Brutal honesty is an undeniable necessity for any comedian who wants a long, well-regarded career — and for many of them, it’s also their biggest vice. Bernie Mac, who died Aug. 9 at the age of 50 in his native Chicago from complications due to pneumonia, was no exception. When he was 8, he performed his first stand-up routine at a church function. A dead-on impersonation of his grandparents, it earned him an immediate spanking. But don’t think that deterred him — in fact, it absolutely propelled him as he honed his craft by performing in school plays, directing his church choir, and being in a band. In the ’70s and ’80s, he worked as a UPS deliveryman, a furniture mover, and a bread-delivery sales rep by day while tearing up the North Side comedy clubs at night for two beers and no pay. The day he figured he could finally earn a living as a stand-up, he told EW in 2001, ”it was 40 below in Chicago and I just unloaded all the bread in one store…. Then I called up my boss and said, ‘I quit; I’m a comedian.”’
Mac steadily built his résumé with bit parts in films like 1995’s Friday and the following year’s Get on the Bus, and his ferocious need to straight-talk an audience finally garnered him mainstream appeal after the release of the Spike Lee-directed The Original Kings of Comedy, a 2000 concert film that documented his successful tour with fellow African-American comedians Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, and D.L. Hughley, all of whom would eventually boast their own eponymous TV series. ”Bernie was the axis we revolved around,” recalls Hughley. ”He brought audiences out that hadn’t been there or didn’t necessarily know how relevant we were. He was the nucleus that started the resurgence of black comedy. He took it to another level.”
And when Fox gave him his own sitcom in 2001, Mac knew he’d catch hell from executives for the things he wanted to say on screen. He was determined to present what he felt was a realistic portrayal of a childless man suddenly having to parent his sister’s three young children. So the comedian fought them for the right to tell one of his new charges that he was going to ”bust your head till the white meat shows” in the debut episode of The Bernie Mac Show, which premiered that fall to critical praise and a healthy 12.4 million viewers. ”I want to speak directly to the audience, to say I’m like you — I’m frustrated,” Mac told EW in 2001. ”I’m not an expert, I don’t have a manual on parenting, I make mistakes…. I know in my heart when people see it they’re gonna say, ‘Yup. He ain’t lying.”’ Indeed, the show was lauded for its unique brand of honest — and harsh — comedy. ”One of the things that Bernie wanted to keep was a certain kind of authenticity,” says Larry Wilmore, who served as The Bernie Mac Show’s exec producer and a writer for its first two years on Fox. ”I was in direct competition with Bernie the stand-up. He had a loyal following and we didn’t want the network to water him down or they’d turn against us.” (The show continued for three seasons after Wilmore’s departure, but never fully regained its luster — or its viewership.) Mac’s memorable work not only garnered two Emmy nods, but opened up bigger opportunities in film, including an underappreciated stint as a mall security chief in the 2003 film Bad Santa, a recurring role in the Ocean’s Eleven franchise, and a part alongside John Travolta and Robin Williams in next April’s Old Dogs, about 6-year-old twins suddenly left in the care of clueless bachelors.
Despite his big-screen breakthrough, Fox never fully let the comedian out of its sight; though it failed to pick up a new sitcom for this fall that would have starred Mac as a father who works for his son, the network was intent on finding another series that would showcase Mac’s considerable talents. That won’t happen now, though audiences will be treated to two posthumous performances in the coming year: In addition to Dogs, he costars with Samuel L. Jackson in November’s Soul Men. The duo, who both helped develop the film, play ex-backup singers who reunite after the death of their famous frontman. (In a tragic twist, the movie also features a cameo by Isaac Hayes, who died one day after Mac; see story here.) ”It showed a different side of Bernie that he didn’t get to display in movies before, which is the nice-guy side…the dreamer,” says Soul Men director Malcolm D. Lee. ”Bernie had resiliency. His approach and delivery were unique, and when he finally got his chance to shine, it had been after a number of decades of being in the business. But he waited his turn.” When Mac accepted his first leading film role in the 2004 baseball comedy Mr. 3000, he vowed not to get caught up in the notion of being an actor ”because it takes away from me…. I like to let my heart take over,” he told EW. ”The key for me is to be natural, just to be myself. That’s how I got here.” And it’s exactly why he’ll be so fondly remembered.
— With additional reporting by Gregory Kirschling, Ken Tucker, and Margeaux Watson
Essential Bernie Mac
As a scheming pastor, he stole this buddy-stoner movie from leading men Ice Cube and Chris Tucker.
THE ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY (2000)
Mac’s no-holds-barred sets were highlights of this raucous concert film.
THE BERNIE MAC SHOW (2001-06)
His terminally exasperated dad was a quick-witted original full of gruffness, gumption — and a big helping of heart.
THE OCEAN’S SERIES (2001-07)
Mac more than held his own in three hefty, star-studded ensembles as the hand-moisturizer-obsessed blackjack dealer Frank Catton.