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Vanity Fair
Return From Planet Pee-wee, continued

September, 1999
by Bruce Handy

The show wasn't much of a money-maker, however. With each episode costing $425,000 to $535,000, high for a prime-time sitcom, let alone the normally chintzy realm of Saturday morning, Reubens's production company was losing money on Pee-wee's Playhouse, with the idea that profits would come later with syndication sales, a common formula in television. On top of that, Reubens says he paid himself scale as a performer. He did do pretty well for himself through merchandising deals, though he limited his returns by insisting the Pee-wee products be well made. He also refused to endorse candy bars and other kinds of junk food, though a Ralston Purina Pee-wee Chow cereal nearly made it to supermarket shelves. "The commercial," Reubens recalls, "was going to be a 50s mom shaking the cereal in a bowl and then putting it on the floor--the kids were gonna come up on all floors and eat it like dogs. It tasted just like Trix, which was my favorite cereal when I was a kid, and it had more of everything good in it than any other cereal on the market at the time. No sugar, sweetened with fruit juice, had all kinds of extra vitamins. It was really good for you, and everything was going fine--until at the last minute they did a blind taste test and kids hated it." In another blow, Reubens was never able to interest manufacturers in bringing out a line of Miss Yvonne wigs for little girls.

Though never much of a premiere-goer or one to vacation in Aspen or the Hamptons, Reubens did enjoy the celebrity perk of meeting other famous and successful people. He got to know the late Heiress Doris Duke and her adopted adult daughter, Chandi Heffner, whom he had met in Hawaii though Jim Nabors (whom he had met through Charo). Though some in Duke's circle looked down their noses at Reubens--"He was singing for his supper," says one--she enjoyed his company. There was a semi-notorious dinner party in 1989 at Shangri-la, Duke's faux-Persian Diamond Head estate, during which Reubens and Heffner exchanged vows in an improptu mock wedding ceremony. Nabors serenaded the couple, and, Reubens says, "I still have the temporary marriage license signed by Imelda Marcos" (whom Duke had recently bailed out of prison). I wonder: what do you talk about at a dinner party with Doris Duke, Jim Nabors, and Imelda Marcos? "Oh, they were talking about everything. They were talking about the F.B.I., they were talking about, you know, gold and prices. It just ran the gamut."

But four years after the premiere of Pee-wee's Playhouse, Reubens had burned out, exhausted by writing, producing, starring in, and, esentially, co-directing the series while also doing the same jobs on a second film, 1988's Big Top Pee-wee. After shooting a fifth season of Pee-wee's Playhouse back-to-back with its fourth, Reubens exercised a clause in his contract with CBS and closed up shop in the fall of 1990. In his words "an empty shell," he took a year off to travel and recharge his creative batteries.

He says he never found playing Pee-wee to be a particular burden, but others say he was suffocated by the character, unsure of what kind of career he could have as just Paul Reubens. He had hidden behind the character, seeing himself more as a conceptual artist than a comedian and hoping to endow Pee-wee with a celebrity and reality all his own. It was Pee-wee, for instance, who got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Reubens rarely gave interviews to the press, and when he did, it was almost always in character; he also tried to avoid being photographed out of character. As James Wolcott wrote in these pages in 1987: "Paul Reubens must be one of the few remaining preformance artists who still believe in secrets, distance, mystique....He's a contained dynamo; he isn't out to spill his inards." Indeed, for Reubens, one of the most painful aspects of his arrest--beyond the ones we'd all agree on--was the fact that it thrust him into the public eye on terms not his own.

Some months into his sabbatical, while visiting his parents in Sarasota, he was on his way to meet some friends for dinner the night of July 26, 1991, when he stopped off at the run-down, sparsely attended South Trail XXX adult-movie theater to take in a triple feature of Catalina Five-O: Tiger Shark, Nurse Nancy, and Turn Up the Heat. He thinks he "might have been there before," but says he wasn't a "serial pornography person." On the night in question, "I didn't give it any thought or place any importance on it. I didn't feel like, This is the wrong thing to do. I didn't feel like, Someone is going to photograph me coming out of here and kids are--" He drops the thought.

He had always taken the responsibility of being a children's performer seriously, even in terms of his private life (a heavy smoker, he had gone to great lengths never to be photographed with a cigarette in his mouth). But at the time of the arrest, he says, the show "was so over in my mind." Later in our interview he returns more adamantly to the same point: "In my mind, I wasn't sitting in the theater in my bow tie and suit." Says Gary Panter, his friend and colleague, "At some point you get tired. This is just me talking, but if you work so hard and accomplish so much, you might think, I deserve a break. You might think, I can be anonymous and go where everybody goes--or at least where a lot of people go."

Fours members of the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office were deployed that night in the theater in plain clothes. Reubens was arrested in the lobby as he was leaving the men's room. After he was processed at the Sheriff's Office, a high-school friend, who, as it happened, was then working as a deputy sheriff helped him to make the bail of $219. The arresting officers hadn't realized who he was (though Reubens reportedly identified himself as Pee-wee's creator and offered to put on a benefit for the Sheriff's Office in exchange for the charges' being dropped). A beat reporter for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune recognized his name on the police blotter, however, and two days later the story broke nationwide, Reubens's mug shot splashed across the nation's papers. The photo pains him to this day. "I was really angry," he says, "that I didn't smile in that picture. I mean, I still can't really look at that picture, because it's so real to me. It's so reflective of the moment it was taken, where I was just going, Oh my God! What is going to happen next?" With the long hair, the beard, and the desolate expression, the image was so un-Pee-wee-like, such a perfect visual counterpart to the surprise of Reubens's arrest, that it drove the story the way good visuals always go, whether a snapshot of Donna Rice on Gary Hart's lap or photos of Balkan atrocities.

That night, realizing what would soon be coming his way, Reubens fled. "I didn't know it would be as huge as it was," he says, "but I knew it would be a big deal." He remembers calling his parents from the local airport. "I was getting ready to leave and my mother was going, 'This is all going to blow over. Just come, you know, come on out to the house.' And I remember just saying, 'I don't think you have any idea what's about to happen.'"

He flew to Nashville, where his sister, an attorney, lived. From there he called Doris Duke and asked her permission to hide out on her estate in New Jersey. "The first day I woke up there, the staff had done what they do for any guest, which is put out all the daily publications." It happened to be the day his mug shot first graced the covers of the New York tabloids. OH, PEE-WEE! remarked the Post. CBS XXX-RATES PEE-WEE, noted the Daily News, reporting the networks intention to drop the last five weeks of scheduled Pee-wee's Playhouse reruns. . Disney World annouced it was pulling a film featuring Pee-wee at one of its attractions. The nation's newspapers, when not having fun with the story, ran articles quoting concerned child pschyiatrists on how to break the awful news to youngsters.

For Reubens, the perception that he was now a national bad influence, the Eddie Haskell of sex, was the scandal's most dismaying aspect. "That even one parent would say, 'Well, I'm not going to let my kid watch that show anymore,' that was really painful because I just took it so seriously, the show. I took my responsibility [to kids] really seriously." The notion that masturbating in a porno theater could become the signal event of his public life, the first thing you think about when you think about Pee-wee Herman--like "Albert Einstein: smart" or "Princess Diana: dead"--infuriated him. "I became one of People magazine's 25 Most Intriguiging People of 1991. And I thought, God, the amount of time and energy and work that I put into entertaining kids, fighting the good fight, and I've become an intriguiging person for this?"

Reubens passed a month or so at Duke's estate taking long walks through the pastoral grounds. He received a few friends, including Cyndi Lauper, and huddled with his lawyers. Some who saw him then remember him as still able around and enjoy a good time--and as irritating Duke's staff. As Reubens recalls those days, "I was a wreck. I was convinced people were listening on the phone, that I was getting photographed through the bushes." That first month, he says, was the hardest. "I was so in shock, and I didn't realize that's what was going on with me. About a month after [the arrest] somebody said, 'Well, you realize you're still in shock.' I went, 'Ohhhhhh. OK.' That made a lot of things that were happening at the time clearer to me." He adds, "I never contemplated anything like suicide. But I see how one could."

Back in Los Angeles, he was persuaded he should make some kin dof public showing. He chose the MTV Video Music Awards, on which he made an unannounced appearance as Pee-wee, famously asking, "Heard any good jokes lately?" Just puttin gon the old suit, he recalls, was a frightening experience, so spooked was he by circumstances. He was also persuaded to submit to a clever bit of flackery: "I was told, 'People have got to see you out somewhere enjoying your life because people are really worried about you.' This is such a stupid--well, it's a very Hollywood kind of story. Anyway, I was supposed to go to a restaurant, and the idea was that after the meal was over, when we were leaving the restaurant, someone was going to tip off the paparazzi that I was there." Thus the public would see a blithe and fun-loving Reubens even though, at the time, he says, he could barely leave his house. Still, he ended up in a restaurant on Beverly Boulevard, eating at a table next to a husband-and-wife team of bodyguards who had been sent along because of ugly threats he had been receiving. "I wasn't having a great time," Reubens notes. Eventually the restaurant emptied out. He was preparing to leave when suddenly the lights in front of the restaurant went out and the owner came up and told him, "I just wanted you to know there's a photographer outside, and so we turned everything off to make it seem like we're closed. You can go out the back way." Reubens couldn't let on that the whole thing was a setup, so he struck a mock-fatalistic pose and said, "I've got to deal with this at some point, and this seems like as good a time as any." With Sydney Carton-like brio, he exited out the front.

Reubens then entered a long, professionally dormant period. MTV made an offer to rerun Pee-wee's Playhouse--was there a rubbernecking impulse invovled?--but Reubens turned it down. "I didn't feel like it was the right time--certainly not right after," he says. "And there wasn't any real money in it. I had worked so hard, I didn't want to put it back on TV just for the sake of putting it on TV." He had a couple of cameos in the 1992 films Batman Returns (directed by his friend Tim Burton) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but his heart wasn't really in performing, a point he is eager to get across: "A perception about me that I feel is incorrect is that I couldn't work after that. I turned down an awful lot of work, a lot of offers. I just didn't want to work....I mean, I didn't feel that funny. But at least I kept my expenses down pretty low."

The Hollywood common wisdom is offered by someone who has collaborated with Reubens: "He didn't really help himself by not being proactive. There's no reason his career had to suffer. Even if he had to disappear for a year or two, he could have some back if it had been a big, well-orchestrated P.R. push." This person says there was a more insidious effect to Reubens's disappearance: "Because he withdrew, there was a strong sense that he was frozen out by show business--which only fueled itself because people then started other people were blacklisting him. No one ever believes withdrawal is voluntary." Which is one reason why someone like Hugh Grant goes on The Tonight Show and jokes about paying for fellatio.

Reubens, meanwhile, continued to take the odd film role, mostly in unsuccessful projects, including two comedies, Dunston Checks In and Buddy, about an orangutan and a gorilla, respectively. In 1995 he began a recurring part on the television series Murphy Brown as the sniveling nephew of the show's fictional network's owner. It was about that time, he says, that he gradually got his appetite for work back. His first big project was a pilot for NBC entitled Meet the Muckles about a zany family of performers, loosely modeled on the Vanderhofs from George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's You Can't Take It With You, who have their own network variety show; Reubens was to play the patriarch and host of the show within the show. Unfortunately, development would span three years and two production companies as Reubens's ideas grew increasingly elaborate and expensive (complicated production numbers, a main set that would have had an ornate Victorian house perched upon the NBC studios). Some wondered whether Reubens wasn't just dragging his feet. He himself admits he was unsure he really wanted to return to the grind of making a weekly TV show.

There are differing opinions about how welcoming the Hollywood establishment has been to Reubens. Richard Cohen, the head of MCA/UA Home Video, the company that brought out Pee-wee's Playhouse on tape in 1996, says the arrest was never a factor in the company's decision. "From a business point of view," he says, "our sense was that there was no real risk on a comsumer level." Massive marker research reportedly bore this out, though Cohen denies the company even had to plumb the issue. Sales have "exceeded expectations."

NBC ultimately passed on Meet the Muckles--which Reubens is now working on adapting into a film--in part because of the expense involved, in part because the long development process sapped eveyone's initial enthusiasm for it, and in part, Reubens says, because he turned in the final script just as Warren Littlefield, the chief of programming at NBC, was being replaced. (Littlefield was a prominent character in the script--it opens with Reubens's character saving him from drowning--which probably didn't endear the pilot to the network's new management team.) Reubens is adamant that his arrest had nothing to do with the rejection. "Corporate America," he says, "is out to test the waters before they would even make an offer" to commission a pilot script.

But one of his collaborators on Meet the Muckles, Phil Rosenthal (currently the executive producer of Everybody Loves Raymond, which he helped create), says of the project, "You read the piece and it's so funny, what else could [the rejection] be? Is it just the expense? I don't think so. They do expensive shows all the time. You'd hear, 'Well, so-and-so doesn't want him on the network.' But it's always very vague. It was like the blacklist--but no one would say who the blacklist was coming from."

Kinka Usher, the director of Mystery Men, says it was a "tough peel" getting Universal Pictures to sign Reubens for that film. "They're a corporation," Usher says. "They have their image thing. But Casey Silver [who was then the C.E.O. of Universal Pictures] ultimately acquiesed because I was so adamant. I was the kicking and screaming baby saying, 'I have to have him, I have to have him.'" Universal vigorously denies this account--"The studio thought [Reubens] was inspired casting from the start," says a spokesman--and another source says any resistance to Reubens would have been due to his perceived bankability or lack thereof.

In any event, Usher was grateful to have Reubens. He credits him with stealing a number of scenes, and with being the funniest person off-camera among a cast of comedic heavyweights. On-screen, it's clear he was enjoying himself, playing the film's most outre' character--and staging some of the most elaborate fart jokes in movie history--with an obvioud gusto. The Italian actress Valeria Golino, who played Reubens's love interest in Big Top Pee-wee, and who has remained a friend, visited him on the set. As she recalls, "He was in the best mood I've seen him in in a long time."

"He came out of it," says Lynne Stewart. "He is the man now that he was before the arrest. His sense of joy, his sense of fun are intact."

With Pee-wee's Playhouse back in circulation, Reubens is now known not only by twentysomething clerks at the Gap--he does a canny imitation of a stoned salesboy asking after Chairry--but also by a new generation of children who now recognize him in public. "My favorite line with kids is 'So, are you married?' And little kids always look at me like 'Are you crazy? What the hell's the matter with you?' Or if there's two of them, I'll go, 'Is that your wife?' And they're like 'What?' I don't know . . . I'm turning into my dad."

As to the future, Reubens has just finished shooting South of Heaven, West of Hell, a Western written and directed by Dwight Yokum, in which Reubens plays a rapist and cold-blooded killer--which will certainly be a departure for him (and doesn't entirely square with his worries about violence in popular culture). He also has a number of starring vehicles for himself in development, including a new Pee-wee movie that he has set up with Disney. The Pee-wee Herman Story will be a film about fame, though Reubens had begun thinking about it long before his arrest, he will, he says, use it as a opportunity to comment on his adventures with the law and media, at least obliquely. It will be a comedy, he insists.

Images coming soon.