Big Mac with Cheese:
Bernie Hits the Big League
by Tony Phillips
”I used to work the steel mills,” Bernie Mac explains of his formative years in Chicago, “and there was this old guy named Willie. He used to get up in your face when he talked, spit would fly and he’d poke you in the chest. He’d say, ‘I’ll kick your ass.’ Everybody used to say, ‘Why you let him do that to you, Bernie?’ But he don’t mean no harm. Guys like that, it keeps their heart beating.” The anecdote touches many different themes that make up the man. Not forgetting where he came from is paramount. In fact, he lives in Chicago still, although laments the last time he’s been back. It’s been that long. He also defines himself by the respect he exhibits for his elders, be they family, the old guy named Willie or comedians who blazed the trail he’s currently tearing up at the box office with hits like Head of State and Charlie’s Angels under his belt and a slew of leading man roles set to drop over the next couple of years.
For someone like Mac, a bankable Hollywood commodity about to shift gears from big-screen second banana to above-the marquee leading man, Willie’s not just a colourful anecdote, he’s a touchstone. Especially in a town like Hollywood, where Mac adamantly refuses to take up residence. “Being from Chicago definitely helped me,” he continues of his hometown, “I have that labor mentality. And staying there really helps me, too. I’m not a part of here,” he says motioning to the lush beachfront surroundings of the Santa Monica hotel where we meet. ”I used to come here as a young comic. It was always a click. If you didn’t belong to this click, you were nobody. I was never a part of that. I’m very fortunate. I’m in Chicago.”
It becomes clear for Mac that Chicago is a state of mind. A place he’s able to go to just by directing his gaze. Looking around again, he locks on the beach and muses, “I like the four seasons.” It’s immediately clear he not talking about the high-end hotel chain, but the Chicago of his mind. It almost derails the myriad upcoming projects he’s come to talk about. “I like the food,” he continues, “I like the culture. I like the people. My family’s there. It grounds me. The day I get through with all this Hollywood hoopla, they call it stardom, I’ll still have Chicago. My aunt isn’t never going to give a damn about stardom. She still calls me Beanie.” And Beanie tows that same hardline with his comic peers as well. In fact, his voice drops an octave when invoking their names. “I was in love with Red Skelton,” he confesses. “Carol Burnett, Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Redd Foxx, Moms Mably, who gets no credit. Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, I love them all.”
“I used to just take a page out of just all of them. Red Skelton was able to make you laugh and cry at the same time. My mother always had to tell me, ‘Get back from the television, Bernie, you’re going to mess up your eyes.’ And I would get back, but he still messed up my eyes. He always made me cry at the end because he was so sincere. He would say, ‘Goodnight, everybody, and may God bless you.’ And I was crying.” Those tears are, in fact, where comedy comes from for Mac. And while there’s nothing more unimaginably boring than a speech on what is comedy, but Mac manages to turn even this on its ear. In fact, his second book is titled, perhaps optimistically, Maybe You Never Cry Again.
“It’s almost an autobiography,” Mac explains. “It gets into what motivated me in times of death. That’s where my comedy comes from. My comedy comes from pain. I lost my mother and brother and father. How do you maintain a sense of humor through all that? The book is about why I choose comedy and what motivated me to do comedy. I don’t take things so seriously because I lost so much. There’s a lot of people who aren’t here and I would do hard labor to have them here with me today. You miss people, but my mother and grandmother were the most inspirational people in my life. Everyone says you have to have a man in your life, but two of the strongest people in my life were women.”
It’s not the only famial rule Mac breaks, as evidenced by his Emmy nominated turns on The Bernie Mac Show. Change is something Mac embraces wholeheartedly and hints that the new season “is going to change for the better. You’re going to see more of my TV wife on a comical level. She’s extremely funny and we didn’t tap in that in the beginning. I always think about the show in terms of a six or seven year run. You can’t throw everything in at once. You have to have something to build the show on. The changes you’re going to see are going to involve a woman’s instinct. And that’s something that was missing from this show. It was missing because it fit. This lady — my wife on the show — was a career woman and we had no kids, we only talked about it. And then my nieces came and she accepted these kids. Bad kids, mind you, but she wasn’t really hands on. That first year she was at arms’ length, like, ‘This is your stuff, Bernie, you’re Mr. Mom.’ And the second year you see her get more involved. A woman is a mother by instinct, and this season, they’re going to become her kids.”
“My Mother died when I was 15,” he says making the connection between his show and his real life, “and my mom, all the things she was telling me, that’s stuff I apply every day. And really that’s where all this stuff comes from. When you see me, she doesn’t get credit for it, but it’s her, not me. When you see me, you’re seeing on one side my grandmother and on the other side my mother. It’s the truth, but I get the credit for it. Everything that you see is them, and they’re right. Everything that they told me was right. If I had one regret, I wish I could see ‘em and say I’m sorry. I wish I could take ‘em to dinner and let ‘em get on my nerves. You know, you hear some people say, ‘My mom gets on my nerves.’ I wish my mom could get on my nerves, but you know, this is the way it was meant to be for me.”
“I’ve been black a long time,” the 45-year-old comedian laughs, “and I’ve always been a student of the game. I’m still doing things from my heart, making people laugh is what I’ve been doing since I’m like four or five-years-old and I still have a lust. I still have a passion. I don’t care about how I look. I’m dedicated to the laugh. I used to be a clown. My name was Smoothie the Clown. All the training I had was geared toward making people laugh. I didn’t care about being cool. Today, with comics, it’s just not there. They want to be cool, they’re looking for women. I’m looking for laughs. If it takes me flipping over a table, if I have to go physical comedy, I will do it. But whatever the joke needs at that particular time, I’m into it. I’m not into beating somebody down to build myself up. I don’t do insults and things like that. I’m a storyteller.”
And the story continues with his own family as well. “My daughter is 25,” Mac says shifting in his seat. You get the feeling he’s fighting off the urge to dig out his wallet and show pictures. “My daughter just got her masters in psychology,” he boasts. “She’s moving back to Chicago from New Orleans. She worked for the top judge in New Orleans. My son-in-law is a principal down in New Orleans for a private school of 75 people. They’re moving back home to Chicago so I’ll have them with me now. That’s a plus and it helps me a lot.” He’s quick to detail a recent trip to Hawaii that his daughter and wife took, but just as quick to add, “Without me, though! I haven’t had a vacation in five years.”
“My daughter told me about three months ago she thought I was really stern and hard on her,” he says when the subject turns to how “kids end up as little-assed adults.” Mac adds that neither he or his daughter are sorry about it now. “She says she really appreciates it now. It’s the same way I just told you about my folks. You don’t appreciate something until it’s gone because you understand. I was an athlete and in my day we had tough coaches. Coaches was in your face, spit and all. Now they break down. Every teacher I had from Bible study right up to community college courses set a strong impression on me. And kids need that, but that’s not what’s happening today. We’ve gotten away from the basics. My generation dropped the ball. The parents became friends with their kids. They give ‘em everything and everything is not always the best thing. You have to understand the mentality of kids.”
More than just his kids, Mac innately understands the concept of family. “I learned from Carol Burnet,” he jokes, “have a great cast around you. I could never understand how people would get upset about where jokes came from, if a joke is funny, everybody benefits from it.” At this point its clear that he’s talking about both his television family and his real one. They’re one in the same for Mac as they both bear his name. “I am committed to them both because of my name,” he states, “but you can’t do everything.” To this end, he points out the one that got away. He just had to turn down the new Groundhog Day take Steven Spielberg cooked up for Tom Hanks called Terminal. The project, set to start shooting this fall, details Hanks as an eastern European immigrant whose nation of origin is erased by war. Hanks winds up taking residence in an airline terminal and pursuing flight attendant Catherine Zeta-Jones. “I couldn’t do it, “ jokes the Chicago native who’s just a magazine short of Oprah Winfrey status. “If I don’t have the time, it’s not fair to other 159 people that I have committed to. People depend on me, man, and to just jump ship and go to the highest bidder, I got a problem with that already. That’s way to L.A. for me.”
But that’s not to say that Mac lacks for his own high calibre projects. There’s his turn in the upcoming Bad Santa as a security guard who stumbles onto Billy Bob Thorton’s Santa who knocks over department stores. The comedy takes a dark turn when Mac extorts Thornton and forces him to steal more while swiping the proceeds. “The stakes get higher and higher, but Billy Bob, of course, he got something for me. It gets funnier, but I don’t want to tell you too much.” Then there’s the deal he just inked to remake the Sidney Poitier classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The twist here, as Mac gleefully informs, is that he’s not re-doing the Poitier’s role, but rather that of Spencer Tracy. Ashton Kutcher has also signed on. “Today is different times,” Mac states, “all of those issues that existed back then are so insignificant.
The project in the hopper that’s most significant to Mac is Mr. 3000, possibly because he’s in the middle of shooting it, or maybe because it takes him back to the sports metaphors he frequently employs. In the film, Mac plays “an arrogant son-of-a-gun, over-the-top arrogant.” He puts up his dukes and laughs, “Ali ain’t had nothing on me. Angela Basset’s my love interest and I treat her like crap. I’m one of those guys who thinks the world revolves around me and I don’t appreciate nothing. I get my 3000th hit, finally, and I quit right in the locker room. I’m talking to the team and I tell them to all kiss my ass, I’m gone. I’m out this hotdog stand and I’m leaving the mustard. Ten years later, I’m ready to get inducted into the Hall of Fame and they find out that I’m three hits short so I have to come out of retirement. Its not a successful run, but you see the transition from Stan Ross, that young, bull-headed player to me as a warm, caring guy. That’s one reason why I took the movie. A lot of people in Hollywood don’t really know about me. You have to educate people. My mother always told me that.”