We've been cheated out of Bernie Mac's second act. Dead from pneumonia at a mere 50, Mac leaves behind a legacy of great success and unfulfilled promise. We can be grateful for the hits, most notably his influential, insufficiently appreciated sitcom "The Bernie Mac Show". But as with any performer who dies at the height of his career, you can't help thinking there would have been more to come.
Born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough in 1957 in Chicago, he was, in show-biz circles, a late bloomer. He didn't come to national attention until he was already well into adulthood, and his comedy came from a decidedly adult perspective. It could be raw and blustery, but the anger and insights both came from experience, and were often softened by a warmth he could turn on and off at will.
Though he worked in TV and films though the '90s, most notably, perhaps, in the 1995 hit "Friday," Mac's career didn't take off until 2000 with the Spike Lee concert film "The Original Kings of Comedy." His co-stars at the time were probably better known: Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley and Steve Harvey. But it was Mac who broke out, challenging Hollywood to give him a sitcom — a challenge met by Fox the next year with "The Bernie Mac Show."
Loosely based on his own life," Mac" cast him as a happily married man who becomes a not-so-happy father when he's forced to take in his sister's three young children. Addressing "America" directly through the camera, Mac let us know precisely what he thought of this and every other turn of event, while his children and his wife let us see they knew how to get around him.
The show ran four years and earned "Mac" two Emmy nominations. But as ratings fell and network support vanished, Mac moved on to movies: "Oceans 11" and its sequels, "Guess Who (a Guess Who's Coming to Dinner revamp)," and "Transformer"s among them. He also battled health problems brought on by the inflammatory disease sarcoidosis that were clearly more serious then he let on in public.
For all his talents, Mac was not always his best ally. His complaints during the run of his Fox show, while sometimes justified, did not do much to endear him to the network, and may have hastened the end of the series. Most recently, his off-color remarks while introducing Barack Obama at a fundraiser in July got him into trouble with both the audience and the campaign.
Still, it was that fearlessness, that often-rash willingness to offend, that made Mac stand out in a world of pandering comics. It was why many of us hoped he'd return to the medium that made him a star and help revive the now-disappearing sitcom.
It's not to be. And yes, that's a cheat.
(Funeral arrangements are pending; a public memorial is scheduled for this weekend in Chicago.)