Growing up working class in New Orleans as a frequent companion to his mom and aunt to avoid his father’s many beatings isn’t the typical background of a Hollywood mogul. The power of Oprah Winfrey, Perry swears, righted his ship. An episode advocating keeping a diary changed his life. His soul-searching letters purged his childhood pain, allowing him to forgive, while also inspiring the musical I Know I’ve Been Changed.
Boldly gathering his life-savings and relocating to Atlanta to stage the musical in 1992 didn’t go as Perry planned. Holding firm to his faith in God in the midst of homelessness and dead-end jobs was his saving grace until that very first musical finally played to sold-out crowds in 1998.
With his alter-ego Madea, a brash, gun-toting, irreverent but God-fearing grandmother figure inspired by his mother and aunt, in the play I Can Do Bad All By Myself, Perry hit pay dirt in the early 2000s on the chitlin’ circuit, as the black underground theater tour circuit is known. With his latest production, Madea’s Big Happy Family, making the rounds for 2010, Perry now has 12 stage plays to his credit.
Taping and distributing those plays independently swelled both his audience and his bank account. Sinking a few million into his first film, 2005’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman starring Kimberly Elise, which grossed almost $22 million its first weekend, put Hollywood on notice. Perry has since Oscar Micheaux -ed his way to five number one box office openings, grossing more than $400 million worldwide with his eight films.
Branching out into television, Perry sank his own money into the highly-rated Tyler Perry’s House of Payne and was rewarded with an unprecedented $200 million, 100 episode TBS deal, followed by another landmark deal for Meet the Browns.
In 2008, Perry christened his 200,000 square feet Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, as Oprah Winfrey, Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson and Ruby Dee, who each served as a namesake for one of the studio’s soundstages, watched on. Criticism from Spike Lee and others that his work is stereotypical and “coonery” hasn’t slowed Perry down. Teaming up with Winfrey as executive producer of Precious from auteur Lee Daniels suggests that Perry has bolder moves in store for the future.
Click here to view a timeline of the history of African-Americans in cinema.