Ellen Gray: 'I Ain't Scared of You: A Tribute to Bernie Mac' to air on Comedy Central

Posted: February 17, 2012

* I AIN'T SCARED OF YOU: A TRIBUTE TO BERNIE MAC. 10 p.m. Sunday, Comedy Central.

THE WAY Rhonda McCullough sees it, the Bernie Mac we saw onstage and screen was the same man she called Bernard.

Except her guy might've been a little sunnier.

Her husband for more than 30 years, until his August 2008 death at the age of 50, Mac was a "homebody," said his widow in a phone interview last week.

"He wasn't a grumpy man. He was very happy-go-lucky. He was a pretty even-keeled guy. I think the grumpiness you saw was his persona onstage. But not at home," she said.

"He was a really sweet and sensitive man, but most people didn't really get to see that side. And he was very generous. He would give you the shirt off his back," she said.

He "loved to be at home [in Chicago], loved to just enjoy his home and his family. Loved having family and friends over, for gatherings - it didn't matter, he would make a party."

It's fitting then that Robert Small's film, "I Ain't Scared of You: A Tribute to Bernie Mac," which premieres Sunday on Comedy Central, feels a bit like a party, too, one the guest of honor left entirely too soon.

There's footage from Mac's early career as well as clips illustrating his rise to "Kings of Comedy" and then sitcom fame and plenty of funny (and some touching) interviews with Mac's friends and co-workers - Chris Rock, Angela Bassett, Don Cheadle, Cameron Diaz, Carl Reiner and D.L. Hughley, to name just a few - many conducted by Mac's daughter Je'Niece, who's also writing a book about her father.

"Bernard had passed away close to two years I believe" when Small called her, "introducing himself to me, because I had never met him," said McCullough, who became an executive producer on the project.

"He said he felt Bernie was such a great comedian and it would be such a shame not to have anything done on him in remembrance of who he was."

She readily agreed to help.

When Small showed up to collect tapes and pictures, "I wasn't able to take him around, but my daughter was" and he filmed her behind the wheel as they toured her father's old neighborhood.

"She did a really good job" and Small, McCullough said, decided to have her interview some of her father's peers, many of whom knew her from her time working as his assistant.

When I remarked that their daughter was good on camera, she laughed.

"Yes, she is. Like her father."

It might be mildly disconcerting to watch a still vigorous Reiner, who will be 90 next month, talking about a man decades his junior who's no longer with us, but the actor and producer was one of her husband's heroes, McCullough said.

The pair, who'd worked together on Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Eleven" and its sequels, used to spend down time on the set talking.

"He loved Carl Reiner," she said. "He was 'Dick Van Dyke's' Alan Brady and he created [the show] and . . . that was one of Bernard's favorite shows."

A major fan of classic television - she confirmed my recollection that "The Andy Griffith Show" was his favorite show of all time - Mac, the last of the "Kings of Comedy" to break into series TV, was thrilled when he finally got his own show on Fox, said his widow.

"It was really important to him. That was something he'd really worked towards. He really wanted that. And when it came, he wanted the right show, too, he said. He didn't want to do any kind of show."

Diagnosed at 28 with sarcoidosis, the inflammatory disease whose eventual effects on his lungs likely contributed to his death from pneumonia, Mac "didn't let it hinder him. He went on and did what he had to do," said his widow, who said that she'd long ago decided that she couldn't stand in his way, either.

"I always felt that I knew this was a dream of his and I didn't want to be the one to stop it," she said, adding that she'd worried that otherwise, "he would always live to say, 'You did not let me reach my dream. You know, I coulda been this, I coulda been that.' "

Was he satisfied with what he'd achieved in just 50 years?

"Oh, absolutely," McCullough said.

"He was quite prophetic . . . He used to say, 'If I die today, I've had a good life.' He said, 'I've lived my dream,' and he said, 'I've done things people in my lifetime never will do. So I'm good.' "

Send email to graye@phillynews.com.

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