Inside The Tragic Death Of Bernie Mac After His Long Battle With Sarcoidosis

Published August 1, 2023
Updated August 14, 2023

Bernie Mac died at 50 years old due to complications of pneumonia, but the sarcoidosis he dealt with for half his life played a significant role as well.

Bernie Mac Death

PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock PhotoMore than 6,000 people attended Bernard “Bernie Mac” McCullough’s funeral.

On August 9, 2008, Bernard Jeffrey McCullough, better known by his stage name Bernie Mac, died of complications from pneumonia. He was just 50 years old.

But it isn’t entirely accurate to say that Bernie Mac died solely of pneumonia. McCullough had for decades suffered the effects of sarcoidosis, a chronic inflammatory lung disease that, despite being in remission, had weakened his immune system.

Bernie Mac’s final days were spent in the hospital, hooked up to a ventilator as he struggled to breathe and fought for his life. For over two weeks, the Ocean’s Eleven star held on, with his family by his side, until he eventually succumbed to the illness.

In life, Bernie Mac was a celebrated comedian and actor, as well as a loving father and husband. In the wake of his death, he left behind a legacy of comedic authenticity unmatched by many of his contemporaries.

Here’s everything you need to know about the late comedian.

Bernard McCullough’s Early Life And Career

Bernie Mac was born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough on Oct. 5, 1957 in Chicago, Illinois to Mary McCullough and Jeffrey Harrison. He grew up in a fairly large family on the South Side of Chicago, raised primarily by his single mother.

From a young age, Mac showed a talent for performance and comedy, establishing what could be considered his first standup routine at just eight years old, when he impersonated his grandparents during a church congregation dinner. His grandfather had been the deacon of a local Baptist church.

Unfortunately, Mac lost his mother to cancer when he was 16 years old, and shortly after, his older brother, estranged father, and grandmother died as well.

“I came from a place where there wasn’t a lot of joy,” Mac said, according to 19 News. “I decided to try to make other people laugh when there wasn’t a lot of things to laugh about.”

Bernie Mac And Chris Rock

Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy Stock PhotoChris Rock and Bernie Mac, who co-starred in the film Head of State in 2001.

While working various odd jobs, Mac further invested himself in his comedy, telling jokes for spare change in the Chicago subway. With his clear gift for making people laugh, Mac was able to eventually create his own variety show at the Regal Theatre.

It was in 1977, however, that his comedy career truly began to take off as he joined the comedy club circuit. It was also the same year that he married his high school sweetheart, Rhonda, to whom he would stay married until his untimely death.

Bernie Mac’s Rise To Stardom

Eventually, Bernie Mac broke into acting, appearing in small roles in several films, including 1992’s Mo’ Money and 1995’s Friday.

It was when he briefly hosted the HBO variety show Midnight Mac and performed alongside the likes of Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, and D.L. Hughley in Spike Lee’s The Original Kings of Comedy (2000), however, that Mac’s brand of comedy rose to the forefront and he established himself as a more than capable performer and comedian.

Bernie Mac At The Transformers Premiere

Wikimedia CommonsBernie Mac at the premiere of Transformers in 2007.

2001 was truly a landmark year for Mac. That year, not only did Fox premiere The Bernie Mac Show, which would later earn a number of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations as well as a Peabody Award, but Mac also starred in Steven Soderbergh’s famous film Ocean’s Eleven alongside some of Hollywood’s biggest actors, including George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

After that, Bernie Mac was a mainstay in numerous large-scale productions. In 2003, Mac appeared in both Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa and starred alongside Chris Rock in Head of State.

Other career highlights for Bernie Mac include his roles in subsequent Ocean’s sequels, Transformers, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, and Soul Men.

Unfortunately, Mac’s promising career was cut short in 2008, when he died of pneumonia due to complications of sarcoidosis.

Bernie Mac’s Battle With Sarcoidosis

In 1983, as Bernie Mac’s career was starting to take off, doctors diagnosed him with an ailment known as sarcoidosis, which also contributed to the death of football Hall of Famer Reggie White in 2004. And while Mac’s official cause of death was indeed pneumonia, sarcoidosis may have played a significant role as well. But what, exactly, is sarcoidosis?

According to Scientific American, those affected by the disease typically develop a shortness of breath or a dry cough due to inflammation in their lungs, which reduces their lung capacity.

Bernie Mac In Bad Santa

Mary Evans Picture Library Ltd/Alamy Stock PhotoBernie Mac in Bad Santa.

Notably, while the disease affects nearly one million people worldwide, it also affects different ethnic groups in different ways. Caucasians who develop sarcoidosis, for example, generally recover from the condition without any treatment in 80 to 90 percent of cases. For Black Americans, however, the disease is often significantly more aggressive and typically requires longer courses of treatment and more visits to the hospital.

What’s more, doctors know relatively little about what causes this inflammation — just that it usually affects the lungs first. But sarcoidosis can also affect any of the body’s other organs, including skin, eyes, the heart, the brain, and even bones.

Sarcoidosis generally begins as a noticeable, though not extreme, shortness of breath during intense physical activity, but it can eventually lead to shortness of breath during less intense activities, such as walking a few blocks or even doing housework.

Skin sarcoidosis can create permanent lesions on the skin. Sarcoidosis of the eye can cause blurry vision and, in extreme cases, blindness. Sarcoidosis of the liver can cause the liver to function abnormally. Obviously, it all depends on what organ in particular is affected by the disease, but most patients tend to have their lungs affected.

Bernie Mac In Soul Men

Wikimedia CommonsBernie Mac in 2008’s Soul Men, one of his last performances.

This was true in Bernie Mac’s case, and the late comedian dealt with complications of the sarcoidosis in his lungs for 25 years — half his life. And despite the disease going into remission in 2005, it’s possible that the long-term damage to his lungs could have played a significant role in how the pneumonia affected him.

The Comedian’s Tumultuous Final Days

In August of 2008, People reported on the harrowing final days of Bernie Mac’s life in the hospital.

Mac checked into the hospital on July 24 after coming down with a fever and having trouble breathing. From July 24 to Aug. 9, Mac was in intensive care, hooked up to a ventilator.

As Mac’s sister-in-law Mary Ann Grossett described it, the night before he died, Mac “struggled for his life. He couldn’t breathe.”

Mac’s wife Rhonda and daughter, Je’Niece, were with him when he died after watching doctors try to resuscitate the comedian twice. The first time, Grossett said, he came back “for about an hour.” The second time, the actor unfortunately went into cardiac arrest. It had been well over a week since Mac and his wife were able to properly communicate.

Bernie Mac Show

PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock PhotoA promotional still from The Bernie Mac Show, which ran for five seasons from 2001 to 2006.

Grossett also explained that she believed Mac’s sarcoidosis did indeed have something to do with his death, despite the illness being in remission. She said the decades-long inflammation had compromised Mac’s immune system, and he was on a new medication that suppressed it even more when he developed pneumonia.

Eventually, Bernie Mac could fight no longer and succumbed to the pneumonia in the early morning hours of Aug. 9, 2008.

Bernie Mac’s Incredible Legacy

After news of Bernie Mac’s death broke, tributes to the beloved comedian poured in.

“Today and tomorrow will never be as funny as yesterday, without Bernie Mac, a true original,” Ice Cube said after Mac’s death, according to MTV. Other stars weighed in, with Chris Rock calling Mac “one of the best and funniest comedians to ever live, but that was the second-best thing he did. Bernie was one of the greatest friends a person could have.”

Mac’s memorial service was held one week after his death at the House of Hope Church in Chicago’s South Side. More than 6,000 people were in attendance. including Mayor Richard M. Daley, Samuel L. Jackson, Cedric the Entertainer, Steve Harvey, Chris Rock, and Don Cheadle.

After reading about the death of legendary comedian Bernie Mac, read about the death of another beloved comedian, John Candy. Or, learn about the tragic death of rising football star Sean Taylor when he was just 24 years old.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Harvey, Austin. "Inside The Tragic Death Of Bernie Mac After His Long Battle With Sarcoidosis.", August 1, 2023, Accessed May 26, 2024.