Reubens matures but doesn't abandon Pee-wee

April 16, 2001|By Miki Turner | Miki Turner,KNIGHT RIDDER TRIBUNE

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. - Judy Garland will always be Dorothy. David Caruso will always be that fool who left "NYPD Blue." And Paul Reubens, well, he'll always be that goofy and lovable imp Pee-wee Herman.

So it was Pee-wee whom I expected to meet and greet at a recent press junket for "Blow," the biographical film about the rise and fall of former cocaine dealer George Jung, starring Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and Reubens. But that's not who walked into the suite at the Standard Hotel.

In place of Pee-wee was some diminutive fellow sporting a '60s Ringo Starr haircut and wearing flowered fatigue pants circa maybe 1982. This impostor in no way resembled that gawky guy in the form-fitting houndstooth suit, white patent-leather loafers and the bright-red bow tie.

But, then, the 48-year-old Reubens did something so typically Pee-wee that it became apparent that the alter ego Reubens created in the '70s was alive and seemingly well.

"Is everyone looking at me?" he asked, as though he was addressing a class of third-graders. "If you can see the camera, it can see you," he added, as he snapped photos with a digital camera. "It's all going on the Internet!" The only things missing were that silly, infectious laugh and his signature quip, "I know you are, but what am I?"

As you can see, Pee-wee Herman has grown up - a little. Reubens, however, has grown into a fine actor. In "Blow," he plays Derek Foreal, a former Manhattan Beach, Calif., hairdresser who goes into business with Jung (Depp). Although Reubens was only joking when he said that he "did a lot of cocaine" to prepare for the role, he did research his part thoroughly.

"I talked to the director quite a bit, I talked to the writer, I talked to a few people that I knew who cut hair, and I did a lot of observation," says Reubens. "I had the character's FBI dossier, which was pretty illuminating. He's the only central character in the film who didn't do any time because he cut a deal."

Whatever else Reubens did to nail the character worked for director Ted Demme. "Paul created this amazing, unforgettable character," says Demme. "Derek became everybody's favorite because he's just so much fun to be around."

Adds Depp: "Paul's an amazing character actor who plays Derek as very flamboyant and yet at the same time shows you his faults and quirks and deep insecurities."

Reubens joked that one of his biggest fears in playing Derek was that the "real" Derek (the name has been changed for the film) would be angry because Reubens was playing him. "Let's see, George has Johnny Depp playing him and I guess you could have worse people than Penelope Cruz playing you! And then there's Paul Reubens. Hmmm."

Reubens' biggest concern, however, was sticking out in an ensemble cast that also included Franka Potente, Rachel Griffiths and Ray Liotta. "I didn't want it to be cartoonlike or seem that I wasn't playing a real person or that I was in a different movie than everyone else. [Derek] is a very different character from the rest of the characters. I was definitely a little apprehensive about that."

Reubens, an upstate New York native, got his start in feature films alongside Cheech and Chong in the early 1980s. By 1985, he was starring in his own film, "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," based on a character he had developed during his years with the Groundlings, a comedy performance troupe based in Los Angeles. That film, about a boy searching for his missing bicycle, was made for $7 million and grossed $45 million. A year later, Pee-wee became a Saturday morning fixture on CBS' "Pee-wee's Playhouse." He capped that off by writing, producing and starring in a second film, "Big Top Pee-wee."

But the big-time fun came to a screeching halt in 1991 when Reubens was visiting his parents in Sarasota, Fla., and was arrested for indecent exposure while watching an X-rated movie at a theater. That incident, which he declines to discuss, sent Reubens into seclusion for nearly a year.

He rebounded nicely, however, with appearances in two box-office hits, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Batman Returns." Soon afterward, he became a recurring character on "Murphy Brown." And Pee-wee will be back soon.

"I'm doing two Pee-wee movies back-to-back," Reubens says. "One of them is finished. I wrote it. The other is about one-fourth finished." Reubens says the finished film is a little more serious than his previous Pee-wee movies and that the second one is a big-screen version of his old Saturday morning show for kids. "It starts and ends in the Playhouse and the middle of it is sort of like `The Wizard of Oz.' It takes place in a make-believe land. It's a big epic adventure."

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