| Mark Bonto
F L I N T O I D
Bernie Mac, a stand-up comic who played evil-tongued but lovable rogues in films like “Bad Santa” and “Mr. 3000” and combined menace and sentiment as a reluctant foster father on “The Bernie Mac Show” on Fox, died on Saturday in Chicago. He was 50 and lived near the city.
The cause was complications from pneumonia, his publicist, Danica Smith, said.
Mr. Mac, an angry stage presence with a line of scabrous insults, parlayed his success as a stand-up comedian onto the big screen in a string of comedies that usually cast him as wily con men like Pastor Clever in “Friday” (1995) and Gin, the store detective in “Bad Santa” (2003). He also excelled playing short-tempered misanthropes, notably in his starring role as Stan Ross, the nation’s most hated baseball player, in “Mr. 3000” (2004).
In 2001, the Fox network took a gamble on “The Bernie Mac Show,” an unconventional family comedy in which Mr. Mac portrayed a childless married comedian who reluctantly takes in his sister’s three youngsters when she goes into a drug-treatment program.
The irascible Mr. Mac made a different kind of TV dad, “more Ike Turner than Dr. Spock,” Chris Norris wrote in a 2002 profile for The New York Times Magazine. Mr. Mac’s special style of tough love — “I’m gonna bust your head till the white meat shows,” he warned his surly teenage niece — set the show apart from other family sitcoms and raised a few critical eyebrows. But audiences saw enough of the character’s soft center to find the show touching.
“The success of my comedy has been not being afraid to touch on subject matters or issues that everyone else is politically scared of,” Mr. Mac told The Times in 2001. “It’s a joke, believe me. I’m not trying to hurt anybody.”
Mr. Mac incorporated aspects of his stand-up act in the TV show, and during each episode would break the “fourth wall” and address the audience. On one show, he swiveled in his chair and said, “Now America, tell me again, why can’t I whip that girl?”
“The Bernie Mac Show” show ran for five seasons, and Mr. Mac received two Emmy nominations for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series, in 2002 and 2003.
Bernard Jeffrey McCullough was born in Chicago to a single mother who inspired him to become a comedian. He told a television interviewer in 2001 that when he was 5, he saw his mother sitting in front of the television set crying. “The Ed Sullivan Show” was playing, and Bill Cosby was on the show. When Mr. Cosby began telling a story about snakes in a bathroom, she started laughing despite herself. “When I saw her laughing, I told her that I was going to be a comedian so she’d never cry again,” Mr. Mac said.
His mother died of cancer when he was 16, and he was raised by his grandmother on the South Side of Chicago. His two brothers also died, one in infancy, the other of a heart attack in his 20s.
At the Chicago Vocational Career Academy, Mr. Mac was voted class clown by his graduating class. But already serious about his intended profession, he turned down the honor. “I said, ‘I’m funny. I’m a comedian. I’m not a clown,’ ” he later recalled. “My humor had changed from foolishness to making sense.”
After high school, Mr. Mac worked as a janitor, a mover and a school bus driver before finding a job at a General Motors plant. In 1976, he married his high school sweetheart, Rhonda. He is survived by his wife; a daughter, Je’Niece; and a granddaughter.
Desperate to become a comedian, Mr. Mac told jokes for tips on the Chicago subway and performed at comedy clubs, many of them off the beaten track. “When I started in the clubs, I had to work places where didn’t nobody else want to work,” he told The Washington Post. “I had to do clubs where street gangs were, had to do motorcycle gangs, gay balls and things of that nature.”
In 1983, he was laid off at G.M., and for a time his family had to move in with relatives. The same year, he contracted sarcoidosis, an immune system disorder that can attack the lungs. In 2005, he announced that the disease had gone into remission.
Plugging away at his comedy career, he caught the attention of Redd Foxx and Slappy White, who invited him to do off-the-cuff material in Las Vegas in 1989. A year later, Mr. Mac won the Miller Lite Comedy Search, a national contest, with profanity-laced monologues.
In 1990, he was invited to do two shows with Def Comedy Jam, a tour featuring young black comedians, which was filmed for HBO. Small film roles followed in “Mo’ Money” (1992), “Who’s the Man?” (1993) and “House Party 3” (1994). He also performed on the HBO variety series “Midnight Mac,” and with the Original Kings of Comedy, a tour that showcased some of the most popular contemporary black comedians. The tour, which grossed $59 million, generated several HBO specials and a film of the same name by Spike Lee.
Mr. Mac made the move to television reluctantly. “The people come to see you, the person they fell in love with,” he said. “But when they see you on TV, you become a whole other character, another person, and they become disappointed, and I wasn’t going to allow that to happen to me.”
Nevertheless, he appeared in a recurring role as Uncle Bernie on the UPN sitcom “Moesha” beginning in 1996, and in 2001, he took the plunge with “The Bernie Mac Show.”
Praised by the critics for its fresh, irreverent take on the family sitcom, it became one of Fox’s biggest hits.
The show coincided with a spate of films that made Mr. Mac, if not a box office star, a welcome comedic presence with roles in “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” (2001), “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001) and its two sequels, and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” (2003).
Last month, Mr. Mac, a fervent supporter of Barack Obama, dismayed the candidate at a fund-raising dinner in Chicago. Delivering a stand-up routine, he told salacious jokes and drew a reprimand from Mr. Obama, who warned him, “Bernie, you’ve got to clean up your act next time.”
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