Tyler Perry: An Introduction

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It takes a big man to step into Morgan Freeman’s shoes. Luckily, Tyler Perry is 6’5” and not afraid to take on the role of detective Alex Cross, previously taken by Freeman in Kiss The Girls and Along Came A Spider. As he gears up for the simply-titled Alex Cross (out November 30), here’s what you need to know about the phenomenal rise of Tyler Perry…

Born in New Orleans in 1969, Tyler Perry made his start as a playwright after seeing an episode of Oprah that advocated the therapeutic value of writing about one’s experiences. Given that his father had been an abusive alcoholic, Perry decided that this might be a good way to process his difficult childhood. His first effort, I Know I’ve Been Changed, initially flopped in 1991, but he refined and re-wrote it and in 1998 it became a runaway success, performed in a converted church. Between 1998 and 2005, Perry played about 300 shows a year and built a huge and loyal audience around the US.

By 2004/2005, Perry wanted to make the move into cinema, hopefully bringing his theatre audience with him, and brought the script for Diary Of A Mad Black Woman to Hollywood – which promptly shut its door in his face. But wait! Comedian D.L. Hughley told Lionsgate president Mike Paseornek about Perry’s huge following in theatre, and Lionsgate signed a deal to distribute his film (Perry continues to own 100 per cent of his own work). Perry didn’t direct that first film, but by its follow-up, Madea’s Family Reunion, he occupied the director’s chair as well. Since then, he’s made 12 films with another due later this year (Madea’s Witness Protection).

Perry’s the hardest working man in show-business, making even Blighty’s multi-hyphenated Noel Clarke look like a layabout. Twelve films in seven years is impressive, but what’s also impressive is that Perry launched three sitcoms in that time, directing the first 100 episodes of House Of Payne and many of the other two, Meet The Browns and For Better Or Worse, and has continued to keep the theatre work coming where possible. His influence is such that he was able to help Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire find an audience by lending his weight as producer, along with his now-very-good-friend Oprah Winfrey. His own movies have grossed around half a billion dollars in the US, although they’ve barely been released outside it. Oh, and as of May 2010 / 2011, he’s the highest-paid man in entertainment, earning $130m. Suck on it, Depp!

Many of Perry’s films, albeit not all, feature comedy of the broadest sort, and much of that is provided by Madea. Played by Perry himself in drag, she is a straight-talking, church-going, grandmother who generally appears to provide comic relief and get characters moving in the right direction. That is not to say she’s a saint: according to the various plays, films and books she’s appeared in, she has a lengthy criminal record and previously supported her growing children as, variously, a stripper, poledancer, and professional wrestler. Madea has so far appeared in six of Perry’s films, with another to come next year, but is rarely the leading character. What we’re saying is, if you want to dabble in his work but avoid this character, it’s possible.

Keen eyes, young cadet! That was indeed Perry playing Admiral Richard Barnett in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, the man charged with maintaining Starfleet Academy discipline and, in particular, investigating the young Captain Kirk for cheating. How did it come about? Well, apparently Abrams is a fan and called Perry to see if he fancied a quick turn. “Looking at [Abrams] and talking to him,” said Perry, “he is the Jewish version of me. He works on television and works on films. He does not stop. He writes as well. I was watching him work and rework the scene, and there’s something about my story that is so similar to him in what I’m doing. I think it intrigued him as much as it intrigued me.” Will Perry be back for the sequel? Last we heard, no, but given Abrams' penchant for secrecy, you never know.

Perry is branching out with Alex Cross, his first starring role that is not in something he also wrote or directed. He plays the titular detective, previously played by Morgan Freeman in Kiss The Girls and Along Came A Spider, as he investigates the murder of a family member (his niece, in the book I, Alex Cross on which this one is based). Rob Cohen’s directing; Ed Burns is the partner who’s along for the ride; Matthew Fox is the nutso-looking cage fighter who he’s up against. The pictures so far look promising – check out the new issue of Empire for another look – and Perry promises us something different from his usual oeuvre. So those of you hoping for a scene where Cross dresses in drag as an old lady to uncover the baddie are out of luck. Alex Cross arrives on November 30, so brace yourself for the UK’s first real taste of Tyler Perry, big star.