Guess Who: An Interview with Bernie Mac
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By Todd Gilchrist
What happened to you, health wise?
Bernie Mac: I was shooting Ocean's 12. I was shooting this. I was shooting a commercial. I was shooting the television show. I hadn't had a break in eight years. I hadn't played golf in three. I hadn't done anything social in three years. I was over in Europe, I was over in Amsterdam, I was over in Paris, flying back here, doing that. Then I caught pneumonia. Double. Then they gave me this medicine that's good for pneumonia. And the doctors are really high on this medicine. There's one out of 100 that it don't fit to. I was the one. And it gave me toxidity. And I was working still because I didn't know what the heck was going on. I'm still doing 16-18 hours a day. And all of a sudden, I had a scene- - I wrapped with Ocean's 12, and I had a scene walking from here to the door, and being an athlete, being winded, Œoh, whew, I feel something's wrong.' I didn't pay no attention. I kept working. I worked the entire day. I called my wife at 8:30 and I said, "Baby, my back hurts." And she said, "Have Theresa rub some menthol on your back" and Theresa did that, my hair assistant. I fell right out. I woke up at 12 o'clock and the washroom was from here to where you are. And I said to myself, "They ain't gonna talk about me in the morning." I waited a few minutes. I went to the phone and I called my tour manager. I said, "Man, come get me." And I called the doctor on the television show and I told her exactly what I'm telling you. And she had [my doctor] meet me at Cedar Sinai. And they ran EKG, everything was great, they did everything. They did everything. Heart strong as a board, they asked me to donate it (laughs).
And when I went in for the X-rays, I found out the guy, the technician said - I don't want to get him in trouble- he said, "Mac, you got double pneumonia." I said, "Double pneumonia?" Now, first I'm thinking, "Double pneumonia?" Now, personally I'm thinking double pneumonia is a cold or something affiliated with a cold. It's not. My whole immune system shut down. And rightly so. And it was not done, and I want everybody to understand, and I can talk openly about it, it's not something that was done purposely. It wasn't something that was done with greed. It wasn't something "I've got to get this money, I gotta do this movie, I gotta do that." When you work hard and you don't expect nothing, that's all, time just slips away. And next thing you know, you're looking, you be like, "You're my son?" And you done missed out on so much stuff. Already knew it that I missed out and I will never do it again, but I guess that was the pain for Bernie Mac that I had to go through to make Hollywood know who I am.
Have you changed your work ethic now?
BM: I've been changing my work ethic. Only thing that I've changed prior to getting ill is that I understand and I respect, which I've always done, is that I respect what I do even more. Does that make sense? Always did. I never take anything for granted. But by doing this, it helps me to bear the fruit of my labor. How many millions do you need? How many homes? I don't have a summer home. My daughter's 28, it's just me and my wife. That's all I need. I don't need anything else. I don't need extravagant this over that. I don't need to pay myself on the back until my arm breaks. I don't need any of that.
Are you slowing down?
BM: Slowing down? Well, I just started. I mean, it just started. It started and I'm recoup- - the only thing is, see, what people don't understand about pneumonia is there's no remedy. It might go a year and a half. The only remedy is rest. I had three weeks left on this film and I'm gonna knock this out because- - and blame my mother. Blame Loraine McCullough for my work ethics and my word, giving of my word and saying I'm going to do something when people depend on you. I hate to let people down. I was like that in sports and I was like that in comedy. I was like that at work. When I worked General Motors and stuff like that, when I say something, I mean it. And I hate to disappoint. I hate. And it's just a part- - blame her for instilling that work ethic, you understand?
You struggled so hard, she must have been proud?
BM: But that was for me. See, and it's a good question. Everybody‹I'm not going to say any names because I don't get into that. Everybody wants a success story. Everybody. "I was homeless. I didn't have a car. I used to get beatings. I didn't have no daddy." You're 67 years old. Let it go (laughs). You know, and all of us got a success story in here. All of us. When we grew up, I'm 47 and the way we grew up, if you had 10 families, you were lucky if there was two that had both parents. And if you say you were child abused back then, well, maybe you were because we grew up with a generation where we got whippings. There's no success story. Everybody's got a ghetto story. Everybody. ŒMy father came over here with two pennies.' You always want to make it bigger than what it is. Well, guess what? Today is Sunday. Today's the Sabbath. The most segregated day in the world. You go to your church, you go to your church, you go to your choice. Then you sit there, we all got to get up and do something. We all just can't sit and just lay in bed all day. We all have to do something. A guy said yesterday, "Bernie Mac, what's your story?" I don't have no story. I did odd jobs. You know, I come from Chicago. We shovel snow, you empty the garbage, you know, you swept the street, you ran errands. You did something for somebody or for someone. No everybody wants this Hollywood story. We're human. We got to get up. You gotta eat. You gotta do something. The world don't owe you nothing, man. It's what you owe the world. And that's something that television, the media, and they keep exploiting, you know, whatever artist comes out. "You know, he was homeless and-" So what? Shit, we've all got ghetto stories. That's my point. We all got something.
Why did you want to do this movie?
BM: The reason I wanted to do this movie is because when I was a little boy, everybody used to call me Little Sidney. And there were only four blacks that ever took the time, meant anything to minority, especially black. And that was Diane Carroll, Sammy, Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier. And Sidney Poitier to me was extreme- - at that time, you all have to understand, Sidney Poitier got beat up. NAACP beat Sidney Poitier up. Sidney said NAACP lost more jobs for blacks than they helped. And if you say that, you get in trouble. Don't say that. Is it true? Yeah. He opened the door. In the scene when he opened the door when they were at the airport, and they said, "How dare he open the door for a white woman? What the heck is wrong with him? Son of a bitch." They beat Sidney up but you look at Sidney, Sidney is the smartest man at that particular time. He never said a mumbling word. He never cranked, moaned, he brings it. I mean, when he started doing Buck and the Preacher, he started trying to come- - he was coming to us because we beat him up. You know, sometimes you get scared. You do. You get scared. Because, you know, blacks [are] hard. I've been black a long time, you know what I'm saying. Blacks hard. You know, "You ain't nothing, you ain't nothing" and all that kind of stuff. So that was for us.
The best comedy in the world for me is Uptown Saturday Night. Let's Do It Again, Uptown Saturday Night, you cannot put nothing in front of that for me. But Sidney was selective. He was collective in terms of what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it. And that respect for Sidney, I don't want to disappoint. When I came into doing this, when they asked me, I told them. I said, "I will not make this movie buffoonish." That speech, I hate to do that damn speech Spencer Tracey did with Katharine Hepburn. I hate to do that damn speech where Sidney Poitier told his father. Woo. I ain't that good. That was deep. "I owe you nothing, man." "Dad." "I love you, man." Sidney was deep. Katharine Hepburn said nothing but said it all. Sit there, you know, I mean, certain things you just don't mess with and we went back and forth on that. Because Hollywood just- - they- - you know, Hollywood just looks at numbers. If you're hot, okay, we got somebody hot, let's do it. You got to have the strength to say no. And I wasn't going to make this movie, man, out of respect to Katharine, Spencer, Sidney, and Katharine Houghton was her name. And the nosey neighbor. And that shows you how much I've watched this film. I studied it, man. I was like this. And you want to do well and when you want to do well, for me, you don't do things- - it's almost like, and I think everyone has experienced this. You all are journalists and stuff and you've wrote and you're college [educated] and whether you're at home or whether you work for this small TV station, you ain't got nothing, you're eating Cheerios and rice and all that kind of stuff. You're eating [SOUNDS LIKE: potted meat]. Then all of a sudden, something just makes you go by the mailbox and there's a check up in that motherfucker. And you'll be like- - you'll be so- - you know what I'm saying, man? You'll be so appreciative. You don't even know where it comes from. Your name could be misspelled on there, boy, but you're gonna cash it. Somebody's losing out. And that's how this is for me.
What did you think of Ashton's impression of you?
BM: I think that's flattery. Those doesn't bother me. I bother it. We're here so short a time, man, there's so much other stuff that's going on that I think- - he probably did it wrong. He probably did it wrong but that's okay. Just the fact that he chose me.
Who's a better dancer?
BM: Oh, me. I can dance. I can dance.
Can you name three Nascar drivers?
BM: Besides Gordon? That's a good question. No. I'm a lot of things, but liar ain't one of them. No.
Are things changing with race issues?
BM: I think it's us that's talking about it. I go by playgrounds and stuff all the time and those kids ain't paying us no damn attention. Little kids play together so much and laugh and joke and rub snot on each other and they ain't paying us no attention. It's us.
At some point, it becomes an issue.
BM: It's always the issue. As long as we have life, we're going to have issues.
Is it more for black men and white women than white men and black women?
BM: I think it's an issue on the individual. I think that you can't sit here and you say, "Hey, how you doing?" "Oh, I'm blessed." And then "What the hell are you doing over there with that white woman?" Or "with that Asian woman?" That's hypocritical. Especially after you haven't seen God. Is heaven going to be all black? Is heaven going to be all black? Is it going to be all white? Is it going to be all Asian? You can't sit there and have these loving tidbits and then the next thing you know have these prejudices. You can't. I didn't know what pressure was. I used to tell stories. And one day the teacher said, and I told some of you this story before, the teacher said, "Bernie, come share the story with us." I said, "Okay." I got up because my grandmother taught me how when somebody calls your name, dammit, stand up. Look Œem in the eye. Because they came from the south and they was always taught to look down. My grandmother was against that. "Look Up."
So, they said, "Bernie, tell the story." I said "Okay." So I told the story, Miss Ritz, I'll never forget, and she thought I made the story up. She said, "Where did you read that from?" I said, "I made it up." She said, "You didn't. Don't like to me." I said, "I made it up Miss Ritz." She went and told the principal. "I got this student that he makes up stories and you oughta hear Œem." That following Friday, she promised everybody that I was going to do it again. I didn't know. That Friday, showing up, she said, "Class, we have Bernie Mac and he's going to tell us a story." Well, the class next door came, and another class next door came and the principal. And she said, "Bernie, won't you tell a story." I said, "Okay. Once upon a time, there was man-" I just started telling the story. The principal said, "Where did you get this story from?" I said, "I made it up." She said, "Don't lie to me." I said, "Miss Jacobs, I made it up." Well, the following week, she did it again. Well, then they created this district competition of storytelling. And the kids needled me so bad, it was- - choke wasn't out. Freeze was out then. You're gonna freeze up, you're gonna freeze up, you're gonna freeze up. I didn't know what the heck freeze was. I didn't know what freeze was. Had no idea.
My mother was looking at me. There was this girl, her name was Sandra Hill. Sandra Hill went out and I was in the back. And all I heard was laughter. And everybody was [CLAPS] and every day the kids, "Don't freeze up," especially my room. "Don't make us look bad, don't make us look bad. Don't freeze up, don't freeze up, don't freeze up. You're gonna freeze, freeze, freeze." My mother was looking at me just like you. And she said, "Come here, son." I said, "Yeah, mamma." "Ignorant." I was just doing this from my heart. She said, "don't hear the voices." She said, "As long as you do things from your heart, you can't fail." That's what I'm saying, mama. I didn't know what she was talking about. She said, "You go out there, you give your best." I said, "Okay." They said, "Ladies and gentlemen, this next guy, you know he's in room 304. Little Bernie." And I said, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. How you doing? My name is Little Bernie. I'm here to amuse you for a few minutes. Once upon a time-" I told the story. Didn't care about win, lose, nothing. People put pressure on you. People plant a seed. People order you and put stuff in your head. You know, you see little kids playing and laughing and holding hands and dirt between their nails. They ain't thinking about nothing. We do it. "Don't play with- don't play with- you make sure you wash your hands." What are you doing? You know, so with that, I try to keep that inside me when I do comedy and when I do television and stuff. I just want to be good. I do. I don't care nothing about trophies. I don't care nothing about Emmys. I don't care nothing about Oscars. I don't care- - Johnny Carson died and I said, "Damn, he got an 82 foot yacht, three wives and they're arguing. She got 21 million, she's mad about something. And the yacht's still just sitting over there.
Were you hard on your daughter's boyfriends?
BM: My daughter didn't have a lot of guys. At least I didn't know about it.
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