RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Until it was flattened by the latest Ice Age movie, Madea's Family Reunion had the biggest opening weekend of the year. It's the second hit for writer, director, and star Tyler Perry, who is transforming himself into an entertainment empire. NPR's Kim Masters reports.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

Like all of Perry's films and plays, Madea's Family Reunion includes gospel and old-fashioned virtue. And then there's the star of the show: Mabel, also known as Madea, played by the towering Perry in a fat-suit and wig. In her latest vehicle, Madea becomes a reluctant foster mother.

Mr. TYLER PERRY: (As Madea) I'm past 60, honey. You know what that means? After that time, you ain't supposed to be bothered with no bad kids...

Unidentified Man: (In soundbite from play) Calm down. Would you calm down?

Mr. PERRY: (As Madea) ...I'm sorry, I will kill that little girl. I don't know her. I know, she might be want of those Sandinistas, or somethin', she might be one of them Ethiopian people, she trying to get...

Ms. KEKE PALMER: (As Nikki) So! You ugly anyway, old lady.

Mr. PERRY: (As Madea) She tryin' to get me the electric chair already.

MASTERS: Madea also appeared in last year's hit, Diary of a Mad Black Woman. And despite Perry's Christian themes, conventional piety is not her strong suit. That's especially clear in the earlier stage version of Madea's Family Reunion.

Unidentified Speaker #1: Ah, man, but when you gonna come and join my church?

Mr. PERRY: (As Madea) As soon as you get a smoking section.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MASTERS: Madea is not just a smoker, she packs a gun in her purse. In the stage version of Madea's Family Reunion, she uses it to quiet the neighbor's barking dog.

Mr. PERRY: (As Madea) Get out of my yard!

Unidentified Man: (In soundbite from play) Mabel, you better stop shootin' at my dog, (unintelligible)...

Mr. PERRY: (As Madea) You better get the hell out of my yard, monkey!

Unidentified Man: (In soundbite from play) You know what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: (In soundbite from play) I'm gonna call the police on you.

Mr. PERRY: (As Madea) Do I look I'm scared of the po-po? Call the po-po. I ain't scared of the po-po.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MASTERS: Perry acknowledges that he toned Madea down when he made the play into a film. A particular incident prompted him to lose the cigarette and the gun.

Mr. TYLER PERRY (Actor, Writer, Director, Producer): I had a little boy, a six-year-old boy walk up to me, and he pointed his fingers at me as if they were a gun and he said, rock-a-bye-baby, which is a line I did in one of the plays, and he starts shooting me. And I thought to myself, it's like, Tyler, everybody's paying attention, so you really need to take it--I think when you do better, you know better, so I took the responsibility to try and be more careful at what this character was doing.

MASTERS: Tampering with a star like Madea goes against Hollywood instinct. But, Perry is taking it a step further. Madea isn't even in his next film, Daddy's Little Girl. And Perry, who not only played Madea, but her brother and nephew in his first two films, won't appear either. Perry says he has other stories to tell, and he doesn't doubt that his fans will want to hear them, even without Madea.

Mr. PERRY: There's no fear or trepidation. You know, being a Christian and believing what I believe--I believe that God hasn't given us a spirit of fear--so when I feel it, I'll feel the fear and do it anyway. So, we'll have it be what it is.

MASTERS: Perry says past failure has given him courage. His first play, I Know I've Been Changed, was hardly an instant hit.

Mr. PERRY: From 1992 to '98, this show flopped miserably. I thought 1,200 would be in the audience, and only 30 showed up. It was a lesson in faith. It was a lesson about my strength. It was a lesson about tenacity, and once I learned all of those things, I realized that there can be no failures if you try and put everything into it.

MASTERS: At one point, Perry suffered three months of homelessness, but when his plays finally began to connect with audiences, he built a formidable following. He made a fortune selling his plays on DVD through mom and pop stores and the Internet. After his first appearance in Los Angeles four years ago, he came away with a deal to make a sitcom pilot for CBS. But Reuben Cannon, who later became Perry's producing partner, says Perry was not prepared to lose the total control that he exerted over his plays.

Mr. REUBEN CANNON (Producer, Casting Director): Now, on TV, being how collaborative it is with 18 people at the network, 18 people at the studio, you know, I mean, were there room for his vision and his voice?

MASTERS: Perry walked away. Instead, he wrote a film script based on one of his plays. He set that up at Fox, but once again, moved on when the studio tried to impose its will. He wound up with one of Hollywood's few remaining independent movie companies, Lions Gate Films. President of productions Michael Paseornek remembers getting a letter from an agent, highlighting Perry's success on DVD.

Mr. MICHAEL PASEORNEK (President of Productions, Lions Gate Films): And I thought, why have I never heard of a guy whose plays have made a gazillion dollars on DVD? We're used to the hype, and if we haven't heard of someone, we're always really suspicious.

MASTERS: Paseornek found that colleagues in the industry had never heard of Perry, either.

Mr. PASEORNEK: And I thought, either this agent was making this up, or perhaps there was a real secret that the rest of us in the entertainment industry didn't know. And it turned out there was a secret that the rest of us in the entertainment industry didn't know, because when I started asking my African-American friends and our African-American employees, they all knew who Tyler Perry was.

MASTERS: After Lions Gate executives saw Perry perform in a play in front of an audience, they decided the usual interference would not be useful. And despite a critical drubbing, Diary of a Mad Black Woman stunned the industry. It grabbed the number one spot on its opening weekend with a $22 million gross. A year later, Madea's Family Reunion managed the same feat with a $30 million opening.

At this point, Perry is on fire. He has a new book: Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life. Far riskier is his next project: a novel attempt to launch a sitcom. Rather than selling the idea to a network, Perry shot 10 episodes of a show called House of Pain, and he's giving those episodes free-of-charge to nine television stations, in the hope that the show will catch on.

Mr. MARC SCHACHER (Vice President, Programming and Development, Tribune Broadcasting): That has not happened in my memory.

MASTERS: Marc Schacher is vice president of programming and development for Tribune Broadcasting, which owns more than 20 television stations. Schacher says Perry's approach could make sense now that independent stations don't have a big supply of sitcoms coming into reruns from the networks.

Mr. SCHACHER: We're in a period of time where programming is harder to come by, and you have to be a little bolder in the paths you take to either create it or acquire it.

MASTERS: Perry is wagering his own money on House of Pain, though he says reports that he spent $500,000 on each episode are exaggerated. He wrote and directed the show, but fans won't find him on the screen. But, Perry says he's certain of success when the show begins to air in the next couple of months.

Perry also acknowledges that he's tired. Aside from the movies, the book and the television show, he's been performing on the road almost non-stop since 1998. In mid-May, he'll make his last stage appearance for a while.

Mr. PERRY: You don't get to this level of success without having some sort of scars, so I want to go nurse my wounds and see how bad the damage is, and, you know, repair the ship and get back in the water.

MASTERS: Perry's idea of a break may not seem especially restful. He says he'll do some writing, he'll keep tabs on his sitcom, and then there's his next movie, which is set to start shooting in June.

Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

MONTAGNE: For more Madea, scenes from both the movie and the play are at our website, NPR.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne.

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