In 2019, a photo of Tyler Perry popped up among images of famous Oscar winners holding their statues backstage at the Dolby Theatre. In the shot, Perry is dressed as his most famous character, Madea, wearing a sparkling evening gown and holding an armful of Oscar trophies.
“I’m going to leave it and see how long it takes for them to take it down,” he told Variety’s Jenelle Riley of the prank at the time.
But that prank photo can soon be replaced with a real portrait of Perry holding an Oscar.
Perry will receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award during the April 25 Oscars ceremony. In recent years, the prize, which honors an “individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry,” has been presented during the Academy’s Governors Awards ceremony. This year, the celebration returned to the main ceremony as was the custom before the Governors Awards began in 2009.
Contemporary honorees include legends Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Geena Davis and Harry Belafonte, while Hollywood icons Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope are among those who have received the award in the past. Perry’s “Those Who Wish Me Dead” co-star Angelina Jolie received the award in 2013 for her work with refugees and victims of sexual violence.
However, Perry, who has been at the forefront of the entertainment industry’s recovery amid the coronavirus pandemic, is just one of this year’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award recipients. The filmmaker and media mogul will be honored alongside the Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF), after the board of governors amended the rules to allow for two different parties to be recognized. For the first time in its history, the prize will also go to an organization.
“There has been such widespread generosity in our industry that limiting the Hersholt Humanitarian Award to one recipient, this year in particular, was impossible,” said David Rubin, Academy president, when announcing the honorees in January. The last time the Academy presented the special award to two parties was in 1993, when Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn (posthumously) were honored.
In a year marked by the turmoil and trauma resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, Perry and the MPTF were notable selections for their responses to the crisis.
Perry was one of the first major Hollywood players to tackle the pandemic head-on, developing Camp Quarantine, a multi-step plan to get production up and running. Perry resumed production in July, hosting about 360 cast and crew on the 330-acre campus at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta for the duration of each project.
In the year since Perry and his team announced their quarantine bubble model, the crew has produced multiple seasons of his BET series “Sistas” and “The Oval,” as well as BET Plus shows “Ruthless,” “Bruh” and the upcoming “All the Queen’s Men.”
On April 3, Perry partnered with Grady Hospital and covered the logistical costs of turning Tyler Perry Studios into a vaccination site. There, 250 crew members and their family and friends received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. The vaccination event marked the end of the quarantine bubble.
Over the past year, Perry has used his proficiency as a filmmaker to create widespread change in the community around him. With projects including BET’s “COVID-19 Vaccine and the Black Community,” Perry hopes to use his platform to create change. He was vaccinated on camera for that special, which included informative interviews with doctors to help destigmatize the vaccine.
The presence of Tyler Perry Studios also creates a physical space for community outreach. Last Thanksgiving, the studio team served more than 5,000 local families via a drive-thru food bank, providing grocery boxes and gift cards to those in need.
Honored as Variety’s Showman of the Year in 2020, Perry discussed plans to help create a better future for his local Atlanta community.
“I don’t know if people really realize how important it is for young Black and brown children to be able to see examples of what it means to be successful outside of what they see in the neighborhoods,” he said. “Growing up, for me the only people that were doing well were the pimps and the preacher. And now to be able to set an example for kids that there are other options outside of sports and what everybody tells you — ‘These are the only things you can do’ — [is important]. You can be CEO; you can run a studio; you can use everything you have to help someone else.”
Perry’s drive to give back stems from his journey from homeless playwright living out of his car, self-funding low-budget projects, to billionaire producer. Perry’s mother, Maxine (who died in 2009), encouraged Perry to nurture an entrepreneurial and philanthropic spirit. She advised him to “find a way” to be successful despite the hardships. She also urged him to forge a pathway
Perry also was directly involved in the 2020 presidential election, stumping for Biden-Harris and helping to fund a $500,000 voter registration program, which encouraged voter participation among Florida’s Black community.
Meanwhile, the Motion Picture & Television Fund has a specific tie to the award, which coincides with the 100th anniversary of the date the org was founded. Hersholt served as MPTF’s president for 18 years, from 1938 until his death in 1956. Bob Beitcher, MPTF president and CEO, celebrates Hersholt as “the visionary driving force” for the Motion Picture Relief Fund, as it was originally known.
“MPTF is so grateful to the Academy’s board of governors for recognizing us with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2021,” Beitcher told Variety. “For us, it closes the circle in our relationship with Hersholt.”
Hersholt led the organization “at a critical inflection point in its history,” Beitcher says. “As it shifted from simply being a relief organization [providing small grants of financial assistance to thousands of entertainment industry members] to a full-service safety net that included retirement living, a nursing home, healthcare centers and a hospital. The Motion Picture Home sprang to life in 1941 thanks to his purchase of John Show’s 45-acre ranch in Woodland Hills and we’ve never looked back.”
The Woodland Hills campus is now home to nearly 250 industry retirees. The facility was hit hard by COVID, with six residents dying. But MPTF fought back, investing in its infrastructure (at one point, spending $75,000 a month for PPE) to keep their residents and workers safe. By late December, COVID vaccinations began at the Woodland
But the MPTF’s COVID relief efforts extended far beyond the reach of the retirement community. In March 2020, the organization established an emergency relief fund to help entertainment industry workers suffering from financial hardships due to COVID shutdowns. The fund was established to provide temporary assistance with health insurance, rent, food and other essentials.
This year’s MPTF annual Night Before party will take place virtually on April 24, with funds raised for MPTF’s charitable programs and services. The Emmys edition of the bash, held virtually in December, raised $1.5 million.