Tyler Perry Holds on to His Past

Tyler Perry is standing in the middle of what was once a life on the brink.

It's a postage stamp of a room. A 200-square-foot studio apartment that's more heap than home: a broken television set; a stained mattress piled with broken end tables and torn couch cushions; an overflowing toilet caked with waste.

Others stayed here after Perry moved out years ago. "But this is pretty much how I was living," the director says, stepping over newspapers and a roach trap. "This was my place, and I was glad to have it."

The apartment building, which sits near downtown Atlanta off historic Peachtree Street, is to be torn down this month. But Perry, 38, wants a final look at the place he called home before he became the most influential black filmmaker in the business today.

Letting go, Perry is the first to concede, is not his strong suit.

"I never want to forget how close I came to losing everything," he says. "My bed was there. My stove was there — mainly Ramen noodles. That little corner there, that's where my computer sat. That's where I ran from my fears."

Those fears materialized in the form of journals and short plays, which Perry, on the advice of an episode of Oprah Winfrey, wrote to come to terms with a childhood of abuse and poverty in New Orleans.

Perry is still running, still remembering, still tapping out dread on a computer screen.

Now, though, he makes millions doing it. Even among Hollywood's elite, Perry has a track record worth envying. He has had four No. 1 films. He has sold more than 11 million DVDs of his films and videotaped stage plays. TBS airs his half-hour show "House of Payne" and has ordered up a new one, "Meet the Browns," based on his film characters. His movies cost about $10 million; they take in, on average, $47 million.

Audiences trust him

He has found success by catering to audiences Hollywood either doesn't get or doesn't care about: moviegoers of faith and color. Long before Mel Gibson introduced the mainstream to the clout of the devout with "Passion of the Christ," Perry was commuting church to church in a Geo Metro that briefly doubled as his home, hawking his one-man plays about faith and family.

"We trust him," says Tenisha Hart, 45, an Atlanta mother of two who has never missed a Perry film or play. "It's not about being black — though it's nice to see yourself in a Hollywood movie once in a while. I know I can take my kids. I know there will be a good message. Critics can say whatever they want; he's the only one making movies about people trying to live right."

But for all the success, some doubt remains in the back of Perry's mind. "I guess I'm still running," he says. "Maybe not as fast as I used to. But I still worry I won't be able to say all I have to say."

His latest movie comes to screens Friday saying something new for Perry. "The Family That Preys" examines the corrosive effects of wealth on friends and family — something Perry has learned as he has become a Hollywood force.

"Ever since I've been blessed with success, I've struggled a little with anonymity and even family," he says. "I've had people calling asking for money, and I have to ask them first, 'Are you working? Have you been trying to help yourself?' Then I feel like I can help. I don't want to be any different than I was when I first moved here."

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