Bigger Than Pee-wee

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Don't invite Paul Reubens over just to be nice. Because he will come. While he was shooting the movie Blow in Acapulco, a pack of drunken university students from Jersey swarmed the man who was once Pee-wee Herman and, in a spasm of exuberance, invited him to their hotel party. "It's like if I were loaded out of my mind on spring break and saw Captain Kangaroo," explains Reubens. That night he went to the kids' suite and stayed at the party for hours. Reubens has also taken up fans on offers to stop by when he's in their town. "I went to someone's house for dinner, and it turned out everybody already ate, and they just watched me eat. I've gone over to complete strangers' houses, and it's like tons of people come out in pickup trucks and say, 'I'm Donny's wife's boss's friend, and he told me you'd be here.' " Still, Reubens is not going to just sit at home. "I've sort of decided not to be so protective anymore," he says.

The '90s were the protected decade for Reubens. After pleading no contest to a 1991 charge of indecent exposure at a porn theater he dropped into while visiting his parents in Florida, Reubens went into hiding for a month at the New Jersey compound of billionaire Doris Duke, whom he got to know through her Hawaiian neighbor Jim Nabors, whom he met through Charo, who had appeared on his kids' show, Pee-wee's Playhouse. Being Pee-wee Herman is even weirder than you think.

As Paul Reubens, though, the guy is within driving distance of normal. He's not the greasy, bearded freak from the infamous mug shot or the manic wad of frustration that is Pee-wee but a mellow, slyly funny 48-year-old whose oddest obvious quirk is that he's trying-and succeeding-at coming off like a 30-year-old. He has shaggy, jet-black hair with bangs, wears a horseshoe-embroidered black Guyabara and jeans and has a freakishly creaseless complexion. And he has proved his ability to pull off non-Pee-wee characters over the past few years, culminating in a convincing gay '70s Los Angeles hair stylist cum drug dealer in Blow, the cocaine movie starring Johnny Depp that opens in Australia and New Zealand this month. "I have a four-year-old daughter, and I was introducing her to Pee-wee's Playhouse, and halfway through I was like, 'I wonder what that guy is doing?' " says director Ted Demme. "I called him, and I said, 'Man, if you could create a character that was a quarter as memorable as Pee-wee, it would be amazing to have you in the film.' "

That is just the kind of part Reubens was trying to land when he first moved to Los Angeles in the '70s. "At that time comedy was king, and no one was buying me as a dramatic actor," he says. So he joined the Groundlings, a Los Angeles improv group of which Phil Hartman and Cassandra (Elvira) Peterson were also members, and invented Pee-wee in 1978. He did the character until 1990, the year before his arrest, when-fortunately, as it turns out-he decided to take two years off from performing and-unfortunately-grew that scary goatee. He wound up getting himself a lot more than two years.

His decade of shame happened because unlike Hugh Grant, Robert Downey Jr. and Bill Clinton, who bounced back like flubber, Reubens chose not to go out on the contrite circuit-talk-show appearances and celebrity-magazine confession stories. And it was partly because parents use their TVs as baby sitters, and no mom wants her baby sitter breathing heavily in a sparsely filled theater.

But his long disappearance and gradual, Pee-wee-free return has made him more palatable, and Reubens is eager to regain his manic pace. Already he's appeared on an episode of Ally McBeal in which he tried to sue Sting for breaking up his marriage to Cheri Oteri, and guested on the Tonight Show. He's currently hosting the game show You Don't Know Jack for U.S. network abc. He talks about wanting to remake the Eddie Cantor movie Kid Millions and writing his autobiography. He's also still pushing the variety show-sitcom Meet the Muckles, which he wrote in the late '80s and spent three years trying to make. Reubens' perfectionism, which led to spiraling costs, helped see the project's demise. Getting caught at a Sarasota porno palace probably didn't help.

But just as important as his own continued comeback-which started with his joining the Murphy Brown cast in 1995-is the one he plans for Pee-wee, a character so popular that Reubens still has unopened mailbags of fan mail, some of it addressed simply pee-wee, hollywood, making him the only man with a functioning address shorter than Santa Claus'. He had publicly become Pee-wee exclusively, showing up in character even for print interviews, and having Pee-wee, not Reubens, as the name on his star on the Walk of Fame that was jackhammered up after the scandal. "This was my own private joke on conceptual art because I tried to make Pee-wee Herman totally real. It worked really good but totally backfired when I got arrested," he says.

Even though the gig is up, Reubens is eager to do Pee-wee again. He's co-writing the second of two Pee-wee movies he hopes to shop to studios soon; this one starts in the Playhouse before the story moves, Wizard of Oz-style, to somewhere even more messed up. The other one, The Pee-wee Herman Story, is what Reubens is calling "the adult Pee-wee movie" and has the tight-suited one making it as a pop singer, moving to Hollywood, becoming insanely famous and turning into a monster. "Pee-wee Herman winds up getting hooked on pills and booze. I'm not shooting up, but I wouldn't want young kids to see it," he says.

If it were up to him, though, Reubens says, he would rather hide behind that character. "The thing that's always said about me is that I'm really low-key and soft-spoken, so I'm always wondering if I'm talking too loud. It's weirder being myself," he says. So Reubens is still very veiled, nervously cutting himself off every time he is about to reveal something, like saying he has evidence that he wasn't as excited by Nurse Nancy as the Florida police accused him of being. "You're going to make me come off like an idiot," he frets several times. And there is no way he is showing off his house.

Reubens is said to have a house in the Hollywood Hills that makes the cartoony Gary Panter set from Pee-wee's Playhouse look like Martha Stewart's place. It's supposed to be jammed with toys and kitschy knickknacks and surrounded by a cactus garden he planted himself. "It's sad-scary. Even telling you this, you're thinking,

'Funny and colorful.' No. It's scary," he says. He's going to take it apart, get rid of all the junk, de-Pee-wee it, maybe make it a place for an adult. Then again, with all his other projects, he might not get around to it.