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Home / Articles / Today / Entertainment Today /  Almost two years after his death, Bernie Mac is still missed
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Thursday, June 10,2010

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

By McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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 family.

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.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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