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Bernie Mac: TV father says stop coddling our children. .

HE'S fatherhood's ambassador of tough love, a man who is not scared of you, me or the gaggles of mannish kids out there he unapologetically says make him so mad that "sometimes I want to bust them across the head until the white meat shows."

Indeed, Bernie Mac has become America's favorite dad by saying exactly what's on his mind, things fathers wished they could say, spouting comeuppances that all frustrated fathers fancy in their mind but keep to themselves in favor of child-rearing ideologies that are more politically correct and legal.

In his popular role as stand-up comedian and TV dad on The Bernie Mac Show, the 44-year-old Mac never misses a chance to cut hard-headed children down to size ("All kids want to do is eat candy, stay up late and not go to school. That's what a kid wants to do") and blames society for not following his lead. A father himself, he lives by a few simple rules when it comes to parenting. Children should respect adults, and parents shouldn't let their kids walk all over them.

In a one-on-one interview, Mac stresses that parenting is not about being best friends with a child. He is a firm believer that parents coddle children too much, spare the rod too often. "They coddle them. They lie for them. They co-sign for them. Parents cover for their kids, even when their kids are dead wrong. And that's where the problems come in," he says. "They always say they want to give their kids more than what they had. But sometimes more is not always better. Teachers quit because they can't teach these bad kids. Police officers can't patrol the streets anymore.

"We've dropped the ball," Mac continues. "One thing we had [when we were kids] was respect for our elders. No matter what we did, we respected our elders, and we told the truth." (In fact, Mae recently turned down an invitation to dinner at the White House because he said he wasn't raised to be a good liar, even to the President.)

It's his brutal honesty that has turned his sitcom, The Bernie Mac Show, into one of the biggest hits on television. Watched by more than 10 million viewers each week, the show follows the joys and pains of Mac and his executive wife (Kellita Smith), who are thrust into parenthood when they take custody of his drug-addicted sister's three kids: Bryanna (Dee Dee Davis), Jordan (Jeremy Suarez) and Vanessa (Camille Winbush).

The flip side of legendary family man Bill Cosby, who made television history as an accommodating father who was always in control of his family, Mac (whose real name is Bernard Jeffery McCullough) represents the evolution of the loving but frustrated father. To Mac, parenting is warfare. It's adult versus kid, old versus young, wise versus naive. Who wins the battle many times boils down to who's the craziest, who scares whom into capitulation, who waves the white flag first. "When I say I want to kill kids, you know what I mean. I don't have to explain," he says. "I just say what [fathers] want to say, but can't. That's all right. I'm the bad guy. I'll be the bad guy."

Praised for transcending race and class, the show is based on the six years Mac raised his nieces and nephews in real life, as well as the experience of a family friend who did the same. The show has been picked up for another season. He says the parental wisdom that forms the basis of the show's plot each week actually comes from his upbringing on Chicago's South Side, where he was raised by a hard-nosed single mother and straight-talking grandmother. "What you're seeing on TV is my grandma," he says. "I just say what she told me, except I do it in a comedic form."

Mac says he got whippings every day when he was growing up. He was disciplined not so much for being disrespectful, but for doing crazy things to get laughs. "Sometimes I got two or three in one day," he says. "I got whipped so much that I became immune to the pain. I could take the pain. I did things for laughs. It didn't matter at what price--I wanted to make you laugh."

He says it wasn't until his mother, Mary, died from breast cancer when he was in high school, and his grandmother, Lorraine, took a more active role in raising him, that he became serious about anything. It was during that time that he and his two brothers lived in a house with a dozen or so other relatives. Instead of letting his situation destroy him, Mac excelled. "After my mother died, my grades came up. I got myself together mentally. I was more serious, more dedicated," he says. "My grandmother was always in my ear. She would always ask me about my day. And she always made me look at her in her eyes. At the time, I thought she was hard and cold. My grandma was a fan of the truth. She just told it like it was. I could always go to her with anything. The two most powerful people in my life weren't men. They were women--my grandmother and my mother. My grandmother taught me more than anybody in my life. Grandmothers like that no longer exist.

"Grandmothers now are 34, and got more drama than their grandkids," he adds jokingly.

Mac has been married for 25 years to his wife Rhonda McCullough, whom he met in high school. He was only 19 when he married Rhonda shortly after she became pregnant. His commitment to her, then and now, makes good on a promise that he made to himself that he would not grow up to be like his father, who, he says, visited him only sporadically as a child. "As soon as I found out she was pregnant, I went over to her house and asked her to marry me," he says. "I used to look out the window for my old man. The one thing that my father taught me, that he doesn't even know that he taught me, was that I didn't want to be like him."

Once married, the young couple, with daughter Je'Niece in tow, bounced around from place to place, sometimes living with her mother, other times living with his grandmother, who was on public assistance. During the early years of his marriage, times were tough. With no steady job (He has been everything from a hot dog vender to a school bus driver to a bread delivery man), Mac took to performing in local comedy clubs for extra cash. He had always been the life of any gathering. So much so, that he figured, if he kept at it, he could make a decent living making people laugh. "I had faith," he says. "My faith was so strong. I never felt we were poor. We always did things together. I always brought special treats home to my family when I had the money. My wife worried a lot. But I never worried. I knew things would work out."

And work out they did. Having performed standup at grungy comedy clubs for decades, Mac got his first big break when he became somewhat of a regular on HBO'S Def Comedy Jam in the '80s. That led to small roles in numerous small-budget movies like Friday, House Party 3, Players Club and Booty Call, as well as a co-starring role in The Kings of Comedy, which grossed nearly $40 million.

But perhaps his biggest break came when he was offered the part as a blackjack-dealing ex-con in the movie Ocean's Eleven. With a cast that included Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Julia Roberts, Mac, by far the novice of the group, became a household name to a whole new set of people.

The movie was a huge success, but caused a riff in his relationship with his Kings of Comedy co-star Steve Harvey. As the story goes, someone representing Harvey called Ocean's Eleven director Steven Soderbergh to push for Harvey to get the part over Mac. "The Hollywood game that we are in, it's a cold game," he says of the person who tried to convince Soderbergh that Harvey was more popular and a better actor. "And the sad thing about it is all of us are doing well, so I don't really see the problem. It didn't bother me because I see the big picture. When they told me about it, what could I do? I'm not going to sling mud. I'm not a rapper. I tell jokes. I try to make people laugh. I'm not going to sling mud. Steve and anybody else can say whatever they want to say. Ain't nobody got no control over me. I have the control."

Mac says it wasn't until he was 28 that he gained that control in his life. It was then when he came to the realization that "there wasn't anything for me out there. I had the best right here at home." He recommitted himself to his wife and made a vow to his daughter. "My biggest fear was that I would not be able to send my daughter to school. I really wanted to send her to school," he says. "I think I would have been a failure if I had not been able to send her to school. That's when I matured. I stopped running the streets. A lot of cats I was hanging with, I stopped hanging out with them. I always knew everybody--the gangbangers, the hustlers, the players. I was always cool with everybody. But it wasn't until then that I really began to focus on family life."

He says he and his family have been through good and bad times together, made mistakes together, and have grown closer with each passing day. They still live in a modest house in Chicago when he's not filming. He still hangs out with his old friends. He has no bodyguard, because, he says, he's a comedian, not a superstar. You won't find him at the plethora of Hollywood parties. He prefers relaxing at home in front of his big-screen television, joking around with his daughter, who is now a 25-year-old graduate student who got married last year.

Through it all, his wife has been by his side. She still cooks, still cleans, and still keeps her nursing license current. She's still not quite sure her husband's acting gig is going to work out. Forever the worrier, she also watches the finances as Mac's business manager. "She runs my business, so whatever I'm doing wrong, she's gonna find out," he says. "Plus, she handles all my money, so if she steals it from me, it's still in the family."

After tolling for much of his life, overcoming his fears and setbacks, Bernie Mac is now on top. He received an Emmy Award nomination last year for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series, and won a Peabody Award for best comedy series. One of the most sought-after actors in the country, Mac recently co-starred with Chris Rock in the movie Head of State, and is co-starring in the upcoming movie, Charlie's Angels 2' Full Throttle, in which he plays the liaison between the angels and Charlie. He also just completed his autobiography, Maybe You Never Cry Again, named for the lessons his mother taught him during his adolescence.

Whatever the medium, there is no doubt that America's favorite father will continue to be successful telling the truth and shooting straight from the heart. "There's no pressure. Nothing bothers me," he says. "I'm going to be myself. I do what I do, and let the dice fall where they may. I'm here to make people laugh. Life's no rehearsal. This is showtime! And every time I touch that mic, I'm coming to play!"
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Title Annotation:Biography
Author:Chappell, Kevin
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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