They say behind every great man is a great woman.
In the late comedian and actor Bernie Mac’s case, that great woman was his wife, Rhonda McCullough.
August 9 will mark nine years since Mac died from complications related to sarcoidosis, an incurable inflammatory disease that often attacks the lungs, skin and lymph nodes. McCullough welcomed EBONY into the place she and Mac, whose given name was Bernard McCullough, called home from 2002 until his death in 2008. When they first married, they lived in a one-bedroom on the South Side of Chicago. There was a lot of hard work and sacrifice put in over the years, she says.
Sitting on a dark-chocolate wraparound leather couch with plush decorative pillows tossed a few feet apart—in a tastefully decorated room she did herself—McCullough shared how she stood behind her man for 33 years, 30 as his wife. Although it wasn’t love at first sight for the Chicago native, who first met Mac while attending Chicago Vocational High School—he was a grade ahead of her—the two quickly became a team. There was some chasing, initially, that McCullough admits she made Bernie do. They soon started eating lunch together and, eventually, became inseparable. They married in 1977, two years after she graduated high school.
Reminiscing, McCullough says Bernie always had a sense of humor.
“He was always funny,” she says.
Even though his gift was evident early on, Bernie didn’t pursue comedy until much later, when their daughter, Je’niece, was 11 years old. It was after a few layoffs that Bernie decided to give comedy a shot, she says. He held jobs at General Motors and with Wonder Bread during the early part of their marriage, but he wasn’t happy at either, and once he was laid off from the last job he began to rethink his career plans.
“One day he came home and said, ‘I got fired,’ ” McCullough shares. “I’m thinking ‘Why?’ because we had just kind of got on our feet and were able to put a little money away, but I didn’t trip out.”
“At that point I remember him saying, ‘I can do comedy; I can really do this,’” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to be the person who kills his dream because if he never makes it, I’ll probably hear for the rest of my life, ‘You stopped me, you didn’t believe in me.’ So I said, ‘You know what? Do what you need to do. If I need to, I’ll get a second a job.’ And I did.”
McCullough was already a nurse. She had enrolled in a two-year nursing program in 1983. In 1985, she passed the state board test and secured a job a few weeks later, she says.
Her first job was at an intermediate care facility working with the mentally ill working the night shift; her last was as a psychiatric nurse at Chicago Read-Mental Health Center, where she worked for 15 years.
Bernie’s big break, which changed their lives forever, came in 1990 when he won the Miller Lite Comedy Search. “It just snowballed; [it was] like a domino [effect],” she says. “It got bigger and bigger, and next thing I knew, he was getting movie offers.”
Mac landed big and small roles in movies such as Mo’ Money, Who’s the Man?, How to Be a Player and Ocean’s Eleven. He made frequent appearances on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. In 2000, he appeared in Spike Lee’s The Original Kings of Comedy. He even launched The Bernie Mac Show, which ran on the Fox network from 2001–2006. The business calls continued to come in.
“I believe the reason he was able to do all he did is because I was back here at home taking care of everything so he didn’t have any worries,” she says.
What many didn’t know is that although he was growing his name and quickly becoming a comedy legend, McCullough was behind the scenes diligently working to maintain the home, keep the bills paid and raising their daughter.
“I held us down,” she says. “I worked; I did what I had to do. You do what you have to do as a wife and a mother.” And she wasn’t worried, she admits, because they had a strong relationship.
“We weren’t a newly married couple,” McCullough says. “We had been married for a long time before he got his success. At that point, I was very secure in my role as his wife and didn’t have to worry about anything.”
After they made their first million dollars, McCullough says she was able to retire. One thing a lot of people didn’t know about Mac was just how sensitive he could be, McCullough says.
“He was kindhearted and gentle,” she describes him. “Most people thought he was real tough because he had that exterior, but he was really a gentle person. He was very sensitive. He didn’t let people see that a lot.”
When her husband wasn’t on the road, he was home with family, which she says was his “sanctuary.” “He liked to entertain at home because he wasn’t a person who liked to go out a lot, but he did like to have people at home,” she says.
His love for entertaining still shows when you walk into the house today. One level of the three-story 20-room home in the Chicago suburbs was designed by Mac. There’s a game room with table hockey and old-school arcade games such as Wheel of Fortune, Lethal Enforcers and Centipede.
There are reclining purple cushioned seats in the in-home theater. There’s a poker table, a pool table, and even a bar. Paintings of Mac by local artist Kevin A. Williams, or WAK, fill up the space.
The trophy room is probably the best part of house. As the awards and gifts poured in over the years, McCullough says she knew her husband needed a central space where he could properly display his honors.
Items in the room include framed jerseys sent from Shaquille O’Neal, a White Sox bench with baseball bats and balls, Emmy Awards, NAACP Awards, Mac’s designated street sign in Chicago at the intersection of 69th and Sangamon Streets and much more.
McCullough works every day to keep Bernie Mac’s legacy alive.
The Bernie Mac Foundation was established in 2007, a year before his death, to create awareness about sarcoidosis. In 2012, The Bernie Mac STAR Center at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System, or STAR Center, was established. April is National Sarcoidosis Awareness Month, and the foundation is hosting is its annual Purple Carpet Fundraiser April 26 to raise money for research.
“I’m thankful for the 33 years we had together,” McCullough says. “I miss him every day, but he’s in my heart.” She adds that her purpose is to serve because “I enjoy it and I get the most joy from bringing awareness.”