Comedian starred in ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ trilogy, Fox sitcom
Bernie Mac, an actor and comedian who starred in the “Ocean’s Eleven” film franchise and “The Bernie Mac Show,” a rare network comedy to feature an African American in a leading role, died Saturday. He was 50.
Mac died from complications related to pneumonia in a Chicago-area hospital, announced his publicist, Danica Smith.
The comedian suffered from sarcoidosis, a chronic autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation in tissue, most often the lungs. The pneumonia was unrelated to the disease, Smith said.
George Clooney, Mac’s costar in the three “Ocean’s” movies, said in a statement, “The world just got a little less funny. He will be dearly missed.”
Comedian Martin Lawrence, who worked with Mac on the 1999 comedy film “Life,” told The Times, “Words can’t express the absolute devastation I am feeling over the loss of Bernie, a comic genius, a great man and someone I am honored to have called my friend.”
From 2001 to 2006, Mac held court in “The Bernie Mac Show,” a sitcom loosely based on his life. He was a politically incorrect parent raising his troubled sister’s three children in a show with a definite edge that was softened by Mac’s warmth and loving sensibility.
Times television critic Howard Rosenberg noted when the show debuted in 2001 that it was “bold, creative and ferociously witty.” He wrote that Mac was “essentially lovable” and said the way his old-school parenting clashed with the kids was “entertaining and widely applicable.”
“The Bernie Mac Show” initially looked like a major hit for Fox. When the show was recognized with a Peabody Award early in its five-season run, judges praised it for transcending “race and class while lifting viewers with laughter, compassion -- and cool,” the Associated Press reported.
The show earned an Emmy for writing for executive producer Larry Wilmore, and Mac received two Emmy nominations for acting during the sitcom’s early seasons.
“He had such a deep reservoir of talent. Mac had a way of making everyone in the audience feel like they were family. He is irreplaceable,” Wilmore wrote in an e-mail to The Times.
In a statement, Fox Broadcasting Co. and 20th Century Fox Television called Mac “a gifted talent whose comedy came from an authentic and highly personal place.”
When ratings dropped in the second season, Mac complained that the network meddled with the series’ creative direction, and Wilmore left the show in 2003. Producers complained that erratic scheduling harmed viewership. “Bernie Mac” was canceled not long after the 100th episode aired.
With roots in stand-up comedy in Chicago, Mac found broader fame in 1997 touring in a show with other black comedians, including Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer and D.L. Hughley.
The tour drew the attention of director Spike Lee, whose 2000 concert film, “The Original Kings of Comedy,” exposed the black comedians to an even wider audience -- and helped Mac’s movie and television career take off.
Writer-producer Rodney Barnes, who met the easygoing Mac on the set of the 1997 HBO film “Don King: Only in America,” said the comedian’s essence was captured in the raucous stand-up routine Mac performs in the “Kings of Comedy” film.
“He came from the day when you were required to do more than tell a joke,” Barnes told The Times. “He could do the dramatic as well as the funny. There are those gifted entertainers like Bernie and Richard Pryor who understood black culture from both sides, the happy and the sad. He didn’t have to be the clown.”
By 2001, Mac had landed a lead role in the first “Ocean’s Eleven” film, playing a gaming-table dealer who was in on the heist with Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and other big-name stars. Mac also appeared in “Ocean’s Twelve” in 2004 and “Ocean’s Thirteen” in 2007.
Mac said he considered the second sequel “the best movie I’ve ever done in my life.”
The “Ocean’s” movies and his role as Bosley in the 2003 film “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” marked an important transition for Mac from a comedian and actor who was appreciated mainly by black audiences to a widely liked popular entertainer, according to the 2007 edition of “Contemporary Black Biography.”
He was born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough on Oct. 5, 1957, in Chicago and raised by his mother and grandparents on Chicago’s South Side.
When he was 5, he learned how powerful comedy could be when he witnessed his mother laugh until she cried while watching Bill Cosby on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Mac recalled in a 2004 Times story.
In his 2004 memoir, “Maybe You Never Cry Again,” Mac wrote about his strict, no-nonsense upbringing and growing up poor.
“I came from a place where there wasn’t a lot of joy,” Mac told the AP in 2001. “I decided to make other people laugh when there wasn’t a lot of things to laugh about.”
His mother died when he was 16, and his brother, father and grandmother died not long after. At 19 he married his high school sweetheart, and he was a father by 20.
The marriage, which endured, grounded him while the losses made him want to focus on comedy, he often said.
In 1977, Mac started doing professional stand-up comedy and was inspired by black comedians who continually pushed the comedy envelope such as Pryor, Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley.
An appearance on the HBO comedy series “Def Comedy Jam” led to scene-stealing roles in several 1990s films, including “Mo’ Money,” “House Party 3" and “The Players Club.”
In 2005, he starred with Ashton Kutcher in “Guess Who,” a comedy remake of the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn-Sidney Poitier drama “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” Mac played the father who is shocked that his daughter is marrying a white man.
More recently, he completed filming “Soul Men,” a musical comedy with Samuel L. Jackson scheduled for release this fall, about two estranged soul music singers who reunite decades later.
David T. Friendly, a producer of “Soul Men,” learned of Mac’s death from the film’s director, Malcolm Lee.
“My first thought was that we had lost one of the giants of comedy,” Friendly said. “It’s hard to imagine that a guy with so much talent and so much energy could be taken away at such an early age.”
Increasingly, Mac turned to dramatic roles. He starred in “Pride,” a 2007 drama about the creation of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation’s predominantly African American swim team in 1971.
Last year, he announced that he was retiring from stand-up so that he could enjoy life more. He credited his grandmother with teaching him to keep people guessing.
“She always said, ‘Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.’ . . . I love it when you all walk away and say, ‘I didn’t know he could do that.’ I just laugh because I love being underestimated. I have been underestimated my whole life.’ ”
Mac, who lived in the Chicago area, is survived by his wife, Rhonda McCullough, daughter Je’Niece and a granddaughter.
Times staff writers Greg Braxton, John Horn and Scott Collins contributed to this report.