Pee-wee Herman was exuberant. Paul Reubens was almost serene.

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Pee-wee Herman was exuberant. Paul Reubens was almost serene.
Paul Reubens in West Hollywood, Calif., May 1, 2007. Speaking with the actor was an entirely different experience than watching him play his career-defining character. (Axel Koester/The New York Times)

by Dave Itzkoff

NEW YORK, NY.- Pee-wee Herman was noisy. He was boisterous. He had a voice that would shoot up several decibels without warning, whether he was inviting his TV viewers to play a game of connect the dots or interrogating his friends about the whereabouts of his missing bicycle. The mysterious nature of his character — was he supposed to be a man, a child or a man pretending to be a child? — seemed to excuse his exuberant energy and excessive volumes, and he, in turn, gave that same permission to his audience. Like he told us on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” his kids’ show that wasn’t really just for kids, “You all know what to do when anyone says the secret word, right?” That’s right: “Scream real loud!”

Paul Reubens, who created and played Pee-wee Herman for more than 40 years, and who died Sunday at age 70, was quiet. It wasn’t simply that he had a gentle manner or a decidedly un-Pee-wee-like reluctance to call attention to himself — he also had a natural speaking voice that was soft enough to be drowned out by a passing breeze. As Reubens told me when I first interviewed him in 2004, he was aware of this duality, between what his spirited alter ego promised and what he delivered in person, out of character. Fans might have expected Pee-wee levels of intensity, but face-to-face, he said, “Now I’m kind of like this. Putting people to sleep.”

There was not much mystery about Reubens, which seemed to be how he wanted it. Without the gray suit and red bow tie, he was just a guy who appreciated kitschy toys, vintage children’s television shows and making people laugh. His liveliness and creativity were expressed through Pee-wee, whom he portrayed in his own media projects and in late-night interviews. Even in the minor movie roles and TV gigs he did before Pee-wee went big-time, he was still pretty much playing the Herman character.

These days we intuitively understand the distinction between the public and private lives of celebrities, between what they wish us to see and what we might later learn about them. Reubens didn’t just draw a bright line between Pee-wee and Paul; he completely compartmentalized them and, for a time, had us happily believing they were distinct individuals. His beloved persona was so much his own independent entity that, in the closing credits of works such as “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” Pee-wee Herman is simply billed as “HIMSELF.”

Perhaps that’s what made Reubens’ 1991 arrest for indecent exposure so jarring: Beyond its reminder that he and Herman were not the same person, there was the disconcerting possibility that the wholesome Pee-wee would be punished for his creator’s offense. In the aftermath, Reubens wondered if the character would just be obliterated, sending him back “to my total anonymous civilian life,” as he told me in an interview in 2010.

At that time, Reubens was preparing to bring “The Pee-wee Herman Show” to Broadway, and he seemed less concerned with how his past scandals had affected him than how they might have tarnished the title character.

“I wrecked it to some degree, you know?” he said. “It got made into something different. The shine got taken off it.”

None of this appeared to matter to his fans, who shouted out their proclamations of love and loyalty — to Pee-wee Herman — while I watched him walk the streets of Manhattan in New York City in his traditional costume. A few days later, having reverted to Paul Reubens, he seemed genuinely surprised by all the affection. In a voice as soft as can be, he said the experience was “so weird and so great at the same time.”

“It was odd, and it was fantastic,” he said. “Both, rolled into one.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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