NEW YORK — When Tyler Perry began creating shows for the then-struggling OWN Network four years ago, he’d send the scripts he’d written to Oprah Winfrey for approval — and she’d wince.
“I would say, ‘I think that’s too much! It’s over the top! Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening!’ ” Winfrey recounts about Perry’s first OWN show, “The Haves and Have Nots,” a prime-time drama fueled by conniving people, sex and blackmail, now in its fourth season.
Most might have acquiesced to Winfrey. Not Perry.
“He would say to me, ‘I know this audience better than you do, I know what the audience wants,’ ” she said. “And he’d say, ‘I’m telling you it’s gonna work.’ And every time he’s been right.”
Knowing the audience and what they want has been the key to Perry’s success, going back to when he was putting on plays in the chitlin circuit with a loudmouth, irascible gun-toting character who would become known as Madea. Perry describes his fans as the people working in service jobs, the women in the church pews, the family that has a crazy relative like Madea and can laugh about it.
And like Perry, who was abandoned by his father, grew up in poverty and survived sexual abuse, the audience is familiar with struggle.
“He’s creating an empire based on what he knows, based on what he likes, and he’s doing it himself, and he’s coming from a very challenging background,” said Viola Davis, who starred in “Madea Goes to Jail.” “But I think he has a vision that is much larger. And the thing I love about him, too, is that he’s targeting an audience that is underserved.”
It’s those people who have helped his 15 self-produced films gross more than $740 million at the box office worldwide. He’s built his own Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta and has four shows on OWN: dramas “The Have and Have Nots” and “If Loving You Is Wrong,” and the comedies “Love Thy Neighbor” and “For Better or Worse,” which started a new season this month.
“You get some laughter, you get some education, you get some therapy and you get some joy and some happiness, and at the end of it, you realize you’ve learned something,” Perry said.
OWN was floundering when he first came to Winfrey and proposed producing shows for the network (he also writes, casts and directs all of them). “The Have and the Have Nots” delivered record-setting ratings for OWN, with last season’s finale scoring more than 3.7 million viewers.
He had never written a TV drama before “The Have and Have Nots,” and there was a steep learning curve.
“I needed an opportunity to learn. This is what I love about my audience, they always give me the grace to learn,” he said.
He also points to his growth as an actor: Once confining himself to the Madea character because he didn’t think he had the skills to do more, he shed the costume in his own films and in others; his portrayal of the slick lawyer in “Gone Girl” drew high praise, and he’s due to appear in the adaptation of the best-selling novel “Brain on Fire” this year, along with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2.”
Of course, to his many critics, he hasn’t gotten it right a lot. His slapstick comedies have been lambasted as too basic, his dramas too melodramatic, his messaging too preachy, his writing too simplistic.
But Perry, 47, pushes back against those who look down on his work, like Madea, who will return this fall in “Boo! A Madea Halloween.”
“I’m not trying to write ‘Revenant.’ I’m not trying to do ‘Gone Girl,’ ” he says. “None of those things interest me. As an artist, this is what I like to paint. If you don’t like my paintings, then they’re not for you.”
Winfrey likened Perry’s appeal to a church revival: “That’s exactly what’s happening when you go to those plays. It’s like sitting in church. ... How dare anyone say to the people who respond to that art and say that’s not art?”
Perry remains unfazed. He’s just onto the next project. That includes his Atlanta production studio, which he’s continuing to expand.
He’s also been tapped by TLC to write, produce and direct a political drama, “Too Close to Home,” which will be its first scripted series. And his live television adaptation of the story of Jesus of Nazareth’s final days, “The Passion,” recently aired on Fox to mixed reviews and success.
“Somehow I’ve been given a seat at the table, and with that seat at the table comes tremendous responsibility to make sure that what I’m doing, I’m doing to the best of my ability,” he said later. “And it’s not for everyone, but the whole purpose is to make sure I continue the path I am on.”