The first time I met Bernie Mac I said, "What's up." He said, "Chicken butt." From that point it was on with one of the original "Kings of Comedy. "
In the ensuing years I would interview him at least a dozen times and it was always a pleasure. Mac was always present in the moment, consistently dressed to impress and so eternally lively and engaging that I thought we'd be teasing each other for years to come. Perhaps that's why after all the rumors of his death that surfaced earlier in the week, I thought I was dreaming when I actually heard that Bernie Mac had died. In fact, I had fallen asleep watching CNN early Saturday morning and subconsciously picked up the tragic news.
And now Mac is sleeping, too, at 50 years young.
The last time I saw Mac I was interviewing him for his role in "Pride," the true story about a black swim coach in Philly who trained a championship team. Mac played the gym janitor, a composite character. The thing I remember most about that interview is Mac's claims that he really could do some damage in the water.
"I'm a SCUBA diver," Mac said in a voice that made you want to half believe him. "I can go down to 60 feet and do some things."
Later, his costar Terrence Howard said the only thing Mac could do in the pool was jump in and "splash all the water out."
I also remember how healthy he looked despite the fact he was "just getting over something like pneumonia," he told me. There was a period when the Chicago-born comic didn't look so good. Toward the end of the "Bernie Mac" show run Mac had developed a condition called sarcoidosis, a lung disease. His face was bloated and he'd gained a lot of weight, an apparent side effect of the meds he was on. He freely discussed the details of that disease with me during the press junket for "Mr. 3000," a comedy about a retired baseball player who returns to the game to reach a career milestone. According to early reports that affliction, which had been in remission for three years, had nothing to do with his death this morning. Mac apparently died from complications of pneumonia.
What I always most appreciated about Mac as a performer was that he had the ability to elevate even the weakest material--if only for a second. He was able to hold his own in starring vehicles like "Guess Who?" And also in supporting roles in which he had very little to do like in the "Ocean's" franchise. But it was his television show that gave his fans the greatest joy. From the moment he uttered, "I'm gonna beat them till the white meat shows," America finally had the first TV dad we could relate to since Cliff Huxtable.
And, on the real tip, Bernie was far more real then Mr. Bill.
What I dug about him as a person was the connection he was always able to establish with people from all walks of life. He was one of those celebrities who always made you feel like you were a cherished cousin he hadn't seen in a while. And, the brother could brag. According to Mac he was the best at everything from cracking jawbreakers to playing hoops.
Maybe he was.
Mac will live on in reruns of his show and in his last film, the upcoming "Soul Men," a flick about an estranged duo who reunite at the Apollo to pay homage to their recently deceased band director. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm excited about the potential comic possibilities between Mac and his costar Samuel L. Jackson.
I'm just sorry I'll never have the opportunity to chat with him about it.
R.I.P. Bernie Mac. Love, Chicken butt.