His Final Days

Bernie Mac balanced stardom with a devotion to family. Now those closest to him are coping with his sudden death


BERNIE MAC 1957-2008

For better or worse, from his early days doing stand-up on Chicago’s South Side to the heights of Hollywood fame, Bernie Mac leaned on his wife, Rhonda. And when the 50-year-old comic struggled to breathe on a hospital ventilator at the end of his life, the woman who had been his rock for 30 years stood vigil. “I said, ‘Hey, Bernard, how are you?’ And I kissed his forehead,” Rhonda tells PEOPLE. “He shrugged his shoulders, like he was saying, ‘I’m tired.'”

Ushered into a waiting room with the couple’s daughter Je’Niece, 30, Rhonda, 50, steeled herself for the worst. “He didn’t look good to me,” she says. “I knew this could be it.” At 2 a.m. on Aug. 9, the news she dreaded finally came. “I looked up at the doctor and I said, ‘He’s gone, isn’t he?’ And she said yes.”

The death of the raspy-voiced comedian—who sent up his own family life in his 2001-06 FOX sitcom The Bernie Mac Show—stunned loved ones and Hollywood friends alike. “I lament the loss of a ferociously funny and hardcore family man,” said pal Brad Pitt, who starred with Mac in 2001’s casino caper Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels. Although he had long suffered from sarcoidosis, a chronic condition that can cause inflammation of the lungs (see box), those closest to the comedian had not been overly concerned when he was admitted to Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital on July 17 complaining of difficulty breathing. “I thought it would be a week and he’d be home,” says his wife.

Diagnosed with pneumonia, Mac was placed on a ventilator and put into intensive care. There he contracted a second strain of the infection—and never recovered. “The doctors were working on him,” says his sister-in-law Mary Ann Grossett. “They tried to resuscitate him two times. One time he came back for about an hour. The second time, he went into cardiac arrest.”

No one has felt the loss more keenly than Rhonda, who began dating Mac in her teens. “She’s devastated,” says Grossett. “However, she’s at peace about his transition because of her faith in God—her faith is what is sustaining her.”

Mac had just finished filming his last movie, Soul Men, and was developing a new project for FOX when he was hospitalized. “He was on immune suppressors [for the sarcoidosis],” says his wife. “And that made his system weak.” Since being diagnosed in 1984, Mac had periodically battled health problems related to his illness, including a previous bout of pneumonia in 2001. He also used oxygen occasionally to help breathe in the evenings. Still, Rhonda says Mac had otherwise been feeling “excellent” in recent weeks, taking part in his favorite hobbies like golfing, spending time on their 46-ft. yacht and playing with his 1-year-old granddaughter Jasmine. “He’d been doing pretty good,” says one of his best friends, producer Ali LeRoi, who saw Mac a few months ago. Although Mac was famous for smoking cigars, LeRoi says the actor had become vigilant about his health: “He couldn’t have been more responsible.”

He was also proud of his work on Soul Men, which costarred Samuel L. Jackson and Isaac Hayes, who died a day after Mac on Aug. 10 (see page 60). “Bernie was always positive, no matter how he might have been feeling that day,” says Soul Men director Malcolm Lee. “He was always ready to greet you with a smile and treat you with respect no matter who you may be. That was one of the things I will miss about him.”

That charm helped Mac, born Bernard McCullough, survive a hardscrabble childhood. The son of a single mother who died of cancer when he was a teenager, he found an outlet in comedy and was so confident about his future that he told his future wife, “Girl, you better come on board this train because I’m going to be rich,” when they began dating during his senior year at Chicago’s Vocational Career Academy. The couple wed in 1977, when they both were 19, and had their only daughter, Je’Niece, a year later. But success was a long time coming. Mac held odd jobs—including driving a bus and working for Wonder Bread—before hitting it big at 32, when he won a national stand-up comedy search that led to a spot on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. By 2000 he had cemented a national following by touring with fellow comics Cedric the Entertainer and D.L. Hughley as part of “The Original Kings of Comedy”, who were later celebrated in a film by Spike Lee. “The highlight of everybody’s night was waiting to see what Bernie wore, because Bernie wore colors,” says Hughley. “He lived out loud. He was loud onstage and his colors were loud, but he was the most humble, quiet dude.”

Onstage, Mac reveled in raunch—regaling audiences with stories of his prowess in the bedroom. “His comedy was raw, it was very real,” says FOX television executive Preston Beckman. But on The Bernie Mac Show, he showed a softer side, playing a gruff but devoted father of three. “It was like the anti-Cosby show,” says Beckman. “He was a tough-love dad.” The role brought Mac mainstream success and roles in films from the Ocean‘s series to Transformers.

Throughout, Mac coped with his illness (production on Mac’s FOX sitcom was temporarily halted when Mac’s health suffered). Still, those closest to him say his zest for life seemed indomitable. Now his wife finds comfort knowing that some part of their great love will always be with her. “His presence is there in our home,” says Rhonda McCullough. A day after Mac’s death, she listened to their favorite song, “Thoughts and Wishes,” by Hamilton Bohannon. “I was singing it last night, and a chill just came over me and I knew it was him,” she says. “I get through because I know he’s in a better place now.”

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