Tyler Perry Holds on to His Past

He could only imagine his life now when he drove to Atlanta in 1992 in a Hyundai Excel that leaked so much transmission fluid into the passenger floorboard that he had to stop every two hours to siphon the fluid back into the engine.

He was fleeing New Orleans to escape a father he says routinely came home drunk and violent. The father, with whom Perry says he has reconciled, could not be reached for comment.

"You just never knew what hell you were going to get Friday or Saturday night," Perry says. "But no matter what, my mother got me up early Sunday morning. Nothing was going to stop us from going to church. That faith is was what kept us grounded."

But it didn't do much for Perry's early career. In 1998, he scraped together $12,000 to put on his first play, I Know I've Been Changed, about adults forgiving their abusers. He rented a 1,200-seat theater in downtown Atlanta, certain he'd end the night with $20,000 in his pocket.

Instead, 30 people showed up. Fewer the next night. Within the week, Perry was broke and living on the street.

He kept peddling the play through church appearances. He saved more money as a construction worker and a used-car salesman. He got what he considered the play's final shot at Atlanta's House of Blues.

What he hadn't done in all this, though, was practiced what his play preached. Before the House of Blues show, he called his father. They had the first of what became regular conversations. More important, Perry says, "I forgave him."

The House of Blues show sold out. "Maybe I visited the right churches," he says. "Maybe I finally got the word out. But until I die, I'll believe that when I finally forgave my father, the Lord blessed the play."

The show became a hit. Soon it was playing in Houston, Birmingham, Ala., even New York.

Now Perry had a name. Now he had some money. Now he could make a movie.

The first film he wrote, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," brought a few things to Perry's life. About $56 million in ticket sales. A green light for another movie. A condo in Los Angeles. He rarely visits the condo, though.

He can't make a studio pitch, he says, without some studio executive asking if he can drop at least some references to Jesus.

"These stars can make all the references in the world to Kabbalah or Scientology, and that's just fine," he says. "But mention Jesus Christ, and they don't want to deal with you."

He has stopped reading the entertainment sections of newspapers (and the largely critical reviews of his movies). He doesn't want daily updates on ticket sales. He gets riled when analysts and studio executives wonder how a movie geared toward churchgoers or minorities could make money.

"I'm not sure why no one wants to admit there's a viable audience out there that believes in God and wants to see a movie with their family. The demand is there. The supply is not."

So Perry does his part on the supply side. Most directors take two to three years on a film. Perry takes about eight months. "I'm not an artist," he says. "I set the camera up and tell my story."

And the first people who get to see those stories are his faithful.

No ordinary screening

An Atlanta screening of a Tyler Perry movie is a lot like a Hollywood premiere. Except people prefer seeing the movie to preening and can give the film the air of a church revival.

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