Grown-up playhouse

Times Staff Writer

THE line at the autograph table snaked out of the Burbank Marriott ballroom, the longest by far at the Hollywood Collectors & Celebrities Show.

They could have had Batman. They could have had the cast of “Married ... With Children.” But the cavalcade -- hundreds of fans wielding photos, magazines, DVDs, dolls, lunch boxes, photo collages, first-born children -- was there for only one man.

OK, two men.

OK, one man and one pre-adolescent pop culture icon.

OK, a man, an icon, an annoying Guardian Angel from “Reno: 911!,” a mentor muckraker from F/X, a dope-dealing hairdresser, a prince with a tiny prosthetic baby hand whose cameo on “30 Rock” has become a YouTube classic ...


In other words, they were there to see Paul Reubens, who used to be famous just for playing Pee-wee Herman but who has evolved from that juvenile character into a serious -- and seriously visible -- character actor.

“This is unbelievable,” marveled the mobbed Reubens, whose stint as the host of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” from 1986 through 1991 was, until recently, generally regarded as the high point of his career. Now 54, Reubens looks less like his old rosy-cheeked alter-ego than like Pee-wee’s well-mannered father: same haircut (sort of), same red bow tie (sort of), but with a thicker middle, a more soothing voice and a far more low-key demeanor.

Many of the fans were there out of nostalgia; Reubens says he has another Pee-wee movie in “pre-pre-pre-production,” and he gamely autographed “Your pal, Pee-wee Herman” in childish letters, over and over. But plenty also wanted to meet Paul Reubens, the actor. Which made sense, because in the last couple of years, the publicity-shy comedian -- whose trajectory dramatically stalled after his 1991 arrest and no-contest plea on charges of indecent exposure -- has been steadily attracting fresh regard.

NBC, for example, just signed him to star in “Area 57,” a buzzed-about sitcom about a passive-aggressive alien being watched over by a bunch of government employees. Bloggers and TV critics are still lavishing praise on his recent bit on “30 Rock” as an inbred European monarch with a “joint fluid” disease.

A guest appearance on “Reno: 911!” last year led to a role in this year’s movie, “Reno: 911! Miami.” Then there’s his recurring character as Courteney Cox’s old tabloid mentor on “Dirt,” the F/X drama. Entertainment Weekly recently put him on its Must List (he was No. 7 on a list of “10 Things We Love This Week”). And his friend David Arquette (whom he met while filming the 1992 film “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) has cast him in his new horror film, “The Tripper,” which is set for release next month.

“Every time people talk about the show, they bring up his performance,” said Matthew Carnahan, creator and executive producer of “Dirt.” “I feel like he’s on a second or third round now of his career.”

Reubens was not available for comment for this story, aside from his remarks between autograph signings last month at the Burbank convention. In perhaps the surest sign that his fortunes are turning, his publicists turned away a request for an interview, citing a desire to control his press at this juncture in his career.

But the people around Reubens had no problem talking about what they view as his long-overdue appreciation.

“I think people are figuring out that he’s not just Pee-wee Herman, that he’s also a great actor,” says celebrity coordinator Bobby Belenchia, who witnessed the fans in Burbank regaling Reubens not only with tales of what Pee-wee had meant to them but also with kudos for his more recent performances.

HOLLYWOOD loves comebacks, from Robert Evans to Jackie Earle Haley, but Reubens’ road back has been especially bumpy. Originally trained, he has said, as “a serious actor, in the James Dean kind of school,” he landed in Hollywood as part of a boy-girl act on “The Gong Show.” He graduated to the Los Angeles-based improv troupe the Groundlings, in which, among his many other characters, he debuted Pee-wee Herman in 1978.

Initially, Reubens has said, Pee-wee was a fumbling stand-up comic with a propensity for botching jokes, but by 1981 Reubens had developed him into a live show that sold out for months in L.A. and went on to play Carnegie Hall. The Pee-wee stage show, patterned on old kids’ cartoon shows, became an HBO special, then a movie (directed by then-unknown Tim Burton) and then a Saturday morning show, then another movie, then a pop culture phenomenon. When Pee-wee came to CBS in ’86 with his anarchic jokes, L.A. punk sensibility and wildly artistic playhouse, there was nothing like him.

Even now, those who grew up with him -- from twentysomethings to middle-aged parents to Gen-Xers who tuned in from their dorm rooms -- remember the character and his Pee-weeisms with intense affection. (“I know you are, but what am I?”) His style paved the way for a new generation of children’s entertainment, from Johnny Depp in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to the antic, animated SpongeBob SquarePants.

After the cancellation of the show, however, Reubens’ career faltered. In 1991, he went to visit his parents in Florida and was caught up in a vice sting at an adult theater there. Reubens paid a fine, did some public service announcements, joked about the embarrassing incident and then sought to put it behind him.

But the morals charge damaged his marketability as a children’s entertainer, and Reubens has not appeared in full Pee-wee voice and regalia in 15 years.

Work didn’t entirely dry up. Like Pee-wee, Reubens is warmly regarded, and many of his peers were rooting for him. He did the “Buffy” movie the following year, for example, and had a cameo as the Penguin’s father in “Batman Returns.” He did voices for Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and had a recurring role on CBS’ “Murphy Brown” in the mid-1990s. He was the voice of the raccoon in the Eddie Murphy version of “Doctor Dolittle” and the Spleen in the 1999 comedy-action feature “Mystery Men.”

But every role, it seemed, reminded audiences of Pee-wee, and whether by his choice or Hollywood’s, his professional profile remained low. He averaged only a few credits a year through the 1990s. Then, in 2001, he was cast as a seedy, dope-dealing hairdresser in the Ted Demme movie “Blow.”

The critics praised his performance (“Paul Reubens [is] out of Pee-wee’s playhouse with a vengeance,” raved Rolling Stone). Meanwhile, his image problems appeared to be fading. When he was hit the following year with a second prosecution -- this time over photographs seized from a private collection of erotica and kitsch art -- the incident ended in a much-reduced misdemeanor obscenity charge and generated far less public interest. (Indeed, his supporters viewed it as persecution.)

Now “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” is airing on Cartoon Network and Reubens has said he is nearing a deal for financing on the third Pee-wee movie. But whether that film comes to fruition, Reubens appears to have found his own place in the spotlight.

“As Pee-wee moves further into the background,” said Carnahan, the “Dirt” producer, “I think the actor is moving into the forefront.” Carnahan said Reubens had originally been suggested by Courteney Cox, who knows him personally and thought his offbeat style would fit the show. But, he added, the group also sought Reubens because “he’s a startlingly funny, interesting, compelling actor.”

“I think talented people, hopefully, get their due,” noted David J. Latt, an executive producer on “Area 57,” which recently finished shooting its pilot. Latt said the show’s casting director and the network casting people suggested Reubens for their pilot, knowing that the show -- which he said was being pitched as “The Office” meets “Alien” -- would rise or fall on the strength of its lead actor’s ability to deliver on its premise.

“For 40 years, the government has had a live alien and this amazing spaceship that crashed in the Nevada desert, and the joke is the alien is a passive-aggressive” jerk, Latt said. “The trick of it was, we needed an actor who could convey cute at the same time he was being really a jerk.”

Latt said he and the other creators of the sitcom had admired Reubens’ performance in “Blow” and knew of his reputation as an improvisational comedian.

“The work he’s done in the last four or five years was very daring -- the range between what he’d done in ‘Blow’ and then ’30 Rock’.... We saw at least a hundred people, and nobody landed right. But Paul did.”

The alien, he pointed out, is nothing like Pee-wee.

Special correspondent Chris Epting contributed to this report.