Bernie Mac, As Remembered By His TV Family

Kellita Smith, Camille Winbush and Dee Dee Davis share their favorite memories from the set of ‘The Bernie Mac Show’ and what it was like working with the legendary comedian
Bernie Mac, As Remembered By His TV Family

Fifteen years ago, the comedy world lost a giant. Bernie Mac began his career as a stand-up in the late 1970s, but he didn’t reach true national fame until 2000 with the release of The Original Kings of Comedy, after which he had starring roles in Guess Who, Mr. 3000 and Soul Men, as well as memorable supporting parts in the Ocean’s 11 films, Transformers and Bad Santa

All the while, he spent five years as the star of The Bernie Mac Show on Fox. Premiering in 2001, The Bernie Mac Show was a single-camera comedy that didn’t have an audience or laugh track. Mac spoke directly to the audience from his lounge chair, much like The Office and other mockumentary series would later make customary. The show also struck a balance between being hilarious and dealing with complex, dramatic issues like drug addiction without ever making them feel forced.

Mac, of course, played a fictionalized version of himself, a successful Hollywood-based stand-up who takes in the three children of his drug-addled sister. The kids included Vanessa (Camille Winbush), a young teen who frequently clashed with Mac; Jordan (Jeremy Suarez), a nerdy middle child who challenged Mac’s old-school ideas around masculinity; and four-year-old Bryana (Dee Dee Davis), who could get away with hell thanks to her undeniable cuteness. Finally, there was Mac’s loving wife Wanda (Kellita Smith), who balanced some of Mac’s antiquated child-rearing notions with a bit more nuance and understanding.

With Father’s Day approaching this weekend, we gathered Winbush, Davis and Smith to recount their favorite moments with their TV dad (and husband), and talk about how, for Winbush and Davis in particular, Mac transformed into a real-life father figure as well. 

Becoming Part of Bernie Mac’s (TV) Family

Kellita Smith, Wanda on The Bernie Mac Show: I auditioned three times for Wanda, and the first two times they said “no.” I was devastated because this was one of those shows that was circulating as the hot show that you really wanted to book. Bernie was the last King of Comedy to get a show, and we knew it was going to be groundbreaking. 

Then, at the 11th hour, I got a call saying they wanted to take me to the studio, and if I passed that, I’d go test for the network within that hour. I called on everybody — Jesus, Buddha, Allah. I needed everybody to sit down and pay attention.

I did the studio test, and it was between me and another female. Then I made it to the network test, and there were two other women there waiting. They were two women who I knew and respected; if anything, it made me raise my game. I said, “This is mine,” and it was.

Camille Winbush, Vanessa on The Bernie Mac Show: I had just turned 10 when I auditioned. At that time, I didn’t know who Bernie was because I was too young, but before I auditioned, my parents showed me a clip from The Original Kings of Comedy so I’d have an idea of who he was. I was three years younger than the character of Vanessa, so I was the youngest one who made it to the final three. Bernie was in the room, and I got to play off of him and vibe off of his energy. I think that’s what sealed the deal.

Dee Dee Davis, Bryana on The Bernie Mac Show: I was four years old, so there are snippets that I remember. I remember learning my lines for the scene, and I remember being in the audition and being in my pajamas and bunny slippers because my mom wanted to go all out. There were some other people in there too, but I remember seeing Bernie. I did it, and afterwards, he was talking to my mother because he’s from Chicago and we were from Chicago. We ended up having some family members that went to the same church.

When I met everybody, I asked my parents, “Is this my aunt? Is this my uncle?” I called them “Uncle Bernie” and “Aunt Wanda” off set too. On set, I was told, “You’re going to learn your lines, then you’re going to go to school.” Then, in public, people would come up to me and be like, “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!” One day, I looked at my mom, and I was like, “How do they know me?” Then my mom was like, “Okay, you’re on a show. People watch this show.” 

It was hard for me to grasp. I was so young that I didn’t understand how big it was back then. 

Smith: I remember when Bernie’s actual wife came to set. I said “hello” to Bernie’s wife, and Dee Dee was on the floor in front of her dressing room playing. I wanted to introduce her to Bernie’s wife. I said to her, “Dee Dee, meet Bernie’s wife, Rhonda.” 

She never looked up. She just said, “That ain’t Bernie’s wife.” I said, “No, no, Biscuit” — I used to call her “Biscuit” — “look up and meet Bernie’s wife.” And she said, “You are Bernie’s wife, Aunt Wanda.” I had to let it go. She was four. She had to believe it.

We also had a replica of a real house and, once you entered, it felt like a real home. It felt like we were in this relationship. I’m from the hood, he from the hood, and even though my character wasn’t that, I could relate to some of the stuff and I knew how to find the balance with him, as opposed to just going toe-to-toe with him.

Davis: He was a real-life father figure for me. He would play around a lot, and there were things he taught me. He was always very nice and caring. It’s funny to see the character he played on the show and then to know how caring he was in real life. 

Winbush: It speaks to his character that, 20 years later, we’re still gathering to do stuff like this — to talk about him with such fond memories. I learned a lot from him about acting and comedy, and we really were a family. Bernie and Kellita came to my real-life gymnastics competition. They showed up, and my coach was like, “Alright, don’t get a big head because your people are here.” 

The Difference Between TV Bernie Mac and IRL Bernie Mac

Smith: The lines. That was it. He really was that old-school guy.

Davis: I was young, so I saw the more caring side. I definitely think he was true to his character though.

Winbush: He was probably a little softer in real life. But I remember one time I brought a boy to the set when we had an end-of-the-season party. Bernie met him, and he turned into Bernie Mac. He looked him up and down. I think the guy stuck his hand out to shake Bernie’s hand, and Bernie just nodded and went, “Hmm.” 

Smith: I will say that, about Bernie’s old-school way, sometimes we’d have call times at 5 a.m. and Bernie would be fully dressed to the nines. I’d come in with sleepy eyes, sweats, my socks wouldn’t match, but he’d come in fully dressed, with cologne. His game face was on. He knew what he was doing. He was very methodical and serious when it came to the show.

‘The Bernie Mac Show’s Legacy

Davis: I live in Chicago, and a lot of kids come up to me and say, “We watch the show all the time on Hulu!” It’s funny to see this younger generation watching a show that aired over 20 years ago. 

Smith: It’s a blessing that they can still watch. I hope they can continue to. I hope that Bernie’s memory never dies because he worked so hard to get to that place and for it to be short-lived was heartbreaking. 

I recently rewatched some of the episodes, and I thoroughly enjoyed what we did. This show absolutely gave permission for other shows to do wonderful things. Like, Modern Family became a single-camera show. That was something Bernie had to fight for. There was no laugh track, no audience. Bernie had to fight for all that. This show opened up a space for other shows, and people don’t talk about that. It’s kind of amazing that this show isn’t revered the way it should be. I think if Bernie was alive, it’d be different. 

Winbush: It’s funny that the show had such a big impact, yet I still feel that it doesn’t get enough recognition for what it did.

Bernie Mac, Rest in Power

Winbush: We knew he was dealing with some stuff. I was personally not aware of the extent of it. I remember my mom telling me that he had passed. We all went to the service, and that was the first time we’d all been together in a while. On one hand, it was comforting to be with these people we’d spent so much time with, but it was tough. It speaks to who he was as a person that all these people came together for him. We still come together for him.

Davis: I remember that day, too. My mom called me. She woke me up and told me he had passed away. I knew he had been sick, but I don’t think anyone knew how bad it was. I also remember the service. That’s when it hit me — we were with everybody, but not him. It also hit me when I got older, when I really grew to appreciate all he’d done for me. I wish I’d been able to ask him for more advice, but I’m definitely grateful for the time I did have and for him choosing me and all of us to be a part of his legacy.

Smith: It hits me in a different place. It was unbelievable. He was such a driver. You don’t expect someone like him to expire. He came through so much adversity that you’d think his skin was tough enough for anything. When I got the call, I was in disbelief. I felt like I lost a family member. 

Even now — I can’t talk to him. I can’t reminisce with him. It teaches me to bless him for it. I miss him — I miss the man — not the man who created this show, but the man he was to all of us. He was a very beautiful, decent man to us all, and he taught us family.

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