Bernie Mac knows what it is to be a nobody.
He remembers when he was the anonymous man working on the fishing docks, the mover nobody noticed, the UPS man who didn't warrant a second glance. When he was a janitor at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, students used to dump their trash at his feet deliberately, knowing he'd have to clean up their messes if he wanted to keep his job.
And then, on Thanksgiving in 1988, he'd had enough.
“I was a sales rep for Wonder Bread,” the Chicago-born comedian says, “and I was miserable. I was performing comedy for no money at night, getting home at 2 in the morning and getting up at 4 a.m. to deliver bread.”
He had 2,000 loaves of bread in his truck, he recalls, and suddenly he didn't care.
“I pulled up to this grocery store on the South Side of Chicago and called Wonder,” he recalls. “I said, `Pick up your ... truck. I'm quitting to become a comedian.”'
It was a risky decision.
“I was living poor with my wife,” he says. “It was 30 below zero that winter, and our heat was cut off - we were surviving on those tiny space heaters that can kill you. And on the way to Thanksgiving dinner, I told my wife that I quit my job.
“I said, `If I can't be who I am, I will die - if I can't do comedy, this life is not worth living.'”
His wife looked at him, he recalls, and simply said, “I'm really with you, guy.”
It took 13 years, but finally that gamble paid off. Bernie Mac still lives on the South Side of Chicago, but he's about to become a household word: The Bernie Mac Show is scheduled to debut at 8:30 p.m. Nov. 14 on the Fox network (WUPW-TV, Channel 36, in Toledo). It stars Mac and actress Kellita Smith as a couple who never wanted children - but find themselves stuck with his sister's three youngsters, ages 5 to 13.
It's only the latest in a series of breaks that have recently come his way. In December, Mac has a small role in Steven Soderbergh's all-star Ocean's Eleven, the latest credit in a film career that has included the surprise hit The Original Kings of Comedy (2000) and What's The Worst That Could Happen? (2001), in which he played Martin Lawrence's uncle.
“This is like heaven,” Mac says, choking up. “I'm the guy who was so broke that I had to borrow my brother's suit for my first standup comedy gig. I'm also the guy whose first check for performing comedy came to eight dollars. I did eight shows, a buck a night - and the check bounced.
“You know what? I didn't care,” he says. “I looked at that slip of worthless paper and said, `I'm a comedian.' I had me some cards printed up. I was legitimized.”
Mac had grown up on Chicago's tough South Side with his mother, who worked for the mayor's office, sharing a residence with 12 brothers, sisters, and cousins - good preparation for The Bernie Mac Show.
“We were tight,” he says. “Big Momma was there. She made sure we ate together and prayed together.”
Growing up in a rough neighborhood, he found consolation in laughter, as so many had before him.
“I lived in gangster territory,” he says, “but I didn't look at it in terms of being a dangerous neighborhood - it was home. And I was just another skinny kid with nappy hair and big eyes. People called me `Spooky.' It hurt, but I became immune.
“I started doing comedy to eliminate the pain - I became the clown.”
Early on, he didn't find a very receptive audience in the playgrounds, alleys, parks, El stations, and churches of the South Side.
“People would say, `Bernie, what do you want to be when you grow up?'” he recalls. “I'd say, `A comic actor.' And those same people doing the asking would actually throw rocks at me and say, `Son, you better go work in the steel mills.'
“I heard, `You're going to amount to nothing.'”
The one thing he had going for him, Mac says, was an iron will.
“I was determined,” he says. “Back then I wasn't thinking about girls, I wasn't thinking about being Michael Jordan - my objective was to make you laugh. There was no price I wouldn't pay to make you laugh. I longed to walk through a smoke-filled room and grab the mike.”
After high school, Mac started hanging out in local comedy clubs. Often he'd never get a chance at that microphone, but he wouldn't leave.
“I'd sit in the corner and watch until they kicked me out,” he says. “Comedians are funny people in the way they are not too helpful sometimes - they thought I was there to take something away from them.”
Eventually the young wannabe-comic headed for Los Angeles, where he sat in the audience at the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard, watching the likes of Eddie Murphy, the Wayans brothers, Sinbad, and Andrew Dice Clay.
“Mitzie, the owner of the Comedy Store, would put me up at 2 a.m. when there were three people in the audience,” he says. “But I didn't care. I'd be there at 7 at night just waiting for my shot. I'd sit there for seven hours just gearing up.”
He began to land small roles in movies such as Mo' Money (1992), Get on the Bus (1996), BAPS (1997), The Players Club (1998) and Life (1999). Television was more welcoming, however: In 1995 he starred in his own HBO variety series, Midnight Mac, and the next year became a regular on Moesha.
Whenever he came home, however, he'd head for open-mike nights at the Chicago clubs.
“I never got a dime for most of this stuff,” he says. “I was paid in beer.”
Finally in the money, Mac could afford to live almost anywhere. But he and Rhonda, his wife of 24 years - and also his former high-school sweetheart - still live on the South Side, just as they always have.
It isn't as easy as it used to be, though.
“Baby, it's more than celebrity,” he says, laughing. “When they buy a ticket, black folks think they own you. They stop me from eating. They pull on my clothes. They tell me to wait 20 minutes so they can go get their mama.”
He bursts into laughter. Life is good for Bernie Mac.
As for the future, he's hoping for more of the same, and then some. He's confident that The Bernie Mac Show will be a hit - “People want to see Bernie tell it like it is” - but what he really wants is to widen his range.
“Drama is my dream,” he says. “I want to show people in movies that I'm well versed and that I'm not a standup. I'm an actor, and the well runs deep.”
And if it takes another 12 years to convince them, so what?
“I've got more patience than anyone you know,” Mac says. “I won't even believe it when people say I'm done or not funny anymore. I don't listen to the outside voices - I listen to my soul.”