PASADENA, Calif. — Reports of his death were grossly exaggerated, as Pee-Wee Herman has risen again. It just goes to prove you can’t keep a good man-child down.
The character in the tight gray suit, red bowtie and short-cropped hair has been resurrected on Broadway and is now a special on HBO, “The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway,” premiering March 19.
When Herman, whose real name is Paul Reubens, was arrested for indecent exposure 20 years ago, the media sounded the death knell for the character who was born when Reubens joined the improv group the Groundlings. That wiggly, whimsical creature went on to star on the kids’ TV series, “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” and in several movies, which followed the romps of the waiflike comic.
Reubens says he’s not sure why Pee-Wee is suddenly in favor again. “I really don’t know. I mean, certain things, they just come back. It’s cyclical, you know. If you wait long enough, these suits come back and this tie comes back, and I think that’s what’s happened. You know, I just waited long enough. And now, all the people seem to like it again, I guess.”
The 58-year-old always longed to be an actor. “It was just something I wanted to do from the time I can remember from being 3, 4, 5 years old. I watched a lot of television and was really envious of Ron Howard and Kevin Corcoran, and I just couldn’t wait to get to Hollywood,” he says.
“I didn’t really share that with my parents till it got to the point where I was in high school and we started having job fairs and career days, and you had to start getting serious about what you wanted to do.”
So he lied about his intentions. “I got involved in plays when I was in the sixth grade. I did my first real play “A Thousand Clowns,” which has a good kid’s role in it. My mother told me years later that she’d discussed with my father, they said, ‘Look, there’s an audition in the newspaper.’ And they thought I would go on the audition and not get the part, and it would be all over. I would get it out of my system,” he recalls.
“But the exact opposite happened. I got the part and it was like, a really good role and I got great reviews and I was off and running. But I still lied and said I wanted to be an architect for a long time because I knew just from their reaction and listening to them, I could tell it wasn’t ideal.”
After a series of “straight” roles, reviving his winsome Pee-Wee for Broadway wasn’t easy. “I spent months and months and months tweaking every word and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting that I’ve really been very, very happy with the show. And when I knew we were going to do it for HBO it was so exciting to me that I started to think, like, would there be any change to it? And I love the show so much as is. We didn’t really change anything.”
Reubens says he had no idea his eccentric character would last. “If anyone would have told me I’d be doing this 30 years later, I would have laughed. But now, you know, now I plan on doing it 30 years from now, when I’m 140.”