Chicago's own Bernie Mac -- the actor and comedian who found stardom in movies, television and standup -- died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital early Saturday. He was 50. His publicist, Danica Smith, said in a statement that Mac died from complications of pneumonia. His death was first reported by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Stella Foster. Mac 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. As recently as Friday, his publicist said Mac was responding well to treatment for the illness. The day before, she indicated he could be released from the hospital in the coming weeks. But Mac, who lived in the south suburbs, died Saturday, cutting short a diverse and remarkable career that began with humble, South Side roots. He was born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough on Oct. 5, 1957, in Chicago. He grew up on the 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 Associated Press 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." 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 the South Side. He started his comedy career at age 8, with a standup performance at a church dinner.
In 1977, at age 20, he took that act to comedy clubs in Chicago. His film career started with a small role as a club doorman in the Damon Wayans comedy "Mo' Money" in 1992. Foster reminisced on Mac's early "Midnight Mac," which aired on HBO and was taped in Chicago in 1995. "It was a variety entertainment show," the Sun-Times columnist said, "He even had dancers called Macaroni's. That was my first exposure to how talented Bernie Mac was. And after that show, that's when Hollywood started beating down his door." 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. "The majority of his core fan base will remember that when they paid their money to see Bernie Mac ... he gave them their money's worth," Steve Harvey, one of his co-stars in "Original Kings," told CNN on Saturday. 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.
Reiner told KNX-AM in Los Angeles that other comics had talked to the audience as Mac did on "The Bernie Mac Show," but "he took it to a new level." "It was such a popular show because of his bigger-than-life persona," Reiner 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 about a man's adventures raising his sister's three children, 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, ŒAre 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." The actor's upcoming movies include "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" starring Ben Stiller, Chris Rock and David Schwimmer; and "Soul Men" with Samuel L. Jackson and Isaac Hayes. There is no word on whether public services will be held.