Bernie Mac; 'Original King' of Comedy and Sitcom Star

The 50-year-old Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actor and comedian died after suffering complications from pneumonia.
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bernie Mac, a sharp-tongued, sometimes salacious stand-up comedian who became a popular sitcom star and film actor, died Aug. 9 of pneumonia at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. He was 50.

He had revealed three years ago that he had sarcoidosis, a chronic disease that produces inflammation of the lungs, but his publicist said the pneumonia was unrelated to the lung disease.

Mr. Mac, whose full name was Bernard McCullough, built his humor on his impoverished childhood in Chicago and his hard-luck experiences in life. After years of working dead-end jobs, he found popularity in the early 1990s on HBO's "Def Comedy Jam" and was featured prominently in director Spike Lee's concert documentary "The Original Kings of Comedy."

In 2001, he became the star of "The Bernie Mac Show," a Fox network sitcom in which Mr. Mac played the smart-mouthed surrogate father to his sister's three children after the sister entered drug treatment. In real life, Mr. Mac and his wife took in his 16-year-old niece and her 2-year-old daughter.

Criticized for his frequent threats of violence toward the children on the show, Mr. Mac would turn toward the camera to address the audience directly: "C'mon, America. When I say I wanna kill these kids, you know what I mean."

Mr. Mac described the show as "85 percent true" and said he was merely giving voice to what ordinary people said in real life.

"What you're seeing on TV is my grandma," he told Ebony magazine in 2003. "I just say what she told me, except I do it in a comedic form."

During the show's five-year run, Mr. Mac won a Peabody Award and received two Emmy nominations for best actor. In film, he starred as a self-involved baseball player in "Mr. 3000" (2004) and had roles in "Bad Santa" (2003), with Billy Bob Thornton, and "Ocean's Eleven" (2001) and its two sequels, starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.

He had completed two films that are expected to be released next year, "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," starring Ben Stiller and Chris Rock, and "Soul Men," with Samuel L. Jackson and Isaac Hayes.

Mr. Mac had a long and difficult road to success and spent years working as a janitor, bread-truck driver, furniture mover, fast-food manager and factory worker. He told jokes for tips in Chicago's public transit system and appeared for years in tough nightclubs.

In 1989, he traveled to Las Vegas and talked his way into a meeting with veteran comedian Redd Foxx, who let Mr. Mac open for him. He went on the road as an opening act for the O'Jays, Temptations and Gladys Knight and the Pips.

The hard-knocks experience made Mr. Mac a fearless performer. In 1993, when appearing on "Def Comedy Jam" with other African American comics, he followed a comedian who had been booed off the stage. Mr. Mac strode out, grabbed the microphone and said, "I ain't scared of you [expletive]."

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