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Bernie Mac, bases loaded

September 16, 2004|Lisa Rosen | Special to The Times

Bernie MAC does not like down time, America.

In the last week, the comedian-actor-producer-author traveled to New York on a press junket for the film "Mr. 3000," hopped over to New Jersey to wrap filming on a remake of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," returned to New York for more junketeering, and then raced back to L.A. to shoot his television comedy, "The Bernie Mac Show."

On the eve of the Friday opening of "Mr. 3000," Mac took a few minutes to chat on the phone about the film, which gives him his first leading role.

Mac plays Stan Ross, a former baseball great who logged 3,000 hits and then cavalierly abandoned the sport and his teammates to capitalize on his success. When an accounting review shows he hit only 2,997 -- jeopardizing his hopes for induction into the Hall of Fame -- Ross returns to the league after nine years of retirement.

His self-centered character is forced to act like a team player for the first time in his life.

Mac is proud of the movie. "It's not stupid, it has heart and it doesn't have a Hollywood ending," he said.

Mac says he's determined to make movies that respect the audience, so that if someone sees his name on a film, "they'll say, 'Hey, he makes good movies. He don't do no stupid stuff.' The same way I used to listen to Stevie Wonder.

"When Stevie Wonder came out with a new album, I didn't have to hear a song, I just went to the store and got it."

Born Bernard McCullough, Mac has a vivid memory of the moment he decided what he was going to do with life.

He was 5, and had just walked into the living room to find his mother crying for reasons she didn't explain to him. He climbed on her lap and tried to wipe her tears away. She was watching "The Ed Sullivan Show," and a man came on the screen and started talking. Suddenly, she began laughing so hard that little Bernie could barely hang on.

That's a comedian, his mother would explain. His name? Bill Cosby.

Mac didn't know what a comedian was, but he knew there was magic in it, because it could make his mother stop crying. He started doing professional stand-up comedy in 1977, and paid his dues for over a decade.

"I'm 46, and I've been a comedian since I was 5," Mac said, "and I never planned any of this. I never thought about it."

That sentiment echoes his comedic style. "I'm spontaneous, I'm not a script type of guy. When I did stand-up, people used to ask all the time, 'Whatcha gonna do tonight Mac?' And I didn't know."

Film roles started coming in 1991, and a few years later Mac was one of the stars of the "Kings of Comedy," the wildly successful stand-up tour that filled arenas throughout the country in 1997-99. A subsequent movie, "The Original Kings of Comedy," was filmed by Spike Lee and released in 2000.

His first book, "I Ain't Scared of You," was published in fall 2001, and followed in 2003 by the more traditionally autobiographical "Maybe You Never Cry Again," about growing up on the south side of Chicago and the hard path to his present success.

Mac's mother died when he was 16, and his brother, father and grandmother not long after. He was married at 19 and a father by 20. (He and his high school sweetheart are still married.) He credits the losses and his marriage for grounding him, and making him grateful for his life today.

"I don't think I could have reached this point of appreciation had I not gone through all that," he said.

The third season of "The Bernie Mac Show," a Fox comedy that has brought in respectable ratings and a slew of awards and nominations, began last week. The premise is loosely based on Mac's life. In the show, Mac and his TV wife take in his sister's three children -- pitting the infinitely wise and put-upon Mac (in his mind anyway) against the new generation.

Free of a laugh track,the show features Mac addressing America as he talks into the camera about his family troubles and his plans to get the upper hand.

The persona that comes through in the TV show, the stand-up and the books is downright irascible. He knows how things should be, and he doesn't like it one bit that everyone doesn't follow his rules.

He's like someone's bitter old grandfather yelling about the good old days -- if Gramps was a fit 46 years old, was a sharp dresser and cursed a blue streak.

The real Mac is more reserved and laid back, "but when I perform I go somewhere that I don't even know," he acknowledged. "I'm very aggressive."

Mac will reprise his role as Frank Catton in the "Ocean's Eleven" sequel, "Ocean's Twelve," set for a December release.

Next year, he plays the Spencer Tracy role opposite Ashton Kutcher in "Guess Who," scheduled for a March release.

Mac said he relishes classic films, and cites movie stars from Hollywood's golden era as his inspiration -- Bette Davis, James Cagney, Sidney Poitier, Robert Mitchum, among a raft of others. He hopes to play a wide range of roles, and to keep acting as long as he has something to give.

Then, Mac said, in a classic line from a more modern era, "That's when I'll start directing."

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