Box office news is still the same. Nothing can topple The Dark Knight from the No. 1 spot, though the stoner comedy Pineapple Express, which cost a mere $27 million to make, took in a smoking $40 million in just its first five days and easily finished at No. 2. Next week, Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder hopes to catch the Knight slowing down in his fifth week. I think maybe. What’s your guess? What I know for sure is that the shocking deaths of Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes over the weekend represent a major loss to the entertainment world. That the two costarred in Soul Men, scheduled for release in November, is a tragic irony. And a good reason to recall the best of Hayes and Mac on film.
Hayes, 65, didn’t do lot of screen acting. Hot buttered soul was his main game. But just mention the 1971 blaxploitation flick Shaft and the first thing I think of is Hayes’ award-winning title song (the first Oscar received by an African-American in a non-acting category). His voice rumbles like thunder through the lyrics: “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?(Shaft!) You’re damn right! Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man? (Shaft!) Can ya dig it? “
Yes we could. Hayes wanted to play the title role himself, but lost out to Richard Roundtree. Yet the image that sticks is of Hayes, head shaved, rocking those shades with gold chains dangling over his bare chest. In recent years, Hayes received animated immortality as the voice of Chef, the cafeteria cook and stud on South Park, the Comedy Central cartoon series he reportedly left in 2006 after the show took comic shots at his religion, the Church of Scientology, and celeb member Tom Cruise. Hayes on screen is a mixed bag. He brought his strong presence and little else to his 1974 starring debut in Truck Turner as a badge chasing bail jumpers. But in 1981’s cult classic Escape from New York he was flash personified as The Duke, a hood in a pimpmobile with its own chandelier. Hayes shining hour on screen — the jury’s still out on Soul Men which sounds promising, comes in 2005’s Hustle and Flow in which he plays Arnel, a Memphis bar owner who gives Terrence Howard’s pimp access to the music business. It’s a performance soaked in wisdom. Maybe you disagree. Maybe you remember Hayes best in 1988’s I’m Gonna ‘Git You, Sucka or 1991’s Guilty as Charged? Go ahead, state your case.
The case for Bernie Mac, who died way too soon at 50 from complications relating to pneumonia, is his low-key but lacerating comic artistry. Doing stand-up or starring on his Fox sitcom, The Bernie Mac Show — based on his own life — the performer born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough made a name for himself quickly. You can see him in action in 2000’s The Original Kings of Comedy, a Spike Lee documentary about Mac on tour with Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer and D.L. Hughley. He scored big at the box-office in 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven, playing a shady card dealer and stealing scenes from Brad Pitt and George Clooney, as he did in two Ocean’s sequels. He pushed too hard taking the screen star spot in 2004’s Mr. 3000Bad Santa. He plays the pedicure-loving head of security at a department store that idiotically hires randy Billy Bob Thornton as Santa. Watch Mac’s slow burn in the face of a Santa who hates the product-whoring “little shits” who sit on his lap and you’ll see a comic master at work. He can steal a scene just peeling and eating an orange. Check it out. He does.
It will be a mixed blessing watching Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes together in Soul Men come November. But remembering their peak moments is a way to measure what we’ve lost.