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- December 30, 1991
- Vol. 36
- No. 25
After a Humiliating Arrest, He Became a National Joke; Then America Gave Him Back His Shattered Career
Paul Reubens, the actor who plays Pee-wee, immediately dropped out of sight. "Paul was very hurt," says his friend songwriter Allee Willis. "He was just crucified in the press." While psychologists counseled parents on how to break the news to their children ("People touch themselves privately, not in public," was Dr. Joyce Brothers's approach), CBS removed the five remaining episodes of Herman's previously canceled Saturday morning show, Pee-wee's Playhouse, from its schedule, and stores pulled Pee-wee merchandise from the shelves.
Not all factions, of course, were anti-Pee-wee. Admiring his nerve, The Wall Street Journal designated him "hero of the hour," and celebrities including Bill Cosby and Cyndi Lauper rushed to his defense. Nearly 15,000 letters reached Pee-wee's publicist, Larry Goldman—98 percent of them supportive. Says Goldman: "Paul was overwhelmed that the public rallied around him."
Enough so that in September, wearing his trademark goofy gray suit and red bow tie, Pee-wee made a surprise appearance to open the MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles. Wide-eyed and simpering, this target of a thousand barbs asked innocently, "Heard any good jokes lately?" The audience roared—and rose to its feet, cheering.
In November, Reubens, who, according to his lawyer, maintained his innocence but wanted to avoid the publicity of a trial, pleaded "no contest" to charges of indecent exposure, paid a $50 fine and was ordered to produce an antidrug public-service announcement. Professionally, he has signed on for a cameo in the Batman movie sequel and agreed to lend his voice to an animated character in a film titled Nightmare Before Christmas. He is also coproducing an album featuring the score from Pee-wee's Playhouse. Personally, he is on the rebound as well. Pee-wee's trial by humiliation didn't change him, says his pal Willis, who accompanies him to thrift shops on collecting sprees near his L.A. home. "But it took a while for the old Paul to come back."
That he was able to do so at all suggests that, in some respects at least, the world has become a more tolerant place. "In the old studio system he could easily have been banished," says veteran literary agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar. "That Hollywood doesn't exist anymore." Nor, perhaps, does the censorious American public which that Hollywood would have striven to appease.
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