Feature

Bernie Mac

The straight-talking comic who specialized in crankiness

The straight-talking comic who specialized in crankinessBernie Mac1957–2008

When Bernard Jeffrey McCullough was 5 years old, he saw his mother, Mary, inexplicably crying while watching The Ed Sullivan Show. But when Bill Cosby came on and began telling a story about snakes in a bathroom, she began laughing through her tears. “I started wiping her face,” he recalled, “and I said, ‘Mom, I’m going to be a comedian so you’ll never have to cry again.’” As Bernie Mac, he would garner plenty of laughs for his ethnic humor, especially on his namesake TV show, which ran for five seasons and won him two Emmy nominations. He died unexpectedly last week of complications from pneumonia at age 50.

Mac once called his childhood home on Chicago’s South Side “a place where there wasn’t a lot of joy,” said the Chicago Tribune. Mary, a single mother, passed away when he was 16; one of his brothers died as an infant. But he was a natural clown: When a classmate asked him to define a couplet, he responded, “That’s a little bitty cup, ain’t it?” After a series of dead-end jobs, including driving a Wonder Bread delivery truck, Mac began playing comedy clubs. He was a natural stage presence, combining an imposing 6-foot-3 stature with his distinctive voice, “an amalgam of thought and a delivery that could rise like a tidal wave and outpace a Gatling gun.” Usually, that voice was “loud and unapologetic,” and Mac put it to good use on such shows as HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. By the 1990s, he was opening for Redd Foxx, the Temptations, and Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Mainstream success came in 2001 with The Bernie Mac Show on Fox, said The Philadelphia Inquirer. Using material that he called “85 percent true,” Mac played an acerbic surrogate father to his sister’s three children while she was in rehab. “His character was no Bill Cosby dad. Puffing on a cigar, he would look at the camera and tell the folks at home just how tough—physically tough—he was going to be on those kids.” He would ask, “Now America, tell me again why can’t I whip that girl?” or declare, “I’m gonna bust your head till the white meat shows!” But “beneath the facade of toughness,” Mac projected a soft core and a love of family that endeared him to viewers of all races. “It’s a joke, believe me,” he once said. “I’m not trying to hurt anybody.”

Mac’s movies included Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels and Bad Santa, in 2003. A strong supporter of Barack Obama, he made one of his final public appearances last month at a fund-raiser. There, he delivered a routine so salacious that the candidate told him, “Bernie, you’ve got to clean up your act next time,” only to add, “I’m just messing with you, man.” Mac is survived by Rhonda, his former high school sweetheart and wife of 32 years, and a daughter.

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