In February 2000, the director Spike Lee documented two nights of the "Kings of Comedy" tour, featuring the African-American comedians Cedric the Entertainer, Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley and Bernie Mac performing their stand-up routines in Charlotte, North Carolina. Lee also shot informal behind-the-scenes footage, including Mac daring the networks to give him a break. "Do I have a television show? Nah," he told the cameras. "Why? Cause you scared of me. Scared I'm a say something. You're right."
Released as The Original Kings of Comedy that August, the film broke all box-office records for a documentary and grossed $40m, more than 13 times its original budget. The Hollywood studios and TV networks took notice. In 2001, Fox gave the green light to The Bernie Mac Show, a tough-love sitcom which mirrored its lead's own life story. With a teenage daughter of their own, Mac and his wife Rhonda had taken in Mac's 16-year-old niece and her baby daughter. Meanwhile, a friend of theirs was raising the three children of her drug-addicted sister, while she was in and out of rehab.
Blending the two situations into one, the show débuted in 2001 and instantly attracted good ratings. The situations and the leading man's reactions were genuine enough, making Mac all the more believable when he broke the fourth wall to address the audience – "Amer'ca" – as he often did. Not as cosy as The Cosby Show had been in the Eighties, but with a heart all the same, The Bernie Mac Show turned the comedian into a household name in the United States and earned him two Emmy nominations. However, the show experienced dips in popularity and was eventually cancelled in 2006 after 104 episodes.
In Britain, Mac was better known for his appearances alongside George Clooney and Brad Pitt in the revived Ocean's Eleven (2001) – and its sequels Ocean's Twelve (2004) and Ocean's Thirteen (2007) – as well as his role in Charlie's Angels: full throttle (2003), the second big screen revival of the Seventies TV series. He was inspired casting as the concerned father in Guess Who (2005), a reverse remake of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, featuring Ashton Kutcher in the part created by Sidney Poitier and Mac in the Spencer Tracy role. The film demonstrated not only how much the United States had changed since Stanley Kramer's 1967 film but also how broad Mac's comedic appeal had become.
A baseball fan who supported the White Sox, when in 2004 he was given the chance to carry a film, Mr 3000, it was as an ageing baseball player returning to the game to score three more hits and justify his nickname. Not for the first time, Mac used his family and based his character on one of his two brothers. But he defended himself vehemently against accusations of exploiting his background. "I'm not telling family business," he said. "My success has come from me being able to talk about the truth that has evolved around my life, and not being afraid. See, Richard Pryor taught me that. People love for you to go up there and express about your pain. You gotta be able to tell the truth about yourself."
Born Bernard Jeffery McCullough in a poor part of Chicago, he vowed to become a comedian after witnessing his single mother cry with laughter when watching Bill Cosby on television. "I came from a place where there wasn't a lot of joy," he said in 2001. "I decided to try and make other people laugh when there wasn't a lot of things to laugh about."
However, his first attempts to entertain his friends and family backfired. "My first monologue that I did, eight years old, I got a spanking," he recalled. "I used to mimic people. I was mimicking my grandmother and my grandfather at the dinner table." Despite the punishment, he said, "I was so into the joke, I did it again. That's how dedicated I was to the joke. It started then."
Bernie Mac's road out of poverty was a slow one. After his mother's death when he was 16, he lived with his grandparents and other relatives, and took a succession of mundane jobs while trying to make it as a comedian. He had to borrow a suit from one of his brothers for his début at the Cotton Club in Chicago in 1977 and struggled to make the transition from entertaining kids in the neighbourhood to performing stand-up. "Black audiences are hard," he said in 2002. "You got to come with a little extra to satisfy them."
His prospects improved after he won the Miller Lite Comedy Search in 1990. In 1995, he hosted Midnight Mac, a short-lived show for HBO taped in his hometown, and portrayed Pastor Clever in Ice Cube's engaging comedy Friday. In the space of a few years, Mac went from bit parts to more noticeable roles, in Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996), Booty Call and How to be a Player (both 1997) and The Players Club (1998). He even held his own opposite Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence in the con-comedy Life (1999). Although he moved further into the mainstream he always seemed to retain an edge. In 2003, he played Gin Slagel, a store detective, in Bad Santa, the bad taste seasonal comedy starring Billy Bob Thornton.
In 2007, he had his first dramatic role, in Pride, based on a true story, in which he portrayed the janitor who joined the fight to keep the Philadelphia Department of Recreation swimming team going in a tough neighourhood. Mac drew on his experiences as a "gym rat" and a former boxer. At 6ft 3in, he cut an impressive figure, though he never seemed threatening, even when he talked about his collection of guns.
When he appeared at a fundraiser for the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama last month, his off-colour jokes made national news. Ironically, in 2003, Mac had starred in the comedy Head of State, directed by and featuring Chris Rock as an African-American presidential candidate.
Despite health scares and promises to slow down, he kept up a busy schedule. He had recently finished voice-over work for the animated feature Madagascar: escape 2 Africa and filming for Soul Men, with Samuel L. Jackson and Isaac Hayes, as well as Old Dogs with John Travolta and Robin Williams, all due for release over the next year.
Bernard Jeffery McCullough (Bernie Mac), comedian and actor: born Chicago, Illinois 5 October 1957; married (one daughter); died Chicago 9 August 2008.