Early life and education
Born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough in Chicago, Illinois, Mac was the second child of Mary McCullough and Jeffrey Harrison. Mac was raised by his single mother (who died of cancer when he was sixteen years old) and his grandparents on the city’s west side. Mac began his high school career at Chicago Vocational High School. During 1973, Mac moved to Tampa, Florida, to attend Jesuit High School following the death of his mother during his sophomore year.[ Mac later returned to Chicago and graduated from Chicago Vocational in 1975. Mac married his high school sweetheart Rhonda Gore on September 17, 1977, and together they had a daughter, Ja’Niece Childress (née McCollough), born in 1978. During his 20s through his early 30s, Mac worked in a variety of jobs, including janitor, coach, professional mover, cook, bus driver, Sears delivery man, furniture mover, and UPS agent, while doing comedy on the weekends at clubs and parties.
Bernie Mac’s influences were from The Three Stooges and listening to stand-up comedians Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx. Mac started as a stand-up comedian in Chicago’s Cotton Club. 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 on stage cemented his reputation with fans and colleagues. Mac opened for Dionne Warwick, Redd Foxx and Natalie Cole. He played a small role in 1994’s House Party 3 as Uncle Vester. He also had a short-lived talk show on HBO titled Midnight Mac. Later, Mac also acted in minor roles, Mac played Mr. Johnson the no-nonsense owner of a grille and diner in the movie B.A.P.S., and he got his big break as “Pastor Clever” in Ice Cube’s 1995 film Friday. Following that role, Mac was selectively chosen to play the title role, The Wiz in the 1995 Apollo Revival of The Wiz. Mac had his first starring role as “Dollar Bill”, a silly, slick-talking club owner in The Players Club. Mac was able to break from the traditional “black comedy” genre, having roles in the 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven and becoming the new Bosley for the Charlie’s Angels sequel, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. In 2003 he gave an impressive performance in a supporting role as the villain “Gin Slagel, The Store Dick” in Bad Santa. He also starred in Guess Who?, a comedic remake of the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and made an appearance in the 2007 film Transformers as the car salesman “Bobby Bolivia”. In his later years, he hosted the reality television talent show Last Comic Standing. He also served as the voice of Zuba, Alex the Lion’s long lost father in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. He co-starred with Samuel L. Jackson in the 2008 musical comedy Soul Men as “Floyd Henderson”. His final film role was as Jimmy Lunchbox in the 2009 Disney film Old Dogs which was released a year after his death. He starred alongside John Travolta and Robin Williams in that film.
In 2001 the Fox network gave Mac his own television sitcom called The Bernie Mac Show portraying a fictional version of himself. In the show, he suddenly becomes custodian of his sister’s three children after she enters rehab. It was a success, in part because it allowed Mac to stay true to his stand-up comedy roots, breaking the fourth wall to communicate his thoughts to the audience. The show contained many parodies of events in Bernie’s actual life. Bernie, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side, was a fan of the Chicago White Sox, and would often sneak a reference to his favorite team in his episodes, including enlisting then White Sox pitcher Jon Garland to make a guest cameo appearance. Bernie Mac’s “fourth wall” technique allowed him a moment of heartfelt sincerity during the sitcom’s 2005 season when, sitting in his customary easy chair and facing the audience before the start of an episode, Bernie unabashedly donned a White Sox jacket and cap, and congratulated his hometown Chicago White Sox and their staff members, on their recent World Series championship.
The show was not renewed after the 2005–2006 season. The series finale aired on April 14, 2006. However, the finale left a conclusion for the series, and no ending to the storyline of Bernie and Wanda trying to adopt a baby which had been abandoned a few episodes earlier. Among other awards, the show won an Emmy for “Outstanding Writing”, the Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting, and the Humanitas Prize for television writing that promotes human dignity. His character on The Bernie Mac Show was ranked #47 in TV Guide’s list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time”.
In 2004 Bernie Mac starred as a retired baseball player in the film Mr. 3000. In the 2003 National League Championship Series, Mac sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at Wrigley Field with the Chicago Cubs leading the Florida Marlins in the series 3 games to 2 and in Game 6 by a 2–0 score at the time (it would soon be 3–0 in the bottom of the 7th). Instead of saying “root, root, root for the Cubbies” Mac said, “root, root, root for the champs!, champs!” The Cubs lost the game and the series, with some fans claiming that Mac helped jinx the Cubs. Mac later admitted that he had hated the North Side’s Cubs his whole life, being a die-hard fan of the South Side’s White Sox, and was seen during the White Sox’ 2005 World Series victory at U.S. Cellular Field. Mac was number 72 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 greatest standups of all time. On March 19, 2007, Mac told David Letterman on the CBS Late Show that he would retire from his 30-year career after he finished shooting the comedy film, The Whole Truth, Nothing but the Truth, So Help Me Mac. “I’m going to still do my producing, my films, but I want to enjoy my life a little bit”, Mac told Letterman. “I missed a lot of things, you know. I was a street performer for two years. I went into clubs in 1977 and was on the road 47 weeks out of the year.”
Health problems, illness and death
In the final three years of his life, Mac publicly disclosed that he had suffered from sarcoidosis, a disease of unknown origin that causes inflammation in tissue. Sarcoidosis frequently attacked his lungs. In 2008, Mac was admitted to the Northwestern Memorial Hospital in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois. After a week of unsuccessful medical treatment, Mac went into cardiac arrest and subsequently died during the early morning hours on August 9, from complications of pneumonia. He was two months short of his 51st birthday. Mac’s public funeral was held a week after his death at the House of Hope Church with nearly 7,000 people in attendance. Notable mourners at Mac’s funeral were Chris Rock, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Samuel L. Jackson, Ashton Kutcher, Don Cheadle, the cast members from his eponymous series, and his Kings of Comedy fellows D. L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Steve Harvey.
The first two of Mac’s posthumous films, Soul Men and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, were released three months after his death. Mac’s third and final posthumous film, Old Dogs, was released a year after his death. The 2008 Bud Billiken Parade, which was held in Chicago on the day of Mac’s death, was also dedicated to his memory. On the day of Mac’s funeral, his hometown’s local television station WCIU-TV aired an exclusive television special, A Tribute to Bernie Mac, and had interviews with his former colleagues including Camille Winbush, Chris Rock, Joe Torry and some of his family members and close friends.
During Steve Harvey’s television show which aired November 14, 2016, Harvey read a proclamation from Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel proclaiming November 14 as “Bernie Mac Day”. Steve Harvey’s guests included Bernie’s wife Rhonda, their daughter Je’Niece, granddaughter Jasmine, and Bernie’s The Original Kings of Comedy co-stars D. L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Guy Torry (who was the original host at the beginning of the tour). Mike Epps, appearing via satellite, along with the principal of Bernie and Rhonda’s alma mater Chicago Vocational High School (CVS), revealed and unveiled the renaming of CVS Auditorium to the “Bernie Mac Auditorium”. On February 14, 2017, Rolling Stone named Bernie Mac #41 of the 50 Best Stand-Up Comics of All Time.