Diary of a mad businessman (cont.)

By Nadira A. Hira, Fortune writer-reporter

Humble beginnings

Perry grew up poor, the son of a carpenter who - as Perry puts it - "worked all his life, paying $116 a month for 30 years for this little house down in New Orleans." Seeing his father pay a mortgage on the cramped space he shared with his wife and four children - while others sold the houses he'd built them for far more than they'd paid him - young Perry decided that he wanted to be "the guy who owned the house." He developed an interest in architecture. (At age 12, comfortable with wood and already meticulous, he would draw additions for his father's clients, earning $30 or $40 a design.)

But there were challenges. Perry says he was physically abused by his father (they have since reconciled) and molested by a neighbor. And he lacked support: "Where I come from, you can have your dream, but keep it private. Don't share it with anybody, because they'll try to take it from you and snuff it out. That was the mentality of a lot of people I grew up around." Suffering depression, he attempted suicide twice.

Things changed when, at 21, he took his first road trip to Atlanta. "I thought I'd gotten to the Promised Land," he says. "I'd never seen black people doing so well. I'd always thought - because I tried to speak well and represent myself well, and that didn't go over too well with the fellas in the 'hood - that I was crazy. But when I got here and saw other people doing the same thing, I said, 'I'm home!'" He went back to New Orleans, packed his bags, and moved to Atlanta in 1990.

It was at the same time that he saw an episode of "Oprah" in which she said it was cathartic to write things down, so he began to chronicle stories from his life. In 1992, with the encouragement of friends and $12,000 in savings, those writings became his first stage play, "I Know I've Been Changed." Only 30 people attended the whole opening weekend. Perry was devastated - and broke.

So began a six-year stretch in which he went from job to job - as a bill collector and used-car salesman, among others - saving just enough to stage a play a year, only to see them all fail. At one point, evicted from his apartment and selling furniture to live, he spent more than a few nights in his Geo Metro convertible.

By 1998 he was ready to quit. He decided to stage one last show at Atlanta's House of Blues. This time he picked the most popular people from the city's most popular churches - choir members and pastors - and put them in the show. On a freezing opening night, with no heat at the venue and a nagging worry that he'd wasted his life, Perry looked out the window and saw a line reaching around the corner. He sold out eight nights at the House of Blues, followed by two more at the 4,500-seat Fox Theatre. He had found his audience.

Perry quickly became a force in urban theater, the circuit of venues that showed the raucous, faith-based, gospel-tinged plays. Artists like Duke Ellington, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix all found early homes on this circuit, and the form continues to flourish.

But these shows can lack the production values - and dramatic quality - of Broadway. The singing, not the acting, is often the focus. The story lines feature characters some critics find stereotypical - from the antebellum mammy to the modern deadbeat dad - and read more like morality tales than literature. More than anything, they show religious, working-class black people struggling with affliction - drug addiction, abandonment, poverty - and finding a way to laugh through it.

Perry delivered the same message, but with polished, scripted, ambitiously produced plays at major venues. Fans couldn't get enough. Soon Perry was doing 200 to 300 shows a year and playing to 30,000 people every week. He wasn't just producing the shows; he was writing, directing, starring, composing, doing everything from makeup to set design, and learning how to make it happen on a tight budget.

Hundreds of thousands of fans joined his e-mail list. They visited his Web site to buy DVDs and Perry paraphernalia, from soundtracks to keychains. And they loved him because he was like them, telling their stories of urban struggle with the same mix of humor and gravitas that they felt.

"And here we are $150 million later," he says, "from playing that little 200-seater to arenas 12,000, 20,000 strong. It's amazing."

Basking in success

Walking through his newly opened Tyler Perry Studios (TPS), the boss is still obsessed with the details. The 75,000-square-foot studio - which he drafted himself - features three sound stages, a 300-seat theater, editing facilities, prop and wardrobe departments and a gym.

A 15-minute tour of the building, which is still a work in progress, demonstrates that Perry's versatility extends beyond the stage. In a continuous and exhausting exchange with his contractor, he points out gaps in a door frame, orders extra wattage, adjusts the height of a garage door, realizes no bathroom was designed in a new section (and creates one), and fires - in absentia - the subcontractors doing the studio's floors and exterior doors. Problems solved.

TPS is the physical manifestation of Perry's multitasking, perfectionist mind. Perry and his producing partner, longtime Hollywood casting director Reuben Cannon, have their filming schedule mapped out through 2009. It includes three more films: "A Jazz Man's Blues," a period piece about the relationship between a jazz singer and a Holocaust survivor, in 2007; "Why Did I Get Married?" in 2008; and "Madea Goes to Jail" in 2009.

Perry is shooting a ten-episode television test of "Meet the Browns," another sit-dramedy based on one of his hit plays. That will be followed by a similar test for a series based on "Why Did I Get Married?" And all the while, Perry will be filming the 100 episodes of "Payne," which begins airing on TBS in June and on broadcast stations 15 months later.

If Perry's work continues to perform at this level, Tyler Perry Studios could well have done $1 billion in business by the end of 2009, making it a major independent studio. It's staggering, especially since just a few years ago, most people had never heard of Perry. But it's precisely because he is an outsider that he's been able to ignore so many industry standards, usually to his advantage.

"When you're on Tyler Perry time, you've got to get it right, whatever it takes, because he expects his vision to be implemented efficiently and instantaneously," says Roger Bobb, Perry's supervising producer, who, after filming the entire "Payne" test in 17 days, was surprised to find most sitcoms shoot one episode in an entire week. Evidently an episode a week doesn't work on Tyler Perry time. And neither does leaving your sitcom to the mercy of a network. Or waiting around for a studio to finance your film. (He put up cash to start filming "Diary" before there was even a studio attached.)

"Tyler Perry is a tornado," says Bobb, "but he's also like your brother, and you want him to succeed, so you just don't think about how impossible it all is. Because if you did, you'd have to stop."