Tyler Perry's grass-roots path to fame
By Jake Coyle
AP Entertainment Writer
There's something old-fashioned about Tyler Perry.
The heroes in his films gravitate toward jazz and blues, not hip-hop. The trademark character he portrays tough-talking grandmother Madea spouts the wisdom of decades past. His popularity was born in black theaters known as the chitlin circuit.
And despite 37 years of an unequivocally remarkable life, Perry is actually holding off on writing a memoir because "there's so much more to be told."
But some say Perry is TOO old-school that his portraits of modern black life are based on stereotypes and that his over-the-top, cross-dressing style derives from 19th-century minstrel shows.
Not that he's worried about how others perceive what he calls a realistic, populist approach.
"If you think it's a stereotype or not whatever," Perry said in a recent interview. "As long as the people love and enjoy it, I'm going to keep doing it."
And a great number of people love Perry. His first two films, despite little mainstream publicity, both debuted at No. 1. Made for a combined $11 million, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and "Madea's Family Reunion" grossed a total of $150 million.
His book "Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life," debuted last year atop The New York Times' nonfiction best-seller list. He has sold over 11 million DVDs of his movies and videotaped stage plays, and TBS recently purchased 100 episodes of his half-hour show "House of Payne," which will begin airing in June.
Business Week last year named Perry (not Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise) the most bankable male star in the country. He owns the copyrights to all of his plays and films, and last September opened the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta.
His new film, "Daddy's Little Girls," starring Gabrielle Union and Idris Elba, was released in theaters this week, and it's a good bet that it too will top the box office.
"He's a quintessentially American story," says Marc Lamont Hill, a professor of urban education and American studies at Temple University. "He goes from poverty, living on the streets, to a millionaire."
Perry grew up poor in New Orleans, the son of a carpenter. He has said his father abused him (they have since reconciled) and that he was molested by a neighbor. His young life was often filled with depression, he was homeless for three months and twice attempted suicide.
He was inspired to put pen to paper after seeing an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" where Winfrey spoke of the cathartic feeling writing provides. Getting his first play (a gospel musical titled "I Know I Have Been Changed") off the ground was a battle, but Perry eventually became a hit in urban theater.
Perry constantly toured plays that he wrote, directed and typically starred in. His audience was largely Christian, almost entirely black, and heavily populated by middle-aged women. It's a passionate following that will inundate critics with mail if they reproach Perry's films.
"My entire effort has been grass roots," says Perry. "The base, the hardworking people who are just really, really good people who can relate to (Madea). The highbrow? They don't get it."
Movie critics have roundly panned Perry's films, often disparaging the type of melodrama where a husband physically drags a wife out of their house or a fire suddenly alters a family's destiny.
Responds Perry: "They don't think it's real because they don't know anything about it. Go find your average black person and look at their lives you would be surprised at the things we deal with. It's not farfetched."
Perry's Madea (the name comes from a southern term for "Mother Dear," not from Euripides) is based on his mother and relatives. He got the initial inspiration from Eddie Murphy in "The Nutty Professor."
"I can put that wig on and costume on, man, and say anything and it's OK because it's the character," says Perry. "She makes it OK to not be politically correct."
Although many contemporary black comics have donned similar garb, from Martin Lawrence to Jamie Foxx, some see a black man dressing up as a woman for laughs as a form of emasculation.
Dave Chappelle once said that while filming "Blue Streak" in 1999 with Lawrence, the filmmakers tried to persuade him to disguise himself as a prostitute. Chappelle said the proposal made him uncomfortable and he refused.
"Minstrel shows are probably more progressive than Tyler Perry's representation," says Professor Todd Boyd, who specializes on race and popular culture at USC. "It's hard to understand how in modern times someone would be able to make a career out of such images when clearly the roots of these images are stereotypical."
Perry has heard the charges before, but dismisses them as "just dumb. Any black person that says that, I want to know where they grew up and where they come from. I can take you to my neighborhood in Louisiana and you will meet this woman over and over and over again. ... I guess we're supposed to be ashamed of this person and kind of push her under the rug because we've have become so progressive."
Though Hill thinks Perry follows a "tradition of black buffoonery," he acknowledges that Perry is a complex figure and that some of his characters resonate: "When you go to a Tyler Perry movie, you hear a chorus of `Mm-hmmm, that's right!'"
Madea, though, is currently on hiatus. "Daddy's Little Girls," about a single father of three girls (Elba, known as Stringer from HBO's "The Wire") is Perry's first movie without his trademark character and not based on a play. It thus has a sense of expanding his perspective to a broader audience. Perry, who is very conscious of his fans, says his audience has recently gone from 100 to 70 percent black.
"Don't change the stories, but be more open in the conversation, be more inclusive," he says of his changing intentions. "I can't just say, `This is what a black woman does' anymore because I realize now as I'm seeing the world, it's not just about an African-American woman, it's about African women, it's about Caucasian women, it's about Latino women."
Perry, who recently moved into downtown Atlanta after his home outside the city became too much of a tourist attraction, will next shoot "Why Did I Get Married" and then "Jazz Man's Blues." He thinks the latter, a period piece about a jazz singer who's posing as white, might even impress some critics.
Whether Perry (who promises Madea will return) can successfully transition to a new phase of his career has yet to be seen.
"I have to explore carefully," says Perry, noting that he must be led by God and his audience. Regardless, he's excited about the new phase which he thinks will be the meat of that future autobiography.
For the first time, he says, "I feel like I'm a whole man."
The following article appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Uptown Magazine
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Madea Goes To Town
Gun-Packing Grandma's 'Hoodspun Wisdom Comes From Her Creator's Heart
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Scene 1: Madea, a huge grandmother, bounces onto the stage, a tempest towering over other actors, instantly stealing the scene, the star of her own show.
In this play, Madea wears black cat-eye glasses, a pink housedress falling loosely over her huge breasts. She is in orthopedic hose, a gray wig, gigantic feet stuffed in fluffy tiger-print bedroom slippers, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, which is painted with a touch of pink. Just enough to suggest she was once a stripper. The name was Delicious and that was a long time ago but she can still "drop it like it's hot," she says with a cackle.
Madea, the character created and performed by rags-to-riches playwright, composer and movie director Tyler Perry, is bigger than life, big enough to lean on, with her black purse, loaded with four pistols ready to defend her honor and the honor of any family member she thinks is being wronged.
Pow! She spews advice and wisdom, caring not a damn who gets in the way of the words. "I am six feet tall, 68 years old, 392 pounds. I can say whatever I want to say. And ain't nobody going to stop me. . . . This is my house, I can say anythink. I can say anythink I want to say in my house."
From this fictional house on theater stages -- and in a movie set to be released today, "Madea's Family Reunion," plus the book "Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings" due out in April -- Madea has taken on a life of her own. Emerging fully formed from the painful dust of Perry's childhood to speak to a whole generation of audiences.
Long before Madea made it to Hollywood, she traveled across the country, performing stage plays that reached underground and across class and tapped into the vein of pain pumping through black communities. Starring in morality tales, often about molestation, abuse, cheating husbands, cheating wives, mothers in jail, crack children producing crack babies, grandmothers raising grandchildren whose mothers went off and left them, abandoned children left to make sense of mothers in jail, daddies unknown.
Part gospel concert, part church, part stand-up comedy, part old school R&B jam sessions, part collective counseling, the plays often had happy endings in which the good get their reward and the evil get their due and the beautiful single black woman rides off into the sunset with a beautiful, good black man. The plays are ultimately about forgiveness.
In the play "Madea Goes to Jail," which came to Constitution Hall in January, Madea sinks on a sofa in her living room, and from that sofa-throne issues her edicts:
Dating and having sex will get you dinner and a movie, but holding out will get you diamonds and furs and Cadillacs and proposals. A man likes challenges. . . . You should consider yourself Mount Everest. Do you know how many men died trying to get to the top of Mount Everest? Keep the flags off of you!
Different scene, different play.
Actress: How can you tell when a man is cheating on you?
Madea: You think your man's cheating?
Woman: Yes, I do!
Madea: Well. [Pregnant pause.] That's how you can tell.
And this is not a laugh track.
And you are sitting there, cracking up, rewinding the funny scenes, playing the tapes of some of her seven plays and first movie over and over, because there is somebody in Madea you recognize instinctively. Like somebody in the family you might be embarrassed by at reunions, some great -- thrice removed -- aunt you thought twice about inviting to the wedding because you never knew how she just might ack.
If you don't know what ack is, you might not understand Madea.
Which leads to a few questions: Who is Madea? And why is Madea so insanely popular, so infectious, almost ubiquitous in the 'hood on T-shirts, on bootleg tapes of her plays, popular among old people and young? Why did the movie she starred in, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" (based on Perry's play), soar at the box office last February, grossing $50 million and selling 2.4 million DVDs its first week in stores -- despite critics' panning it as "simplistic," "cornball" and "eye-rollingly terrible"?
Why is "Madea's Family Reunion," based on Perry's play of the same name, starring Perry, Blair Underwood, Lynn Whitfield, Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson, so eagerly anticipated? It is set to open in 2,100 theaters, 600 more than her last movie, according to Tom Ortenberg, president of Lionsgate Theatrical Films, who said the company's confident that the film "will be an even bigger hit than 'Diary of a Mad Black Woman,' " adding that research screenings show the movie appeals to all races, men and women.
And why did Oprah, of all people, recently change her format to accommodate Madea (she was interviewed via satellite), who initially told Oprah no?
Who tells Oprah no? Madea.
Oprah says on air: "I saw for the first time the play 'Madea Goes to Jail' in Los Angeles. It was a transcendent experience. . . . It was what you want in theater. I laughed so hard . . . I had a laughing headache."
Madea, from her "living room" as she's interviewed, talks dieting with Oprah.
Oprah: I made a big mistake over the holidays. I allowed myself to eat bread, and I blew up.
Madea: You don't eat bread?
Oprah: No, I don't.
Madea: What kind of life is that, not eating bread? . . . I'm going to eat what I want to eat and I'm going to die whenever I die. If I'm walking down the street and I get hit by a bus and I'm skinny and they go to my funeral, ain't nobody going to sit there going she was soooo thin. They are going to say no, she dead. I'm going to eat as much as I want to eat and enjoy myself.
Big Momma of the 'Hood
Which brings us back to the question of who is Madea? Anybody who is in the 'hood, close to the 'hood, just left the 'hood or has relatives still living in the 'hood knows this woman: Madea, matriarch of the dysfunctional family. Madea is like the aunt, the grandmother, the great-grandmother who mixes up Bible verses, who prays with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.
We pray to the God of Abraham [pause] Lincoln; the God of Mary [pause] J. Blige . . . the God of Shadrach, Meshach and a Billy Goat. God look down on the caller ID and see my name and be like, "I don't think so."
Madea is the grandmother who dresses in bright red for her sister's funeral, and says she's going to church only after the church "opens a smoking section." She is the godmother who gets high off weed 'cause she got glaucoma and is "a diabetical" because she got "that sugar."
Madea is that relative who dances the electric slide and who will love the good in you and tell you to your face about the bad in you or about that no-good man or no-good skank woman you married.
I was the only one at your wedding with a T-shirt saying, "Do not marry this man. He will break your heart." Big T-shirt and sign. But you married him anyway. Don't get mad at me because you married a dog.
Madea, born Mabel Simmons, is a derivative of "Mother Dear" or "Ma Dear," a term of endearment. Madea, not to be confused with Medea in Greek mythology.
The Pain That Made Madea
Before we find out who Madea really is and where she came from, we must first find out who Tyler Perry is and where he came from.
Perry, 36, is sitting in his dressing room at Constitution Hall. It's opening night and crowds are lining up outside. People say you can come to a Tyler Perry play every night and never see the same ending, because all that Madea preaching onstage is not necessarily part of the script. Inside, Perry has not yet transformed into Madea. He greets you with a warm hug, bending down as if it is custom. He is 6 feet 5. He sinks into a brown sofa. And you wonder: Is that a touch of shyness you see in his eyes? But you know better. Because this is a man who has done more than 250 shows each year for six years.
Two gray wigs sit on the dressing table. In minutes, Perry will pull on one of those wigs, then slip into the fat suit that hangs with the oversize breasts by the door. An artist will apply the Dermablend makeup, thick enough to cover his beard and transform him into Madea. He will not allow anyone besides those necessary to see this transformation. He is "embarrassed" in that dress, which has brought him so much fame and millions. "When the last zipper goes up and the wig goes on and there she is," Perry says, "I'm very uncomfortable in the costume. . . . You are sitting in a dress and a wig. . . . It's kind of hard to be a man up there when you are looking down at your breasts."
In the dressing room, you ask Perry about his childhood. And he says his childhood in New Orleans was full of pain, so much pain that he does not remember one happy moment until he was 28 years old, when he finally had a conversation with his father, a mean man, who cried and told Perry he loved him.
It is that kind of pain and the characters he witnessed as a child that seep into his subconscious so deep they come forth when he is writing his plays and movies. And they connect with a wider audience, many of whom write on message boards at his Web site that the plays have saved their very lives, given them reason to go on, reason to laugh, reason to forgive.
And as long as Tyler hears that, he will keep going despite the criticism he gets from some bourgeois blacks who say his plays have set the race back, calling them minstrel shows on the "chitlin circuit."
"There was a comment from a man who does a black theater festival who came to me and said, 'Until you elevate your theater, you won't be invited.' But I say, 'Who said this theater is better than my brand of theater? Who says this is legitimate and this is not?' " He remembers talking to August Wilson at a reception after seeing "Seven Guitars." Perry told Wilson what people said about Perry's plays. Wilson told him the plays were genuine theater.
And that was all Perry needed to go on.
"She has taken on a life of her own."
He continues: "A lot of people don't have money for therapy. . . . A lot of the stuff comes to me when I'm onstage. It keeps the show fresh. I can't do Broadway."
Perry was born in New Orleans in September 1969. You stop him. You don't know why but you ask him his zodiac sign. Maybe because so many of your friends told you to ask him what his sign is and whether he is married. Because a brother like this who writes plays in which the single black sister always rides off in the end with the fine black brother who reads her poetry must be special. You save that question for later. (He says he is not married. "There is a very, very special woman I love very much." Says they have been dating one year. "She completely inspires me on so many levels." But there is no plan for marriage anytime soon. "I'm so consumed with everything. Once I'm married, she and the kids will take priority.")
Now Perry is talking about his childhood.
"I was a disappointment to my father because I was sickly. I was allergic to everything, dust and mold. My room had to be cleaned. And I was always very tall for my body. The doctor used to say I was too big for my heart." His father didn't think he was his child, he says, so he beat him and he cursed him and he stomped on him and he called him every name in the book as Perry grew up in that shotgun house in New Orleans.
He stops, not wanting to retell the story he has told so many times about how his father was so mean that he bit off his brother-in-law's finger and spat it on the floor of a bar.
"Quincy Jones told me the statute of limitations runs out on childhood trauma," Perry says.
The older Perry grew, the worse the insults. "He threatened me. He would become physically abusive. Beating me with vacuum cleaner cords. Stomping on me."
Perry says his father was mean to his mother, too. "Sunday, she would wake me up and say let's go to church. Back then people didn't have counseling or therapy. It was God." Perry says he's still on good terms with his parents, who have come to see his plays. They have refused to talk to the press.
His mother tried to protect him. "To protect me, she took me everywhere. I knew more about Lane Bryant and Dark and Lovely. I didn't appreciate it then. My mother used to play cards in the projects till 2 or 3 in the morning." Later when he is writing, pulling for information, he will think about these scenes.
After high school, he worked as a waiter, bill collector, used- and new-car salesman. Perry followed one of his cousins to Atlanta, where Perry still lives. (Yes, that was his mansion in "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," the big, big house with the marble floors and the stone staircase, down which the cheating husband dragged the wife in her raspberry ball gown, down to the lonely U-Haul truck, which happened to be driven by a sensitive hunk.) Atlanta inspired him. "I saw black people, successful, articulate black people with companies. I thought I had hit the promised land." That was in 1991.
One day, Perry was watching Oprah when she said something about writing being a catharsis for pain. In 1992, he started writing letters to himself in an effort to release his childhood pain. A friend told Perry the letters sounded like a play.
Perry had no formal training in writing a script, character development, stage production, directing (which drives film and theater critics crazy). But he saved up $12,000 and used it all to open his play in 1992 at a community theater in Atlanta. He called it "I Know I've Been Changed," and based it on the struggles of adult survivors of child molestation. He wrote the music, designed the set, acted onstage. On opening night, only 30 people showed up. For six broke years, Perry kept scraping together his own money and putting on shows. For three months he was homeless, living in his car. "Broke and at times starving," he says, he held on to the faith that now infuses his plays and movies.
"I had so much belief that God had given me this to do. But having it fail, having it fail constantly. I'd sit at my desk and I know God was telling me go and do this show." When he finally felt it was time to quit producing plays, a voice told him to stage one more. That night an investor showed up.
And it would be easy to say the rest is history. But it is in the making. He says the play, "I Know I've Been Changed," went on to sell out. It moved to the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, where it sold 9,000 seats in two shows. He went on to tour in major cities: Washington, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Miami. T.D. Jakes asked him to help produce "Woman, Thou Art Loosed." He said the play, which opened in 1999, grossed more than $5 million in five months.
Perry shifted to lighter plays, still morality stories but with happy endings. In 2000, he introduced Madea in the play "I Can Do Bad All by Myself." Then came "Diary of a Mad Black Woman." Followed by "Family Reunion." And "Class Reunion." All starring Madea, selling out theaters across the country, selling more than $100 million in tickets. In 2001, Perry was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for his role in "I Can Do Bad" during its stop here at the Warner Theatre.
Which goes back to the question of who is Madea -- really? Where did she come from and how is she formed?
"My first show character was Joe," Perry says. From 1992 to 1998, he played Joe, an old man with an eye for beautiful women and with flatulence issues, among other problems. Then he saw Eddie Murphy do the Nutty Professor character. "And I thought of who is the funniest person in my life." Mayola, his aunt. And his mother. "My mother is a milder version of Madea. Wisdom. My aunt is the funny one with the wig. My aunt carries the guns and the razors."
Perry does not mind that you speak of Madea as a real person. "We are two very different people," he says. But when Perry is onstage, Madea pushes him out of the way.
She is popular with people, he says, because "she is obnoxious and she says what they think. She hits a chord. She is not politically correct."
The Wit and Wisdom
In the Washington stop of "Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail," Madea broke away from the script and gave the audience an old-fashioned lesson in love:
Pay attention to the voices in your head. If somebody say they love you, then everything they do has to line up with love. If somebody say they love you and do something crazy, and you tell them to stop, and they keep doing it, well, they don't love you.
Pay attention to that voice. Get by yourself so you can hear what God is trying to tell you. I will never understand people so in love with somebody they walk out and they want to kill themselves. You want to slit your wrists and they be at the club.
If a man is out working all day and come in smelling like Irish Spring, something is going on. . . . you ask your man for one thing. And if he gives it to you, he is genuine.
What is that one thing, someone from the audience yells.
I can't tell you, because what I am is conflicting with this dress .
I better get back to the script.
Perry Anticipates His 'Family Reunion
By Daniel Fienberg
LOS ANGELES (Zap2it.com)- When "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" opened last February, more articles were written about a Wes Craven werewolf flick and a supposed comedy pairing Tommy Lee Jones with cheerleaders. After "Diary" scooped up nearly $22 million, Hollywood was stunned. The media was stunned. Film critics, who mostly panned the movie, were stunned. The film's writer, Tyler Perry? Not so stunned.
"I wasn't surprised, I was thankful," says Perry. "Again, being on tour all over the country, you see all of these people and they say, 'We're going, Tyler. We're going to support you. We're going to support you.' And then they go. So I was grateful. I knew they were there, but to have them go was a whole 'nother thing."
"Madea's Family Reunion," Perry's "Diary" follow-up, won't be sneak up on anybody. The film, which features Perry as smack-talking, pistol-packing, audience-friendly Madea, has a slightly higher budget and a few familiar faces (including Blair Underwood, Lynn Whitfield, and Cicely Tyson), but the same difficult-to-describe style.
"It's schizophrenic -- that's how I describe it," Perry explains with a laugh. "It's all over the place, man. It's joy, it's happy, it's sad, it's everything. It's just an emotional roller coaster, you know? Even the plays themselves, you come to see them and it's like a stand-up comedic routine. I'm breaking the wall. I'm talking to the audience. It's theater. It's some of everything. It's concert."
One thing Perry, who still tours the country playing Madea to sell-out crowds, doesn't expect is complete acceptance.
"I don't know if it's necessarily about critics or just people in general," he admits. "There's such a disconnect in this country. There's such a just, everybody has their own life and their own world and everybody's in their own compartment and nobody's crossing or peaking to see what's over on the other side or in the other areas. I think the main reason that people don't get it is because they don't understand what this character represents, this Madea character represents, what these movies or shows or plays of mine represent."
He adds, "I'm so used to the mediocre reviews or the terrible reviews, when I see a good one -- which I don't read or pay attention to -- when I hear about it, I'm really surprised, because I expect people not to get it, I really do."
Even if reviewers don't get him, Perry sees his message getting through post-"Diary."
"I'm seeing more non-black people represented in the audience," he says of his shows. "I can see it from the stage. It's really amazing, since the movie's been out I can look out in the audience and see 30 percent of people who are not black and that's pretty amazing, especially in a lot of Southern cities."
He notes, "I've always said, even from Day One, I said, 'This is universal. Everyone can relate to love, hurt, pain, learning how to forgive, needing to get over, needing the power of God in their life.'"
"Madea's Family Reunion" goes wide on Friday, Feb. 24.
The Hollywood Gospel According to Tyler Perry
He's rich, religious and he's proved studio execs wrong about the black movie audience.
By Lorenza Muñoz
Times Staff Writer
Tyler Perry has a story he likes to tell about Hollywood being out of touch with African Americans.
Back in 2002, when the comedian and playwright made the rounds at the major studios to pitch film projects based on his gospel-inspired act, people didn't know what to make of him. He remembers one Paramount Pictures executive even telling him: "Black people who go to church don't go to the movies."
Perry set out to prove that executive wrong. First, he partly bankrolled an independent feature film version of one of his plays, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman." Then, to motivate his fans to go see it, the charismatic, 6-foot-5 Christian incorporated the white studio exec's assessment of blacks' moviegoing habits into his live act.
"You should've heard the roar of these thousands of black people in the room," Perry said, remembering the typical reaction at his sold-out 3,000-seat venues. "They were fired up and angry and ready to go to the movies."
What happened next made Hollywood sit up and take notice: "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," which was made for $5.4 million, opened last February and grossed more than $50 million in theaters (not to mention selling 3.3 million units on DVD). Its audience was predominantly black. On Friday, almost exactly a year after "Diary's" debut, Perry will release his second feature film, "Madea's Family Reunion." With this movie, which like "Diary" features Perry as a pistol-packing grandma on a mission of redemption, the New Orleans-born auteur is attempting to broaden his reach.
Having shown that black churchgoers can also be filmgoers, Perry inspired by the likes of Bill Cosby before him is out to introduce himself to mainstream white America.
"What is important to me about this movie is that the stories and messages are for anyone," said Perry, who says a recent test screening drew raves from a white audience near Sacramento. "Anyone who needs to learn about forgiveness
will enjoy it no matter who they are."
With "Madea," which Perry wrote, produced, directed and stars in, he has finally gotten his Hollywood imprimatur. Lionsgate, the studio that co-financed and distributed "Diary," footed the bill for "Madea" and has committed to Perry's third feature, expected in 2007.
To hear the 36-year-old self-described mogul-in-the-making tell it, "Madea" is just the beginning. With a nod to friend and mentor Oprah Winfrey, Perry who has an advice book coming out in April, a television sitcom and an animated series in development and a production studio the size of a city block in the planning stages in Atlanta is out to become an entertainment industry franchise.
"He is a force of nature," said John Feltheimer, chief executive of Lionsgate, who admittedly has a stake in that being true. "He speaks with a unique voice to a specific audience. We want to be a partner in everything Tyler does."To hear Perry tell it, he was drawn to inventing stories because his real life was so grim. The third of four children raised in a working-class family, Perry says he was a victim of physical abuse. His father's "answer to everything was to beat it out of you," Perry once told Jet magazine. When he told his mother his dreams of becoming a performer, she discouraged him.
"My mother said to me, 'You are never going to make it, so stop what you're doing,' " he recalled, without bitterness. "That was her way of protecting me."
In the early 1990s, he left New Orleans for Atlanta. After hearing Winfrey talk on her show about the healing power of journal writing, he began putting his childhood experiences on paper. Eventually, the journal entries became inspirational plays.
In those early years, he was so strapped that he lived intermittently in his car. But in 1998, Perry's play about survivors of child abuse, "I Know I've Been Changed," sold out the House of Blues in Atlanta.
Soon he was touring the gospel theater circuit, an African American institution that the civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois had once called theater "for us, by us, about us and near us."
It was during these tours of the South and Midwest that Perry learned the power of word of mouth. He was championed by the faith-based community, whose preachers took to their pulpits and lauded his plays.
Perry's work could be blunt it squarely addressed such issues as drug use, spousal abuse and broken families. But much like the ministries themselves, he leavened the hard themes with music and comedy even as his characters embraced the tenets of Christianity: hope, faith and redemption.
Some in the African American community have been critical of Perry, saying he relies on stereotypes for his characters. Moreover, some see Perry's Madea as a caricature, a modern version of the "Mammy" a domineering, masculine black woman.
But there is no question that Perry struck a chord by creating recognizable characters who struggle with real problems. Which is why, long before Mel Gibson's 2004 blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ" taught Hollywood the power of church-based marketing, the gospel circuit was making Perry rich.
"Churches and pastors work so well with his plays because they see them as an extension of the ministry," said the influential Texas evangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes, whose novel "Woman Thou Art Loosed" was adapted for the stage in the late 1990s by none other than Perry.
Perry early on grasped the importance of branding. From the start, he refused to begin a show unless his name was on the theater's marquee. If his name did not appear prominently on the tickets, he would order theater owners to reprint them.
"Whoever made the mistake had to pay for it," he said. "When you have a few thousand people waiting to see you, you can pretty much demand a few things."
He has been meticulous about building the Tyler Perry image. His website, http://www.tylerperry.com , is a gallery of softly lit portraits: Perry in a black suit on a chaise lounge; Perry in a dark pinstripe suit, staring deeply into the lens.
"Once I started doing the Madea character, I realized that people needed to see my face," he said. His goal: for people to view the outspoken, dress-wearing Madea and the handsome executive as "two separate brands."
As his celebrity grew, he got a surprise visit from the woman who'd inspired him: Winfrey. She introduced herself as a fan of his work after one of his live shows. They became friends, and she offered the advice he still lives by: Never lose control of your brand.
Forbes magazine says Perry sells more than $100 million in tickets, $30 million in videos of his shows and an estimated $20 million in merchandise. He has a 12-acre estate outside Atlanta. He named the 26-bedroom spread Avec Chateau, which in French means "with home," to remind him how far he'd come.
But now he had a new challenge. With a loyal following in the millions, Perry was ready to conquer Hollywood on his own terms. Or so he thought.
"He came out here and it was like, 'Who are you?' " said Nia Hill, founder of the independent film promotion company Momentum and producer of one of Perry's first plays.
Perry's agents at the William Morris Agency eventually landed him a half-hour sitcom on CBS. But when executives began ordering rewrites of his material, as is common in the industry, Perry wanted to quit.
Perry turned to Reuben Cannon, a veteran producer whom he would soon make his partner. Cannon advised him to hold off on TV.
"He was being directed by the network
telling him what is funny and what is not," said Cannon, who likes to call Perry "Howard Hughes without the weirdness." "I said, 'Come back to television when you become a movie star.' "
Perry got out of the CBS deal and devoted himself to the "Diary" screenplay. In 2003, after a year in Los Angeles, he tried to find a distributor. His first meeting was with a Paramount executive who no longer works at the studio.
It was this exec, Perry says, who told him that churchgoing blacks didn't go to the movies.
"I sat there completely mortified," Perry recalled. "I was like, 'He did not just say that to me.' "
The executive acknowledges meeting with Perry, but denies making the comment and says he would never say such a thing. He also recalls he wanted Perry to work with a proven producer at Paramount and that Perry declined. Perry confirmed this.
After his meeting at Paramount, Perry met Julia Dray, then a senior vice president at Fox Searchlight, the specialty division of 20th Century Fox, who caught his show at the Kodak Theatre.
Blown away, she went backstage and told Perry she wanted to make a film with him. Perry agreed. But after he turned in a script, the studio told him it wanted to hire a more experienced screenwriter to "polish" the characters. This, too, is common, but Perry again said no.
"Searchlight lost the golden goose," lamented Dray, now a producer at an independent company, Broken Lizard.
In a last-ditch effort, Perry's agents sent his script to Lionsgate production head Mike Paseornek. As the last remaining major independent studio, Lionsgate is known for taking risks on low-budget films.
Paseornek admits he had no idea who Perry was. So he and Feltheimer called white Hollywood executives and asked if they had ever heard of him. None had. But when they asked African Americans, the response was passionate.
After seeing Perry live, Paseornek was "floored." Within a week, Lionsgate made a deal giving Perry what Winfrey had told him to hold out for: complete creative control.
"If a few middle-aged white guys living in the insular world of Hollywood are going to make decisions for Tyler Perry, then we should not be in the Tyler Perry business," Paseornek said.
The studio put up about $2 million of "Diary's" $5.4-million budget and agreed to split the back end of the film's profits with Perry. Within two days of the film's opening, Lionsgate went further, buying the distribution rights to Perry's entire video catalog of plays. The studio also has the long-term rights to any movie that includes Madea as a character.
Lionsgate put up all of "Madea's" $6-million budget. But Perry still gets half of the back end of the film's profits.
There are already indications that "Madea" will have broader appeal. Exhibitors who passed on "Diary" have shown more interest in "Madea." The film will be released on 2,000 screens, 500 more than "Diary."
Lionsgate is aggressively targeting the spiritual community by printing 30,000 prayer cards to be distributed at more than 1,200 churches nationwide. On one side is Perry wearing a large gold cross; on the other is Madea surrounded by a golden cloud resembling the Holy Spirit. On Thursday, Perry will appear on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
If all goes according to plan, "Madea" will drive interest in the other Perry properties. He has filmed 10 episodes of a sitcom that is being shopped around to broadcasters.
His plans to build a production studio in Atlanta include three soundstages and a 2,400-seat theater. When it's finished, he says, he will start his own cable network to broadcast music videos, news, movies and other programming.
Perry remembers his mother telling him that all he needed in life was to "make $300 a week, get some benefits and live happily ever after." He actually needs more: "I totally see an entertainment empire."