales of his early life growing up on Chicago’s South Side.
His work hit home to the African American audience - his aggressive, brash comedy had a down home feel to it, tackling everything from family life to black romantic relationships - yet Mac was able to cross it over, connecting with a majority entertainment scene.
“When I started in comedy in the clubs in 1977, blacks couldn’t do certain clubs - not because they were segregated. They just didn’t want to put the (black comics) out there. In Los Angeles, the clubs would have a black night. People would say, ‘Why don’t you come by and do something?’ I would say, ‘I’m a comedian - don’t put a title on me.’ Don’t limit yourself. How you start is how you finish,” he told the Tribune in 2007. “If you let people put tags on you, you’ll never be able to remove them. You’ve got to make people respect you. Respect is bigger than dollars and cents.”
Mac got his respect and he gained national attention after his set on HBO’s popular late-night series Def Comedy Jam in 1992. Decked out in a pair of jeans with his face illustrated, graffiti-style, on the right pants leg, Mac expounded on one taboo subject after another, from the benefits of snitching to his prowess in the bedroom.
“I ain’t scared of you (expletive)!” became his signature tagline.
Many took note of the blue comic’s performance, which later led to a bit part in 1992’s “Mo’ Money,” and later an HBO Special, “Midnight Mac.”
In 1995, Mac earned a spot in the cult-classic “Friday,” and the film helped Mac break out. His portrayal of Pastor Clever was one of the film’s highlights, however small it was. He followed it up with bit roles in other films, including “Booty Call,” and “Def Jam’s: How to Be a Player.”
But he wanted more.
Mac sowed the seeds for his success on a cloudy day in North Carolina while taping the 2000 Spike Lee concert film, “The Original Kings of Comedy.” There, on a rain-soaked basketball court, buttressed by co-stars Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley and Steve Harvey, Mac issued a challenge to Hollywood:
“Do I have a television show? Nah,” Mac told the cameras. “Why? ‘Cause you scared of me, Scared I’m a say something. You (expletive) right. Think I won’t say something?!”
A year later, Mac got his chance. “The Bernie Mac Show” debuted on Fox in November 2001, drawing critical acclaim, numerous awards, including two Emmy nominations for Mac and, most important, high ratings. Its premiere episode drew 11.4 million viewers. The second episode, which immediately followed the first, drew 12.4 million.
For the next four years, Mac spoke to the American public - via a break in the fourth wall a la Dobie Gillis - with all the befuddlement of a 40-something taskmaster father lost in a sea of talk therapy and “timeouts.” “Now, America,” Mac would often begin before going into a rant about undisciplined children, cuddling parents or, one of his favorite topics, the differences between black and white people.
But in 2005, the show went off the air. Several reasons contributed to cancellation: The show’s ratings had dropped, Mac was getting more lucrative offers from the movie studios. Before the 2000 concert film, Mac’s biggest credit was a recurring role on “Moesha.”
But Mac’s health was also a factor. In 2004, he halted production on the show while recovering from exhaustion. A year later, he disclosed that he suffered from sarcoidosis, a rare autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in tissue, most often in the lungs.
In spite of that, his star had risen a great deal. In addition to the highly popular “Oceans” films, he co-starred with Ashton Kutcher in a reverse remake of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in 2005.
Last spring, Mac said that he was hanging up his standup career, and instead would focus more on movies. In 2007, he co-starred in “Ocean’s Thirteen,” “Pride” and had a role in the blockbuster “Transformers.”
Scheduled for release is “Soul Men,” with Samuel L. Jackson, which will be released this year, and “Old Dogs,” with Robin Williams, which is due next year.
Mac is survived by his wife Rhonda McCullough, their daughter, Je’Niece, a son-in-law and a granddaughter, Jasmine.
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