Father Figures: Goodbye to Bernie Mac, Isaac Hayes

If you'd just emerged from a weekend-long coma and we told you two of America's most popular black father figures had passed away, after Bill Cosby you might have guessed comedian Bernie Mac, but wondered: isn't he too young? Unfortunately no: Mac died of pneumonia this weekend at age 50.

Mac first gained wide notice for his ferocious routine in Spike Lee's Kings of Comedy, where he raved about beating his unruly kids. "If he's old enough to talk back," he reasoned, "he's old enough to punch in the throat." Mac toned down this tough-love message for his Fox sitcom "The Bernie Mac Show"; when his hard-ass approach to raising his sister's three children proved counterproductive, he grudgingly admitted it (in frequent direct addresses to "America," his audience). But these losing battles never seemed to shake his fundamental faith in the war against juvenile sloth.

Mac came up the hard way: born poor in Chicago, he held a long series of less-than-glamourous jobs -- from janitor to Wonder Bread salesman -- while rising slowly through the clubs to fame. Like the exasperated kids-today comedians of the 1960s, he used outrage at the spoiled younger generation as a source of comic energy. But where the old-timers were content to vent, Mac, who also had The Cosby Show at his back, felt obliged to teach lessons, too. He appeared to genuinely regard the challenges of poverty as character-forming; hadn't they formed his? And if circumstances denied this experience to his loved ones, then he had no choice but to supply it himself.

Niecy Nash, who played his sister on the sitcom, recalled that when she first came to the set Mac told her, "Baby girl, the script here is not the Bible. Do you and I’ll follow. I got mine, you get yours." It's good and generous comic advice, but also an admonition to hustle from someone who knew that nothing good comes easy.

isaac.jpgCosby made it through the weekend, but Isaac Hayes didn't: they found him Sunday afternoon in his home, lying near his still-running treadmill. He was 65; cause of death undetermined at this writing.

Hayes had an impressive musical career, writing "Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Coming" for Sam and Dave, developing a lush soul sound that reached its commercial apogee with his soundtrack for the film Shaft, and helping to invent disco. The Musician Guide notes that "though critics have charted Hayes's influence through almost every subsequent strain of black music" since Hot Buttered Soul in 1969, they also rode him for his bombast. His densely-layered orchestrations, lengthy cuts, and outrageous self-presentation (best remembered by the dry ice and chain vest in which he performed "Shaft" at the Academy Awards) were fun as long as the crowd was buying it. But a sudden turn in fashion could make them look ridiculous, like Antonio Fargas' fishbowl heels in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka.

Hayes, of course, is in Sucka himself, and with his dignity mostly intact. Though he did lose favor (and go bankrupt), he was fortunate to see fashion turn yet again, and a new appreciation of 70's soul put him back in the public's good graces. And Hayes had a hole card: he worked steadily as a film and TV actor. A big-voiced, black, bald guy -- famous to boot -- was an easy casting choice for authority-figure roles on either side of the law.

People who know him for nothing else, though, know him as the voice of Chef in "South Park." Every other authority figure on the cartoon was ridiculous, and Chef could be, too, but his affection, approachability, and tendency to tell it like it is even when he shouldn't ("That's easy! You just gotta find the clitoris!") made him the closest thing to a reliable parental figure the kids of South Park had. If they worried about what the other grown-ups thought, it was usually because their opinions could get them in trouble or keep them out of it; when they consulted Chef, it was because they thought he was wise. Hayes voiced Chef as breezily as his heavy voice allowed, as if he were reading a children's story with objectionable passages. Sometimes he even sounded unsure and anxious -- not qualities we associate with Isaac Hayes, but appropriate for an ill-paid public employee who had virtually adopted a group of little white children. And so the onetime king of wocka-wocka soul went out as another TV dad.

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