Monday, August 11, 2008

Bernie Mac 1957 - 2008

"You don't understand - I ain't scared of you motherfuckers."

If I was a betting man, and someone was running a deadpool on the charming conmen of Ocean's Eleven, I would have picked Carl Reiner as the most likely to kick off first. Maybe Elliott Gould on the outside. But I never, ever would have gone for Bernie Mac as the first to take the Big Dirtnap.

Bernard Jeffery McCullough died from complications due to pneumonia on Saturday morning at the age of 50. I'm gutted.

The first time I discovered Bernie Mac was listening to Prince's Pope and the playful growl sampled here and there in between the percussive funk kicks and the Minneapolian's rudimentary raps. Years passed before I learnt who the owner of that voice was. And what a voice it was.

Propelled to wide fame by Spike Lee's stand-up movie The Original Kings of Comedy, Bernie Mac followed in the footsteps of Richard Pryor, in the sense that both were wickedly funny comics and naturally gifted actors who largely made crappy movies. In Pryor's case, for every Stir Crazy, there was a Bustin' Loose or a Critical Condition.

For the sharp-dressing, goggle-eyed Bernie Mac, the successful roles were buried amongst the junk. As croupier Frank Catton in Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's trilogy, Mac had moments to shine with his ten co-stars in Ocean's Eleven, but was largely hidden in the two sequels as the series progressively turned into the smug George, Brad & Matt Show. And moments of brilliance were eclipsed by the relentless powerhouse performance of Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa.

It would be kinder not to dwell on things like the teeth-grinding Guess Who or the embarrasment of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, although Bernie was one of the few things to enjoy in his cameo as used car dealer Bobby Bolivia in the visual headache of Michael Bay's Transformers.

The closest Bernie Mac came to a signature role was the fictionalisation of himself in the sitcom The Bernie Mac Show. Unwillingly raising his drug-addict sister's three kids, "Uncle Bernie" just wanted to sit around the house smoking cigars, hanging with his boys and playing poker. But this wasn't a sacharine contemporary spin on The Cosby Show full of domestic harmony and sentimental life lessons. The show had teeth and balls and jokes. After all, Cliff Huxtable never threatened to bust Theo in the head until the white meat showed...

I usually read fiction with the little casting director in my head slotting actors into roles. I always imagined that Bernie Mac would be ideal casting for the role of Fearless Jones in the period-set Walter Mosley crime series about the bookish, smart and nervous Paris Minton (who I always see as Don Cheadle) and his best friend, the kind-hearted, loyal, womanising, simple soul Fearless Jones, with his beaming smile and devastating fists. But that bit of fantasy casting will remain just a random reflection in my head now.

Farewell, Bernie Mac, and thanks for all the laughs:

"I came from a place where there wasn't a lot of joy. I decided to try to make other people laugh when there wasn't a lot of things to laugh about."

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