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Tyler Perry's Amazing Journey to the Top

His Childhood Abuse 04:38

What filmmaker has had five movies open number one at the box office in the last four years? Spielberg, Tarantino, Scorsese? No. This record belongs to Tyler Perry, one of the biggest names in the movie business. Yet most Americans have never heard of him.

His eight films have grossed more than $418 million, one of the highest average grosses per film in the industry. And they're just part of Perry's multi-million-dollar entertainment empire.

What has made Perry guaranteed box office gold is his devoted audience: largely African-American, church-going, working class and female.

Long ignored by Hollywood, they come to see something they can't get anywhere else: inspirational stories about people like themselves, and to laugh at characters like his "Madea," the wise-cracking grandmother played by Perry himself.

"Madea is a cross between my mother and my aunt. She's the type of grandmother that was on every corner when I was growing up," Perry told correspondent Byron Pitts. "She smoked. She walked out of the house with her curlers and her muumuu and she watched everybody's kids. She didn't take no crap. She's a strong figure where I come from. In my part of the African-American community. And I say that because I'm sure that there are some other parts of the African-American community that may be looking at me now going, 'Who does he think he's speaking of?' But, for me, this woman was very, very visible."

That's what Perry's work is all about - reflecting a world his audience relates to. And they show up in droves.

"It's been written that Madea is one of the top ten grossing women actresses in the country," Pitts noted.

"They weren't serious when they wrote that. I mean, come on," Perry said, laughing. "Come on."

But he acknowledged that Madea has done very well; so have his other popular characters, like the flamboyant Leroy Brown.

But it's not just comedy. Perry's work is a gumbo of melodrama, social commentary and inspiration. It's a formula that intentionally targets women.

"You're always gonna see a person of faith. Nine times out of ten, it'll be a woman who has problems, who has lost faith or lost her way," Perry explained. "There's always gonna be a moment of redemption somewhere for someone."

And then there are the grittier, darker elements: the violence, especially directed at women and children, sex and child abuse, prostitution and drugs use. But there is always a fairy tale ending, a happy marriage, a reconciliation - often delivered with a dose of Gospel music.

Although Perry's themes are universal, he is not widely known outside of his niche audience.

"The average American has no idea who you are. How is that possible?" Pitts asked.

"I'll tell you how it's possible. There's this great thing called the 'Chitlin' Circuit,' which I started my shows on and back in the day when, you know, Ray Charles and Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington, they couldn't get into white establishments, so they went on this circuit and toured. They were huge stars in their own community, you know, and that's pretty much my same story. I was able to build and have this amazing career among my own people, but outside of that, you know, not a lotta people knew who I was," Perry explained.

"Tyler Perry, superstar of the Chitlin' Circuit?" Pitts asked.

"Yeah. Superstar of the Chitlin' Circuit, I'll take that," Perry replied, laughing.

You realize what a superstar he is and how strongly the audience connects to him when he appears on stage after a performance of one of his plays. Their overwhelming reaction gives you a sense of how passionate they are about him.

But he didn't always get this kind of reaction. He got his start in theater, writing, directing and producing plays.

His first production, a Gospel musical staged in Atlanta in 1992, bombed. But he kept writing and staging new plays, cultivating his audience. By the late 1990s, the plays were selling out across the country, making big money - more than $75 million.

Perry's goal was to turn those shows into movies. Hollywood's reaction: get lost.

"They didn't open the door. I had to cut a hole in the window to get in," Perry said. "You close the door on me and tell me I can't, I'm gonna find a way to get in."

He found his way in by setting up shop in Atlanta in 2004, where he made his first film, "Diary Of A Mad Black Woman," using his own money.

"He who has the gold makes the rules. If somebody else is gonna give you the money, then, they're gonna be in control. They're gonna own it, they're gonna tell you how it goes. They're gonna give you notes and give you changes. I wasn't willing to do that, so there was no other option for me," Perry told Pitts.

"Diary" debuted at number one in 2005, stunning Hollywood.

Perry has been surprising Hollywood ever since, doing it his way. He writes, directs, and produces his movies. And all eight of them have been major hits, including his latest, "I Can Do Bad All By Myself," which opened number one at the box office in September.

Tyler Perry Studios - 31 acres of movie and television production facilities - is one of the largest independently owned studios outside of Hollywood. It opened last October, financed by Perry himself, with the profits he has made from his productions.

It's Perry's multi-million-dollar "Magic Kingdom."

"This is the back lot, and I named it 34th Street, as in 'Miracle on 34th Street,'" Perry explained.

He makes all his films there, releasing two a year; he employs as many as 400 people. The studio lot has five sound stages, a gym, and even a chapel.

When he is not making movies, this relentless multi-tasker is running his two hit sitcoms on TBS, "House of Payne" and "Meet the Browns."

He has total creative control, and owns everything he makes.

Perry's huge success has brought him power and even comparisons to Oprah, his friend and mentor. They've teamed up to executive produce "Precious," a film about an urban teenage mother battling abuse and illiteracy which opens in November.

"Do not play him small because he is not just some lucky rich Negro-turned-black man," Winfrey said, laughing. "He is not. To be able to take what he saw as an opportunity to reach a group of people and to turn that into this multi-million, soon to be multi-billion dollar enterprise is what everybody else is trying to do."

Asked what connection she thinks Perry has with African-American women, Winfrey told Pitts, "Well, first of all, I think he grew up being raised by strong, black women. And so much of what he does is really in celebration of that. I think that's what Madea really is a compilation of all those strong black women that I know and maybe you do to? And so the reason it works is because people see themselves."

Perry says he's writing what he knows, writing where he comes from. He grew up working class in a tough New Orleans neighborhood.

"Man my heart is racing just being here, isn't that crazy?" Perry said, while visiting the old neighborhood with Pitts.

Asked why, Perry said, "I don't have good memories here at all."

But it's those memories, both good and bad, that have inspired much of his work.

Pitts and 60 Minutes met two neighbors who reminded us an awful lot of a certain grandmother: Madea.

"These are the kinda women I grew up with," Perry told Pitts.

"And Christian women, Christian women," one of the neighborhood women said.

"And Christian women with guns," Perry joked. "And the people wonder where Madea came from!"

They crossed the street to where Perry used to live. The pain of his past came back. "This is where I grew up. And I have not been in this house in years," Perry said.

In the house, Perry says his father Emmett repeatedly beat him and his mother Maxine. He describes one time when his father whipped him with a cord until the skin came off his back.

Perry says when his father wasn't beating him, he was belittling him.

He told Pitts his father used to warn his mother about him. "One day I would make her cry, 'cause she would try to protect me from him. 'What the f… are you protecting him for? What are you protecting him for?' Like, 'This boy is s…. He ain't gonna be s…. One day he gonna make you cry,'" Perry remembered.

He brought us out back, where he showed Pitts the cubby hole he would escape to from his father's abuse.

"This was my hideout, my safe place, you know," Perry said. "I'd spend all day in there."

"So, I had a door there so I could go in and close myself up, you know, to be okay for a minute. Yeah," he added.

"Your father, it sounds like, can still make you feel like that boy, that little boy. How was that possible?" Pitts asked.

"You'd have to walk that road and be that little boy," Perry said. "A lot of it I've put out of my mind because it was so horrific and so painful that had I not, that's where my imagination was born. When he was losing it and saying all those things, it would, I could absolutely be there in that room with him at the top of his lungs, and go somewhere else in my head."

His faith, and his mother, he says, saved him. "Sunday morning she'd take me to church. And this is the only time I saw her smile and happy, so I wanted to know the God, this Christ, that made my mother smile so much."

Perry says he has forgiven his father and come to terms with the abuse. "This is what happens. You let it destroy you or you take it and you use it. I chose to use it and I chose to put in my work and I choose to have it touch and make people understand it," he told Pitts.

Yet there are some who don't understand Perry's work and dismiss it, many of them African Americans. They find characters like Madea and Mr. Brown demeaning caricatures, racial stereotypes.

"Spike Lee has said, and I quote, 'I think there's a lot of stuff out today that is coonery and buffoonery. I see ads for Meet the Browns and House of Payne and I'm scratching my head. We've got a black president and we're going back. The image is troubling and it harkens back to Amos 'n' Andy. He's talking about you," Pitts noted.

"I would love to read that to my fan base," Perry said. "Let me tell you what Madea, Brown, all these characters are are bait. Disarming, charming, make-you-laugh bait, so I can slap Madea in something and talk about God, love, faith, forgiveness, family, any of those things, you know. So yes, I think, you know, that pisses me off. It really does."

"It's so insulting," Perry added. "It's attitudes like that that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist. And that's why there's no material speaking to them, speaking to us."

Produced by Ruth Streeter

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