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With a scene-stealing role in Blow, and as the host of You Don't Know Jack, Paul Reubens is on the rise again—and he's bringing Pee-wee with him

By Jancee Dunnn
Photographs by Chris Buck

Issue No. 289 April 5–12, 2001

Paul Reubens has visited New York City some 20 times, but he's never been to the top of the Empire State Building. gDo you believe?h he says, enthused. gI brought my new camera for snapshots.h Unfortunately, as we land on the 80th floor, we realize we forgot to buy tickets to the next level. A security guy hustles over. No problem. He can usher us through, he says, looking right and left. gI take tips,h he advises. Then his eyes settle on Reubens. He scans the face, puzzled. gI know you,h the guard says.

gI was wondering if you did that because you recognized me, or if you were just being nice,h Reubens says, smiling slyly. Suddenly, it hits. Pee-wee Herman! gI used to watch you when I was this small!h the guard crows. Reubens is suddenly surrounded by beaming men from various West Indian nations. gI see all your movies!h says another guard, holding a Post-it note for the actor to sign. gYou lost your bike!" The actor happily grants autographs.

For Reubens, being doted on as if he's Pee-wee is a familiar scenario—outside of his old persona, he is a virtual unknown. Sure, he's done films without the Pee-wee suit in recent years—Mystery Men, Dunston Checks In—but nobody waxes nostalgic about those. It's in his latest movie, Blow, that the world will finally see his versatility as an actor. It's the true tale of George Jung (Johnny Depp), a blue-collar shlump who became the sole U.S. conduit for the Colombian coke cartels of the '70s and '80s. As flashy hairdresser Derek Foreal, who helped Jung get his start as a pot dealer and later acted as his coke distributor, Reubens nimbly steals every scene he's in. How? By embodying a character with a flamboyant, larger-than-life persona—not to mention a heaping helping of sleaze.

Since the real Derek Foreal is in hiding, Reubens had to come up with this guy from scratch. gHe was probably based on a couple of people I know,h he says. Then he leans over the skyscraper's railing, fumbling for his camera. gThere's the Chrysler Building!h he gushes. gIt looks just like the fake one at Disney World!h

Reubens, 48, is just the kind of person you hope he would be: kind, empathetic, clever. He's wearing a green shirt, regular-guy shoes, jeans. gI'm pretty cheap,h he says. gI have, like, five pairs of pants.h Then he passes the gift stands. gI forgot about souvenirs,h he says, eyeing the shelves greedily. This man loves his tchotchkes—his Los Angeles home is stuffed with them.gAnd
I have multiple storage spaces,h he says, picking up an Empire State Building statue. After deliberating, he reaches for his wallet. gI'm going to give it to my daughter,h he says. Huh?!? Daughter? What thec? gI'm just kidding,h he says. gI don't have a daughter. I wanted to see what you'd say.h

You hear a lot of just kiddings when you're with Reubens. But one thing that's clearly no joke—as he adds the figurine to a mountain of gifts for friends—is that he's a pretty generous guy. gPaul is the most considerate human being I've ever met,h says Blow director Ted Demme. gHe says hi to everyone and remembers their names. He knows everyone's birthday. He loves making people happy; and that makes sense, because that's what Pee-wee was.h

Reubens grew up in Peekskill, New York, the son of Milton, a car-dealership owner, and Judy, an elementary-school teacher. They were loving parents, who encouraged their son's creative side. gAt one point,h he recalls, gmy dad said, eI'm going to build you and your sister something in the basement. What would you each like?' I said, eI'll take a stage.'h

He created the gleefully manic Pee-wee after joining a Los Angeles improv group, the Groundlings, in 1978. Over the years, the little guy in the glen-plaid suit steadily gained a following. Then came the movie: An instant classic, 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure grossed $45 million—sizable booty back in the day. The following year, his Saturday-morning kid's show debuted. The brilliantly oddball Pee-wee's Playhouse, loved by hungover college students everywhere, won 22 Emmys—three of them for Reubens himself—during its four-year run. But eventually, he got burned out from the show's grueling schedule. He took a sabbatical.

We all know what happened next. In 1991, while visiting his folks in Florida, Reubens was arrested in a porn theater. He pleaded no contest to an indecent-exposure charge (though he's always maintained his innocence). Pee-wee's Playhouse was swiftly canceled. Mortified, he retreated from public life and watched the character he'd built for so many years become a national joke.

For several years, he stayed away from showbiz. gI don't know what I did,h he says. gI did some traveling.h He shrugs. gI recharged.h Slowly, warily, he made his return as Reubens the actor—playing Murphy Brown's officious secretary, landing a few film roles. When Mystery Men premiered, he gave his first interview not as Pee-wee. gI had this strange feeling when I was doing The Tonight Show [in 1999],h he recalls. gI'd made numerous appearances on talk shows, but I was doing my first one ever as myself. I was kind of like, Who am I?h

Soon, it seems, everyone will know the real Paul Reubens. After his attention-grabbing turn in Blow, he'll turn up in May on Ally McBeal, as the husband of a delusional woman convinced that Sting is in love with her. He'll also host You Don't Know Jack, a syndicated game show based on the popular CD-ROM, slated to begin airing on ABC this summer. gMy favorite thing is, I laugh at contestants when they're wrong,h he cackles. And it gets much, much better. Joy of joys, Reubens is hard at work on two new Pee-wee films. He recently finished writing the first, which he says is for a gmore adulth audience. The other, which he plans to begin filming by year's end, is for kids. In addition, he says, gI've been toying with doing a stage show and bringing it to New York.h Pee-wee lives!

Once running scared, Paul Reubens is now poised to make you laugh again. He's downright loose. gPeople say, eYo, Pee-wee, if you're ever in Philly, come over and my wife will cook you dinner; meet my kids.' I'm thinking, Yeah, right. But I've done a couple of things like that.h

After a pause, he says, gYou know what I think? I'm getting over myself. I'm starting to have somewhat of my own persona, beyond my arrest—which I prefer to be more a footnote than, like, a big central kind of thing.h He rolls his eyes. gI can't go through something like that and not be changed,h Reubens says. gBut now I sort of feel like life's too short. I don't care anymore.h He sighs. gIt's enormously freeing.h