Almost two years after his death, Bernie Mac is still missed

McClatchy-Tribune News Service | Boulder Weekly

CHICAGO — In his bathroom, Bernie Mac lit a firecracker, spread ketchup on himself and pretended that he had
been shot — much to the horror of his wife. In a friend’s bathroom, he
placed fake dung on the ground, leading Super Bowl partygoers to
believe someone had missed their porcelain mark.

With practical jokes like those that spanned more
than 30 years, the actor-comedian always knew how to get a rise out of
people, stage or no stage. And it was that gift — that ability to grab
people at their core — for which he was best known.

In the nearly two years since his death, memories are all friends, family and fans have to cling to. On Aug. 9, 2008, Mac — born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough — died at 50 from complications with pneumonia.

Rhonda McCullough, Mac’s wife of 30 years, recalls the day her husband died.

“I asked him, please don’t leave. Don’t leave, I’m
here. Don’t go,” she says, sitting on a leather sofa in her living
room, near their daughter, Je’Niece.

“What am I going to do now? That was my whole life.
As a girl. As a woman. And I’m thinking, how am I to exist now?” says
Rhonda, 51, who married Mac, her childhood sweetheart, in 1977. She
adds that she’s still adjusting to life without him.

In the months after her father died, from August through February, Je’Niece, 32, said she would not look in the mirror.

“I couldn’t look in the mirror because my face is his face.”

When it came to making life decisions, Je’Niece said
her first thought was always how Mac would feel. “To have that gone was
just like — ‘What do you mean? Nobody’s going to tell me what to do
anymore?'” she said.

Mac grew up in an era when everyone told him what to do. Residing above Burning Bush Baptist Church on 69th and Morgan streets in Chicago, he lived in a home with his mother, maternal grandparents and brother.

In his autobiography, “Maybe You Never Cry Again,” he remembers his mother laughing so hard that she cried while watching Bill Cosby on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” She explained to the then 5-year-old Mac that Cosby was a comedian.

“I don’t know what he’s talkin’ about … but I know
whatever it is, it’s got power,” Mac writes of Cosby. “That’s what I
want to be, Mama. A comedian.”

By the 1980s he had a succession of jobs, from replacing empty beer kegs at Soldier Field to working as a fry cook at South Side restaurant Dock’s.

He managed his day job, studied comedians and hit the local comedy circuit at night. Finally, he landed a gig hosting at Chicago’s Cotton Club.

George Willborn, Chicago
actor and comedian, met Mac there. He described Mac’s brand of comedy
at the time as “the kind of funny when they make your stomach hurt and
you want them to stop talking so you can catch your breath and wipe the
tears from your eyes.”

“You had to step your game up. You weren’t going to be recognized as a comic in Chicago because of the level that Bernie had set,” Willborn said.

Mac’s big break came in 1990, when he won the Miller Lite Comedy Search hosted by Damon Wayans and the $3,000. “He knew he was going to win,” Rhonda said. “His favorite saying was: ‘I never met a mic I didn’t like.'”

Mac expanded to Def Comedy Jam, his “Who Ya Wit
Tour” complete with music and dancers, and a string of movies like
“Friday” and “Get on the Bus.”

“Bernie wasn’t just a comedian. Bernie was a showman,” said television producer Ali LeRoi,
who worked as Mac’s joke writer and toured with him. “From the suits
… to really coming onstage and acting like it was a privilege to be
there, Bernie was one of the last guys that was really doing that.”

The Kings of Comedy Tour, followed by “The Bernie Mac Show on Fox, made him into a household name.

“His stories and the things that he shared with you
resonated with you even if you hadn’t shared that experience,” said
fellow King of Comedy Cedric the Entertainer.

Mac would perform comedy bits for extras between setups while filming one of his last movies, “Soul Men,” the film’s director, Malcolm D. Lee,
recalled. “He could have just gone back to his trailer and just cooled
out,” Lee said. “He loved the love that he got from (his audience) and
he gave it back to them.”

Mac’s sister-in-law, Mary Ann Grossett, said he “always remained grounded. … When people would say, ‘Hey, Bernie Mac, you’re a star!’ He would say, ‘No, no. I’m not a star. I’m a person, because stars fall.”

The last conversation longtime friend Morris Frazier of Matteson, Ill.,
had with him ended with their old competitive saying: “You can’t beat
me at nothing. I’m going to even beat you to death.” It turned out to
be unfortunately prescient. “Even as the years pass, I’ll have friends,
but I won’t have another confidant,” Frazier said.

Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who directed all of the “Ocean’s” films in which Mac appeared, said he was known on set for “keeping the good vibes going.”

“That’s something everybody will cherish having a
memory of, but it feels like a theft that we’re not going to have that
memory anymore,” Soderbergh said.

Family and friends say Mac’s off-screen legacy is
not just his film credits in movies like “Mr. 3000,” “Charlie’s Angels:
Full Throttle,” “Head of State” and “Life.” It was taking care of his

Rhonda said carrying on Mac’s quest to help those
suffering from sarcoidosis — the immune system disorder he battled for
more than two decades — through the Bernie Mac Foundation, as well as knowing that she was loved and provided for by him, are the ultimate testaments to the man he was.

“I always thought that he would succeed in something
that he wanted … because he had that drive,” she says. “I never
believed that (it would be) to this magnitude, that people all over the
world would love him and still remember him like they do now.”


(c) 2010, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

  • Carlisa Natureladyoflight

    ms. mac you have no idea we loved that man. He kept me laugh in my most needed time in my life. not to mention he looks so much like my father that it was unbelievable. bernie mac was the best man in the comdey game and no one would every replace him.