— The last time someone rang me up to ask if Bernie Mac had died was on Wednesday of this week. Rumors had surfaced over the previous weekend that the inimitable and irreverent comic from Chicago’s South Side had gone to meet his maker at age 50.
Although the erroneous reports of Mac’s demise had been vehemently denied by his publicist days earlier, I checked with a colleague at a major news agency to be sure Mac was still among us. My friend assured me that Mac was fine.
That’s why I had to confirm the news again early this morning. I had fallen asleep around 2 a.m. Saturday with the TV on. When I awakened some five hours later, I thought I dreamt that Mac had died. The welcome page on my laptop, however, substantiated that my dream was now a nightmare.
Mac was indeed dead and not just in my subconscious. And the world, according to his “Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen” costar George Clooney had just gotten a “little less funny.”
Mac’s death was reportedly caused by complications from pneumonia at a suburban Chicago hospital. Mac hadn’t been well in recent years, suffering from an inflammatory lung disease called sarcoidosis that produces tiny lumps of cells in the body’s organs, impacting the immune system. According to his publicist Danica Smith, that affliction had been in remission for three years and was not related to Mac’s death.
The last time I’d seen Mac was in 2007. He was promoting his new film “Pride,” a biopic in which he played Elston, a cantankerous old janitor who helped coach an all-black swim team in Philadelphia to a national championship. When I inquired about Mac’s own pool savvy he naturally — as he always did — boasted that he had skills.
He could wuff, wuff with the best off them.
“I’m a SCUBA diver,” he said. “Certified. I can do some things in that water,” he said rocking his head from side-to-side. When I dared to ask what he could or would do, he looked at me with those big bubble eyes of his and said, “Never you mind. I can do some things.”
Man, I’m going to miss dancing with that wolf.
His quick wit and his unfiltered realness endeared Mac to those of us who cover entertainment. He was always consistent, always friendly and told great, albeit lengthy, stories. One Bernie Mac sound bite could last 15 minutes.
Flashy but classy
Additionally, the cat could dress. If off-white were the theme of the day, Mac would step out in three or four different shades of that color from his hat to his shoes. And more often than not he’d be donning a pair of sparklers that would rival any of the ice Liz Taylor has stashed in her jewelry box.
He was flashy but classy.
The first time we formally met was poolside at the Mondrian Hotel’s SkyBar in West Hollywood. It was late July 2001 and Mac and his TV family from the Peabody Award-winning “The Bernie Mac Show” were attending a Fox network party during the Television Critics Association’s annual press tour. I rolled up to him and said, “Whaddup?” He responded, “Chicken butt,” with that flashy $10 million smile of his. That became our standard greeting whenever we saw each other.
Over the years we developed a connection that went a little deeper than our “official” relationship. We were the same age, grew up in the Midwest and had similar experiences and values. I loved hearing his stories about his big momma, his early days in stand-up and didn’t even mind when he started reflecting on his days as a star high school football and basketball player in Chi-town.
But one of the coolest things about Mac was his ability to connect with people from all walks of life as his “Head of State” costar Chris Rock alluded to in his statement regarding Mac’s death: “Bernie Mac was one of the best and funniest comedians to ever live, but that was the second best thing he did. Bernie was one of the greatest friends a person could have. Losing him is like losing 12 people because he absolutely filled up any room he was in. I'm gonna miss the Mac Man."
I started to get a little concerned about Mac toward the end of his sitcom run. By that time he had been diagnosed with sarcoidosis and had lost some of his pep. His face was bloated, the whites of his eyes had yellowed and the steroid medication he was on had caused him to pack on the pounds.
The packaging was different but the contents remained the same. Mac’s exhaustion showed and he didn’t wear it well, regardless of how well his tailor had hooked him up. He was still crazy though, perhaps much to his own detriment.
A born hustler, Mac never let up. As soon as his show went on hiatus, Mac hit the road. When he wasn’t perfecting his “life’s blood” (his stand-up routine), he’d be shooting a movie. I was encouraged, however, by how healthy Mac looked last year. The man who had entertained us in such starring vehicles as “The Original Kings of Comedy,” “Guess Who,” “Mr. 3000”; and in all of his scene-stealing supporting roles in flicks like “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” “Friday,” “Life” and “Get on the Bus,” had returned in his original form. He looked good, said he was feeling fine and went on about how he had kicked his health issues and his improving golf game.
He was part Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley and Flip Wilson with a pinch of Pryor, Cosby and Robin Harris thrown in for added texture.
Perhaps Mac was channeling all of them last month when he was heckled for some inappropriate comments he made about menopause and infidelity at a Barack Obama fund-raising event. I’m sure Mac meant no harm, after all Obama is his Chicago homeboy. But Bernie has always been a blue dude and that color had served him. It was part of his genius.
In Mac’s world, buttons existed to be pushed.
Bernard Jeffrey McCullough’s legacy will of course live on in reruns of his TV show and in all of his films currently on DVD. His next film, “Soul Men” with Samuel L. Jackson, will be released this fall and another, “Old Dogs” with Robin Williams, comes out in 2009. I wanted to ask him about that flick last time I saw him but he was too busy talking trash about other things that had nothing to do with the movie.
I loved that about him. He was very adept at flipping the script.
I can’t wait, however, to see what kind of on-screen magic he created with Jackson. The two play estranged singers reuniting after 20 years to pay tribute to their former bandleader. To my knowledge, neither are noted singers, but I can just hear Mac jawing about how he could out-croon Smokey, Luther and Sammy back in the day.
I hope Luther and Sammy are sitting on a stoop somewhere in heaven waiting for him to do just that.