Tyler Perry was born in New Orleans, Louisiana as Emmitt Perry, Jr. He later changed his name to Tyler because it would distance him from his father, Emmitt Sr., who was physically abusive to him. He had a difficult, highly dysfunctional childhood, suffering molestation at the hands of four different people. This tragic upbringing may not seem like the ideal environment for a future comedy superstar to come from, but that is how it happened for Perry.
In order to process what happened to him and help him deal with it emotionally, Perry began writing letters to himself as an outlet for his pain. He soon started writing regularly, expanded into other forms and decided to follow a career as a writer. He moved to Atlanta and one of his letters “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” was turned into a play that he financed himself. The play was a musical version of the letter; it was ill received and lost money. Perry, completely undeterred, used it as motivational fodder to do better next time.
He spent several years retooling the play, with varying degrees of success, before it finally took off in 1998. He immediately caught the eye of entertainment executives, who were looking for someone with his mix of comedy, dysfunctional families, and Christian values that could be marketed to a large audience. He was given a modest budget to produce his first film, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” which was released in 2005 to critical acclaim. Critics especially liked the fresh perspective that Perry brought to the piece, in which he acted, and wrote and directed himself.
Perry went on to write, direct, and star in several films in subsequent years, many of them centered on the character who would become his muse, Mabel ‘Madea’ Simmons. In 2006, Madea, who is played by Perry, would get to headline her own movie in “Madea’s Family Reunion.” This film was a hit at the box office and finally, after years of work, would bring Perry’s unique blend of humor and values to the whole country. The film, and especially the character, became so popular in the United States that the pressure was on for Perry to quickly complete another movie in what would become a franchise.
Although Madea was in “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” a short while later, fans wanted Madea to be the focus of another film. Perry released “Madea’s Class Reunion,” (live performance released on DVD) where the madcap woman attends her 50-year high school reunion and doles out her trademark tough love advice. In this case, she helps a couple deal with infidelity, gives a young mother the courage to leave her abusive husband, and helps a friend deal with the grief of his wife’s passing.
Capitalizing on the popularity of Madea, Perry signed several deals in both television and film that would allow him to hone his directing, acting, and producing skills. He inked a deal with cable station TBS to air his television show, “House of Payne,” which had an innovative clause in it. After an initial run, if the show met certain ratings criteria, it would be picked up for at least a hundred more episodes, which was unheard of at the time. It did meet the target ratings threshold, invoking the hundred-episode clause. This deal served as the architecture for a future deal that Charlie Sheen would use to get a similar clause put into his contract with the FX network for “Anger Management.”
Though Perry served as executive producer of “House of Payne,” he still managed to write, direct, and act in several more films featuring Madea. They include “Meet the Browns” (2008), “Madea Goes to Jail” (2009), “Madea’s Big Happy Family” (2011), “A Madea Christmas” (2011), and “Madea’s Witness Protection” (2012).
The year 2012 also marked a big step for Perry, since he took on his first non-Madea role in years. He signed on to play the lead role of Detroit detective Alex Cross in “Alex Cross,” based on the wildly popular novels by James Patterson. The film is a prequel to the previous films featuring the expert criminal profiler, previously played by Morgan Freeman. It introduced audiences to a new side of Perry’s acting ability, since the film is a dramatic thriller. Whether this means that Perry will continue to take on more drama roles or return to his comedy roots remains to be seen. After seeing examples of both roles, audiences will probably root for him to do a little of both.