RIP Bernie Mac12/08/2008
He was admitted to hospital in Chicago last week and died early on Saturday morning due to complications arising from pneumonia, his publicist said.
"We ask that his family's privacy continues to be respected," said Damica Taylor. Comedian Carl Reiner, who appeared with Mac in Ocean's Eleven and its two sequels, said he was "in utter shock" because he thought the comedian's condition had been improving.
"He was just so alive. I can't believe he's gone," he said.
Mac was born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough in Chicago, Illinois in October 1957. According to his uncle, there were once as many as 10 people living in the two-bedroom apartment in which he grew up. "We learned to entertain ourselves," he wrote in his 2003 autobiography, Maybe You Never Cry Again.
"I used to have long conversations with the living room wall." The memoir told how, as a child, he had discovered his mother doubled up with laughter at Bill Cosby appearing on Ed Sullivan's TV show. "'That's what I want to be, Mama, a comedian'" he recalled saying.
"Make you laugh like that, maybe you never cry again." He began performing as a stand-up at a church dinner at the age of eight, progressing to open mic nights and a regular stint at Chicago's Cotton Club by the time he was 20. But his success was far from immediate and along the way he worked as a janitor, furniture mover, appliance hauler, and delivery man to supplement his comedy income.
It wasn't until he was featured in the Kings of Comedy stand-up tour in 1997 – which was filmed and broadcast by HBO – that he achieved national prominence. One of his co-stars in the show, Steve Harvey, paid tribute to the comedian on Saturday, saying: "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."
Mac often attributed his dogged persistence of a comedy career to his mother who, he said, had imbued him with a strong work ethic before she died of breast cancer when he was just 16. "Parents today don't get it," he wrote in his memoirs. "They don't want to be parents. They want to be cool. They want to be hip. They don't want to be the bad guy.
"But guess what? Being the bad guy is your job. "My mama knew better. She wasn't there to make me like her; she was there to shape me; she was there to make me a good person." Mac's view of parenting was reflected in his hit TV show, which was based around a man's attempts to raise his sister's three children.
The show won a Peabody award for excellence in television in 2002. At the time, judges said they had singled it out for transcending "race and class while lifting viewers with laughter, compassion – and cool". The sitcom, which ran for more than 100 episodes from 2001 to 2006, made Mac a household name in the US.
"But he had been making a living from film and TV appearances for several years, starting with a small role in the Damon Wayans movie Mo' Money in 1992. More recently, he topped the box office with Guess Who? – a remake of the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn classic Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? – in 2005.
Earlier this year, he attracted a modicum of controversy after making some off-colour jokes at a fund-raiser for Democratic presidential candidate and fellow Chicago native Barack Obama. 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." The comedian had a history of ill health and suffered from the inflammatory lung disease sarcoidosis. He contracted pneumonia for the first time in 2004 while filming Ocean's Twelve. Mac later told his home newspaper The Chicago Sun-Times that the disease, which had nearly killed him, had acted as a wake-up call.
"My life was slipping away. I was missing out on so much stuff with my family, and I will never do that again," he said. In 2007, he told US chat show host David Letterman he planned to retire from comedy. "I'm going to still do my producing, my films, but I want to enjoy my life a little bit," he said.
Mac is survived by his wife Rhonda, daughter Je'Niece and a granddaughter.