Tyler Perry’s climb from poverty to becoming one of the most successful filmmakers in entertainment is an amazing feat of determination. He is the personification of the American Dream bathed in Black Excellence. Perry, who once lived in his car, is now listed on the distinguished Forbes list as a billionaire. His rise to the top has been remarkable, to say the least. After being shut out of the mainstream of Hollywood, he leveled up, played the game by his own rules and built an empire. Instead of asking for a seat at the table, he brought the table.
The same institutions that sought to exclude him because they didn’t understand his formula or audience, now honor him with accolades. No one could have imagined the New Orleans native would rewrite the rules of success in Hollywood on the strength of his gun-toting, wig-wearing, cussing and now beloved character: Madea.
Madea is a no-nonsense matriarch who doesn't take mess from anyone. Inspired by his late mother, Willie Maxine Perry, and his aunt Mayola, Madea embodies the mommas, grand-mommas, and aunties of the Black community who ruled their households with an iron fist. "My mother is the wisdom of Madea, but my aunt Mayola, that's her wig, that's her voice, that's her gun in the purse," Perry, 51, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2006. "Madea is the PG-rated version of Mayola."
Perry rode the hilarious antics of Madea from church fellowship halls to packing out moving theatres across the county. Although he has reached the top of the mountain, he sure came up on the rough side of it.
After surviving a rough childhood, Perry left his hometown in the Big Easy and moved to Atlanta with a dream of telling stories about the Black people he loved. With $12,000 in savings from selling cars and working as a bill collector, at age 22 he bankrolled his first play, I Know I’ve Been Changed. The theme of the play centered around dysfunctional families, forgiveness, and the love of God. The play was a flop which left him in a financial hole. There were reportedly only 30 or so audience members in attendance opening weekend. However in true champion form, this only fueled Perry to go harder.
In spite of his setback, Perry began working on a comeback and a come up. For the next six years, he fine-tuned his play, brought in new talent, and built a loyal fanbase that has been supportive of him and his work to this present day. When he premiered the remix of his play at the House of Blues and the famous Fox Theater in Atlanta, he knew he had something special. The audience loved it and each show sold out. The magic of Madea couldn’t be stopped.
Perry now had it down to a science. He worked tirelessly creating new plays, producing eight in the next seven years. By 2005, it was reported that he had sold more than $100 million in tickets, $30 million in videos of his shows, and an estimated $20 million in merchandise touring the country. Madea was ready for the big time.
After experiencing unprecedented success, Tyler Perry was ready to take his talents to Hollywood. In 2005, Madea made her big-screen debut in Diary of a Mad Black Woman. The film, which cost $5.5 million to make, grossed $51 million in theaters, and raked an additional $150 million in video rentals, on-demand viewing, DVD sales, and TV licensing. Perry went on to create several more Madea films and other feature films which have all turned a profit. According to Forbes, the Madea franchise has grossed more than $670 million at the box office and drew $290 million in fees and profits. Madea helped Perry get bag after bag.
Because of the success of the Madea franchise, Perry spun off a slew of sitcoms establishing him as a major brand in the T.V. space. His first show, House of Payne, aired 254 episodes, surpassing the record of 253 by The Jeffersons of the most episodes by a Black sitcom.
Other hit shows such as Meet The Browns, and Assisted Living displayed his star-making power. In a landmark deal with Viacom CBS, Perry will "produce approximately 90 episodes annually of original drama and comedy series" for BET and other Viacom networks. On the streaming service alone there’s Sistas, The Oval, Bigger, Bruh, and Ruthless. Perry bet on Madea and won. Big.
Working in the independent space taught Perry the power of ownership. Perry owns everything in his filmography containing more than 1,200 episodes of television, at least 20 stage plays, and 22 feature films. On top of all this he owns a 330-acre state of the art studio, named Tyler Perry Studios. The massive studio space sits at the edge of Atlanta; on land that was once a Confederate military base. “I love when people say you come from ‘humble beginnings,’ ” he says. “It means you were poor as hell.” It also makes success sweeter. “Ownership,” he adds, “changes everything.”
With all his achievements, Tyler Perry is still committed to telling the stories of Black people. Perry used the outrageousness of Madea to spotlight the joy, pain, trauma, creativity, faith and resiliency that has shaped Black people. With Madea, he conquered the stage, film, and television.
As the Madea character bids us farewell, a chapter is closing in Tyler Perry’s journey but he has many more to write. The spirit of Madea will always be with him. "Madea is going to be Madea wherever she is," Perry said. "She's huge on stage and she's only a little bit smaller on film, so she's all about just letting it be, letting the story tell itself no matter where it's taking place.
(Photo courtesy of TylerPerry.com)