Published: Saturday, August 9, 2008 11:05 PM EDT
CHICAGO — Bernie Mac, the actor and comedian who teamed up in the casino heist caper “Ocean’s Eleven” and gained a prestigious Peabody Award for his sitcom “The Bernie Mac Show,” died Saturday at age 50.
“Actor/comedian Bernie Mac passed away Saturday from complications due to pneumonia in a Chicago area hospital,” his publicist, Danica Smith, said in a statement from Los Angeles.
The comedian suffered from sarcoidosis, an inflammatory lung disease that produces tiny lumps of cells in the body’s organs, but had said the condition went into remission in 2005. He recently was hospitalized and treated for pneumonia, which his publicist said was not related to the disease.
Recently, Mac’s brand of comedy caught him flack when he was heckled during a surprise appearance at a July fundraiser for Democratic presidential candidate and fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama.
Toward the end of a 10-minute standup routine, Mac joked about menopause, sexual infidelity and promiscuity, and used occasional crude language. The performance earned him a rebuke from Obama’s campaign.
But despite controversy or difficulties, in his words, Mac was always a performer.
“Wherever I am, I have to play,” he said in 2002. “I have to put on a good show.”
Mac worked his way to Hollywood success from an impoverished upbringing on Chicago’s South Side. He began doing standup as a child, and his film career started with a small role as a club doorman in the Damon Wayans comedy “Mo’ Money” in 1992. In 1996, he appeared in the Spike Lee drama “Get on the Bus.”
He was one of “The Original Kings of Comedy” in the 2000 documentary of that title that brought a new generation of black standup comedy stars to a wider audience.
Mac went on to star in the hugely popular “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise with Brad Pitt and George Clooney.
Comedian Carl Reiner, who also appeared in “Ocean’s Eleven” and its two sequels, said Saturday he was “in utter shock” because he thought Mac was improving. “He was just so alive. I can’t believe he’s gone,” he said.
His turn with Ashton Kutcher in 2005’s “Guess Who” topped the box office. It was a comedy remake of the classic Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn drama “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” — with Mac as the black dad who’s shocked that his daughter is marrying a white man.
Mac also had starring roles in “Bad Santa,” “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” and “Transformers.”
The comedian drew critical and popular acclaim with his Fox television series “The Bernie Mac Show,” which aired more than 100 episodes from 2001 to 2006.
The series won a Peabody Award in 2002.
At the time, judges wrote they chose the sitcom for transcending “race and class while lifting viewers with laughter, compassion — and cool.”
In real life, he was very much like his character on that series, his daughter, Je’niece Childress, told The Associated Press on Saturday.
“He was the king of his household,” Childress said in Chicago, describing Mac as “a loving grandfather” to her daughter, his only grandchild.
“The Bernie Mac Show” garnered Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for Mac.
“But television handcuffs you, man,” he said in a 2001 Associated Press interview. “Now everyone telling me what I CAN’T do, what I CAN say, what I SHOULD do, and asking, `Are blacks gonna be mad at you? Are whites gonna accept you?”‘
He also was nominated for a Grammy award for best comedy album in 2001 along with his “The Original Kings of Comedy” co-stars, Harvey, D.L. Hughley and Cedric The Entertainer.
Chicago music producer Carolyn Albritton said she was Bernie Mac’s first manager, having met him in 1991 at Chicago’s Cotton Club where she hosted an open-mike night.
“From very early on I thought he was destined for success,” Albritton said Saturday. “He never lost track of where he came from, and he’d often use real life experiences, his family, his friends, in his routine. After he made it, he stayed a very humble man. His family was the most important thing in the world to him.”
In 2007, Mac told David Letterman on CBS’ “Late Show” that he planned to retire soon.
“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.”
Mac was born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough on Oct. 5, 1957, in Chicago. He grew up on the city’s South Side, living with his mother and grandparents. His grandfather was the deacon of a Baptist church.
In his 2004 memoir, “Maybe You Never Cry Again,” Mac wrote about having a poor childhood — eating bologna for dinner — and a strict, no-nonsense upbringing.
“I came from a place where there wasn’t a lot of joy,” Mac told the AP in 2001. “I decided to try to make other people laugh when there wasn’t a lot of things to laugh about.”
Mac’s mother died of cancer when he was 16. In his book, Mac said she was a support for him and told him he would surprise everyone when he grew up.
“Woman believed in me,” he wrote. “She believed in me long before I believed.”
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