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Big Mac Attack

Why Bernie Mac is swinging for silver-screen glory -- The hardest-working man in comedy reflects on his recent jump from TV to film

During rehearsals for Mr. 3000, his first shot as the leadoff man in a feature film, Bernie Mac felt dissed by his director, Charles Stone III of Drumline. ''He came up to me and asked how I go about preparing,'' recalls Mac. ''He says something like, 'I know Angela [Bassett, Mac's Oscar-nominated costar] is gonna bring it, I ain't worried about her.' And that disrespected me.'' Mac says he shut it out, and filming went fine. ''But at the last shoot,'' he continues, ''I told [Stone], 'You know, you disrespected me, but it's okay.' Charles said, 'I'm just trying to push you.' I said, 'I don't need pushing. You should have done your homework. Everybody'll tell you, I don't need pushing.'''

Today, the oxygen tube in his nose is proof of that. Mac, nattily dressed and eating a lobster roll in a makeup chair after a Manhattan photo shoot, should be in bed: He's still recovering from a three-week bout of pneumonia. Instead, yesterday he wrapped reshoots on his next movie, Guess Who with Ashton Kutcher; this week, he's promoting 3000, a baseball comedy ''with heart'' starring Mac as an arrogant hitter who comes out of a 10-year retirement (see review on page 80); and next week, he continues filming season 4 of his Fox sitcom, The Bernie Mac Show. No time to rest. ''You don't take a vacation in seven years, look what it gets you,'' jokes the 46-year-old comic, gesturing toward the little air tank at his side that -- doctor's orders -- will be helping him catch his breath off camera for another two weeks.

Making his jump to the movie big leagues, Mac picked 3000 because it wasn't slapstick; he gets to show some drama chops. ''People will see me in a whole different light,'' he promises. ''And I love making people say, 'I didn't know he could do that.''' Plus, he loves baseball: Ask him if he played as a kid, and he turns into a Garrison Keillor of the streets, rhapsodizing for five beautiful minutes about playing South Side Chicago streetball (''. . . we played on a vacant lot, and glass would cut your fingers, but you were afraid to go in, because you knew if you went in, you wouldn't be able to come back outside and play!''). Mac tells stories about growing up so poor he had to eat his cereal with a fork to save the milk for someone else. As a young scrapper, he learned comedy by telling jokes at parks, discos, children's parties, funerals, on the el train, and even on the welfare line. ''He's grateful for everything he has,'' says Bassett. ''He remembers his whole journey, he knows who he is, and he's a gentleman of the highest order.''

''This is my drug,'' says Mac, appearing next in Ocean's Twelve this December. ''I'm doing something that I put out to do when I was 4 years old. And I told everybody -- my wife'll tell you . . .'' He scans the room. ''Come here, Rhonda!''

Rhonda, an elegant woman with flowing pulled-back hair, strides across the studio. ''Just ask her,'' Mac says before she arrives. ''What did I tell her when I met her 31 years ago?'' And so the question is posed.

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