Bernie Mac blended style, authority and a touch of self-aware bluster to make audiences laugh as well as connect with him. For Mac, who died Saturday at age 50, it was a winning mix, delivering him from a poor childhood to stardom as a standup comedian, in films including the casino heist caper “Ocean’s Eleven” and his acclaimed sitcom “The Bernie Mac Show.”
Though his comedy drew on tough experiences as a black man, he had mainstream appeal — befitting inspiration he found in a wide range of humorists: Harpo Marx as well as Moms Mabley; squeaky-clean Red Skelton, but also the raw Redd Foxx.
Mac died Saturday morning of complications from pneumonia in a Chicago-area hospital, his publicist, Danica Smith, said in a statement from Los Angeles.
Mac’s daughter says her family had expected him to fully recover from the bout of pneumonia that put him in Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital three weeks ago. However, Je’niece Childress says that as time passed she and her mother braced for the possibility that he could die.
“Initially when he was hospitalized we expected him to come back home, but as the weeks went on, I kind of knew,” Childress told The Associated Press.
Mac also suffered from sarcoidosis, an inflammatory lung disease, but he had said the condition went into remission in 2005. Smith, his publicist, has said the pneumonia was unrelated to the sarcoidosis.
A public memorial is planned for noon Aug. 16 at The House of Hope church in Chicago.
“The world just got a little less funny,” said “Oceans” co-star George Clooney.
Don Cheadle, another member of the “Oceans” gang, concurred: “This is a very sad day for many of us who knew and loved Bernie. He brought so much joy to so many. He will be missed, but heaven just got funnier.”
Mac suffered from sarcoidosis, an inflammatory lung disease that produces tiny lumps of cells in the body’s organs, but had said the condition went into remission in 2005. He recently was hospitalized and treated for pneumonia, which his publicist said was not related to the disease.
Recently, Mac’s brand of comedy caught him flack when he was heckled during a surprise appearance at a July fundraiser for Democratic presidential candidate and fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama.
Toward the end of a 10-minute standup routine, Mac joked about menopause, sexual infidelity and promiscuity, and used occasional crude language. Obama took the stage about 15 minutes later, implored Mac to “clean up your act next time,” then let him off the hook, adding: “By the way, I’m just messing with you, man.”
Even so, Obama’s campaign later issued a rebuke, saying the senator “doesn’t condone these statements and believes what was said was inappropriate.”
But despite controversy or difficulties, in his words, Mac was always a performer.
“Wherever I am, I have to play,” he said in 2002. “I have to put on a good show.”
Mac worked his way to Hollywood success from an impoverished upbringing on Chicago’s South Side. He began doing standup as a child, telling jokes for spare change on subways, and his film career started with a small role as a club doorman in the Damon Wayans comedy “Mo’ Money” in 1992. In 1996, he appeared in the Spike Lee drama “Get on the Bus.”
He was one of “The Original Kings of Comedy” in the 2000 documentary of that title that brought a new generation of black standup comedy stars to a wider audience.
“The majority of his core fan base will remember that when they paid their money to see Bernie Mac ... he gave them their money’s worth,” Steve Harvey, one of his co-stars in “Original Kings,” told CNN on Saturday.
‘I can't believe he's gone’
Mac went on to star in the hugely popular “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise with Brad Pitt and George Clooney, playing a gaming-table dealer who was in on the heist. Carl Reiner, who also appeared in the “Ocean’s” films, said Saturday he was “in utter shock” because he thought Mac’s health was improving.
“He was just so alive,” Reiner said. “I can’t believe he’s gone.”
Mac and Ashton Kutcher topped the box office in 2005’s “Guess Who,” a comedy remake of the classic Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn drama “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” Mac played the dad who’s shocked that his daughter is marrying a white man.
Mac also had starring roles in “Bad Santa,” “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” and “Transformers.”
But his career and comic identity were forged in television.
In the late 1990s, he had a recurring role in “Moesha,” the UPN network comedy starring pop star Brandy. The critical and popular acclaim came after he landed his own Fox television series “The Bernie Mac Show,” about a child-averse couple who suddenly are saddled with three children.
Mac mined laughs from the universal frustrations of parenting, often breaking the “fourth wall” to address the camera throughout the series that aired from 2001 to 2006. “C’mon, America,” implored Mac, in character as the put-upon dad. “When I say I wanna kill those kids, YOU know what I mean.”
The series won a Peabody Award in 2002, and Mac was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Emmy. In real life, he was “the king of his household” — very much like his character on that series, his daughter told The Associated Press on Saturday.
“But television handcuffs you, man,” he said in a 2001 Associated Press interview before the show had premiered. “Now everyone telling me what I CAN’T do, what I CAN say, what I SHOULD do, and asking, ‘Are blacks gonna be mad at you? Are whites gonna accept you?”’
He also was nominated for a Grammy award for best comedy album in 2001 along with his “The Original Kings of Comedy” co-stars Harvey, D.L. Hughley and Cedric The Entertainer.
Destined for success
Chicago music producer Carolyn Albritton said she was Bernie Mac’s first manager, having met him in 1991 at Chicago’s Cotton Club where she hosted an open-mike night. He was an immediate hit, Albritton said Saturday, and he asked her to help guide his career.
“From very early on I thought he was destined for success,” Albritton said. “He never lost track of where he came from, and he’d often use real life experiences, his family, his friends, in his routine. After he made it, he stayed a very humble man. His family was the most important thing in the world to him.”
In 2007, Mac told David Letterman on CBS’ “Late Show” that he planned to retire soon.
“I’m going to still do my producing, my films, but I want to enjoy my life a little bit,” Mac told Letterman. “I missed a lot of things, you know. I was a street performer for two years. I went into clubs in 1977.”
Mac was born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough on Oct. 5, 1957, in Chicago. He grew up on the South Side, living with his mother and grandparents. His grandfather was the deacon of a Baptist church.
In his 2004 memoir, “Maybe You Never Cry Again,” Mac wrote about having a poor childhood — eating bologna for dinner — and a strict, no-nonsense upbringing.
“I came from a place where there wasn’t a lot of joy,” Mac told the AP in 2001. “I decided to try to make other people laugh when there wasn’t a lot of things to laugh about.”
Mac’s mother died of cancer when he was 16. In his book, Mac said she was a support for him and told him he would surprise everyone when he grew up.
“Woman believed in me,” he wrote. “She believed in me long before I believed.”
Mac’s death Saturday coincided with the annual Bud Billiken Parade in Chicago, a major event in the predominantly black South Side that the comedian had previously attended.
“It’s truly the passing of one of our favorite sons,” said Paula Robinson, president of the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area. “He was extremely innovative in putting his life experiences in comedic form and doing it without vulgarity.
“He was an ambassador of Chicago’s black community, and the national black community at large.”