TV, film empire builder Tyler Perry blazing his own trail
NEW YORK — When Tyler Perry began creating shows for the then-struggling OWN Network four years ago, he'd send the scripts he'd written to Oprah Winfrey for approval — and she'd wince.
"I would say, 'I think that's too much! It's over the top! Oh my God, I can't believe this is happening!'" Winfrey recounts about Perry's first OWN show, "The Haves and Have Nots," a prime-time drama fueled by connivers, sex and blackmail, now in its fourth season.
Others might have acquiesced to Winfrey. But not Perry.
"He would say to me, 'I know this audience better than you do, I know what the audience wants,'" she said. "And he'd say, 'I'm telling you it's gonna work.' And every time he's been right."
Knowing the audience and what they want has been the key to Perry's success, going back to when he was putting on plays in the chitlin circuit with a loudmouth, irascible gun-toting character that would become known as Madea. Perry describes his fans as the people working in service jobs, the women in the church pews, the family with a crazy relative like Madea who can laugh about it. And like Perry, who was abandoned by his father, grew up in poverty and survived sexual abuse, his audience is familiar with struggle.
"He's creating an empire based on what he knows, based on what he likes, and he's doing it himself, and he's coming from a very challenging background," said Viola Davis, who starred in "Madea Goes to Jail." "But I think he has a vision that is much larger. And the thing I love about him, too, is that he's targeting an audience that is underserved."
It's those people who have helped his 15 self-produced films gross more than $740 million at the box office worldwide, build his own 200,000-square-foot Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta and boost OWN: He's got four shows on the network — dramas "The Have and Have Nots" and "If Loving You Is Wrong," and the comedies "Love Thy Neighbor" and "For Better or Worse," which started a new season on OWN this month.
"You get some laughter, you get some education, you get some therapy and you get some joy and some happiness, and at the end of it, you realize you've learned something," said Perry in a recent interview when describing his vision.
Perry has been OWN's savior in many ways: The network was floundering when he first came to Winfrey and proposed producing shows (he also writes, casts and directs all of them). "The Have and the Have Nots" delivered record-setting ratings for OWN, with last season's finale scoring more than 3.7 million viewers.
He allows that he hasn't always gotten it right. For example, he had never written a TV drama before "The Have and Have Nots," and there was a steep learning curve.
"The first time I do anything is the first time I've done it, period. ... So I needed an opportunity to learn. This is what I love about my audience, they always give me the grace to learn. ... Even when I was doing live stage shows, it was always about, 'This is nice baby, but we gonna stay with you till you get it right,'" he says, in that Madea-like voice.
He also points to his own growth as an actor: Where he once confined himself to the Madea character because he didn't think he had the skills to do more, he shed the costume in his own films and in others; his portrayal of the slick lawyer in "Gone Girl" drew high praise, and he's due to appear in the adaptation of the best-selling novel "Brain on Fire" this year, along with "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2."
Of course, to his many critics — and they are vocal, ranging from film critics to Hollywood types — he hasn't gotten it right a lot. His slapstick comedies have been lambasted as too basic, his dramas too melodramatic, his messaging too preachy, his writing too simplistic — the list goes on.
But Perry, 47, pushes back against those who look down on his work, like Madea, who will return this fall in "Boo! A Madea Halloween," which Perry calls his funniest work to date.
"I'm not trying to write 'Revenant.' I'm not trying to do 'Gone Girl,'" he says. "None of those things interest me. As an artist, this is what I like to paint. If you don't like my paintings, then they're not for you. But because you don't like my paintings, for you to say this work is crap, it's horrible, it's awful — that's ridiculous."
Winfrey likened Perry's appeal to a church revival: "That's exactly what's happening when you go to those plays. It's like sitting in church. ... How dare anyone say to the people who respond to that art and say that's not art?"
Winfrey is passionate in her defense of Perry, perhaps not just because they're close friends, but because she says she's dealt with similar criticism, most pointedly from the black community.
"There is no way to be a person of color who is accomplished and not have other people try to take you out, and most importantly, your own people," she said.
"Your own people will do it because we are not accustomed to that level of success, so when you see it, surpassing anything you ever imagined, what people do is they criticize it because they don't understand it."
But what Winfrey and Perry see as a different kind of art, others see as perpetuating stereotypes — particularly Madea. Perry partly blames the dearth of opportunities for blacks in film when he came to prominence more than 10 years ago for the backlash he's faced.
"Black people think that because you are black, you have an obligation to only tell certain sides of our color and our culture. You are not allowed to tell all of who you are. You are not allowed to show to the 'white folks' all that we are as black people," he said.
"Well, I'm not a kid that grew up with parents who have Ph.D.s from Harvard. I'm not a man whose parents even went to college. I am a man who grew up looking at my uncle with his ashy knees, making jokes about all kinds of things that were inappropriate. I'm a man who grew up with people who weren't politically correct."
These days, though, he keeps rarefied company. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are friends; he was one of author Maya Angelou's dear friends; and actor Sidney Poitier has praised him.
Said Perry, "It's amazing to me to get a call from the White House saying, 'Michelle and I are having dinner. Only a few people are coming. Can you come up and have dinner with us?' And to sit up on the Truman balcony and just have great conversation, there's this moment of pinching myself constantly, like, 'What is going on here?'"
Perry may be perplexed, but he remains unfazed — he's just onto the next project. That includes his Atlanta production studio, which he's continuing to expand. He's also been tapped by TLC to write, produce and direct the political drama "Too Close to Home," which will be its first scripted series. And his live television adaptation of the story of Jesus of Nazareth's final days, "The Passion," recently aired on Fox to mixed reviews and success.
Chief on his list of priorities, though, is his 1-year-old son Aman. When he traveled last year with his play "Madea on the Run," he made sure Aman was with him, with his mother, Perry's statuesque girlfriend Geilila Bekele, in tow.
"(He's) softer, gentler, kinder, more introspective, funnier, laughs more, smiles more," said Winfrey of Perry since becoming a father.
While Perry will continue doing Madea movies as long as people want them, he has loftier ambitions. The producer of "Precious" and "For Colored Girls ..." would love to find new talent to mentor and produce, and has dreams of starting his own film festival to find the next generation of filmmakers.
"I'm putting myself in a position over the next 24 months so I can focus more on seeing other talent, which is something that I've never done before," he said.
He could also see himself having his own network someday, with more shows that fit the Perry brand.
"Somehow I've been given a seat at the table, and with that seat at the table comes tremendous responsibility to make sure that what I'm doing, I'm doing to the best of my ability," he said later. "And it's not for everyone, but the whole purpose is to make sure I continue the path I am on."
AP Writer Alicia Rancilio contributed to this story.