Bernard Jeffrey “Bernie” McCullough better known by his stage name Bernie Mac, was an Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actor and comedian, and one of the Original Kings of Comedy. Mac worked his way to Hollywood success from an impoverished upbringing on Chicago’s South Side.
Bernard Mac was born in Chicago in 1957 on October 5, 1957. He grew up on the city’s South Side, living with his mother and grandparents and it was within this setting that Bernie Mac developed his gift to entertain. In his 2004 memoir, Maybe You Never Cry Again, Mac wrote about having a poor childhood — eating bologna for dinner — and a strict, no-nonsense upbringing. His mother, Mary, died of cancer when he was 16, in his sophomore year of high school. In his book, Mac said she was a support for him and told him he would surprise everyone when he grew up. “Woman believed in me,” he wrote. “She believed in me long before I believed.”
It was his mother’s sadness that paved Mac’s path as a comedian. He spoke about seeing his mother crying when he was four years old. But when his mother started laughing in the midst of her tears Bernie Mac saw that it was Bill Cosby on TV who was the cause of his mother’s change in demeanor. It was at that young age that he saw the power of comedy and vowed to become a comedian himself. Mac’s purpose was to never see his mother cry again.
Mac started his comedy career at age 8, impersonating his grandparents at the dinner table for the church congregation. After his mother’s death (his brother, father and grandmother died not long after), Mac realized the healing power of laughter. He began telling jokes for spare change in the Chicago subway. While working various odd jobs, he eventually established his own weekly variety show at Chicago’s Regal Theatre and joined the comedy club circuit in 1977. After he won the Miller Lite Comedy Search at the age of 32, his popularity as a comedian began to grow. A performance on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam thrust him into the spotlight; after Martin Lawrence was unable to calm an increasingly hostile crowd, Mac went onstage and famously said, “I ain’t scared o’ you mothafuckas”, telling the audience that he “didn’t come here for no foolishness”. Mac’s comedy and fearlessness onstage cemented his reputation with fans and colleagues.
His film career started in 1992, with a small part in the Damon Wayans movie Mo’ Money . Mac went on to star in the “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise with Brad Pitt and George Clooney and his turn with Ashton Kutcher in 2005’s “Guess Who?” — a remake of the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn 1967 classic “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” — topped the box office.In 1992 he made his film debut with a small part with Mo’ Money (1992). This started a plethora of small parts in a string of movies, mostly comedies, including Who’s the Man? (1993), House Party 3 (1994) and The Walking Dead (1995).
1995 proved to be a turning point in his career. He did an HBO Special called Midnight Mac (1995), and took a part as Pastor Clever in the Chris Tucker comedy Friday (1995). Bernie Mac developed a cult following due to the movie and had many small parts since. In 1996 he starred in the memorable Spike Lee movie Get on the Bus (1996), and was very funny in Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996). About this time he had a recurring role in the TV series Moesha (1996). Bernie Mac’s star was slowly rising from this point. His next couple of movie parts were more substantial, including How to Be a Player (1997) and The Players Club (1998). In 1999 Bernie Mac got his most high profile part up to that point in the film Life (1999) starring Eddie Murphy.
The new century started a new era for the brash Chicago comedian. He was a featured comedian in The Original Kings of Comedy (2000). This performance made him more of a household name, and led to many more major parts. In 2001 he played Martin Lawrence’s uncle in What’s the Worst That Could Happen? (2001) and later that year, was in the star studded remake of Ocean’s Eleven (2001). However his biggest success was The Bernie Mac Show (2001), which debuted in 2001 to instant acclaim.
The series, which aired more than 100 episodes from 2001 to 2006, won a Peabody Award in 2002. At the time, judges wrote they chose the sitcom for transcending “race and class while lifting viewers with laughter, compassion — and cool.” The show garnered Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for Mac. He also was nominated for a Grammy award for best comedy album in 2001 along with his “The Original Kings of Comedy” co-stars, Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley and Cedric The Entertainer.
However, soon after the series ended, Mac’s health took a turn for the worse. Bernie Mac was diagnosed with sarcoidosis in 1983, an autoimmune disease which causes inflammation in the lungs. He spoke about his battle with the disease in 2005, after production was halted on, The Bernie Mac Show, delaying its season premiere by more than two months. On August 9, 2008, after weeks of unsuccessful treatments, Bernie Mac died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. He was 50. Rhonda, Mac’s wife since 1977, and their 30-year-old daughter, Je’Niece, were with him when he died.
Mac married his high school sweetheart, Rhonda, whom he credits with much of his success, particularly as the young couple struggled through the early years of Mac’s fledgling career. The couple had 30 years of marriage. When they were still in their teens, Mac told his wife, “Girl, you better come on board this train, because I’m going to be rich.” And her response was, “Okay.”
Besides his work in film and television Mac also authored two books, 2001’s I Ain’t Scared of You: Bernie Mac on How Life Is and his 2003 memoir, Maybe You Never Cry Again.