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Pee-Wee Herman creator speaks out

Paul Reubens is a comedian whose life out of costume has taken him from the heights of Hollywood celebrity to the depths of tabloid infamy. Now the man best known as Pee-Wee Herman tells a side of the story you haven't heard -- his side.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

When he was arrested in 1991 for indecent exposure at an adult movie theater, the star of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Pee-Wee's Playhouse became a popular punch line. A decade later, no one was laughing when he was arrested again, charged with possession of child pornography. But his lawyer determined that a tape seized in another case had been mistakenly included in the evidence against Reubens, and soon a plea bargain was in the works. Last month, the child pornography charge was dropped, with Rubens pleading guilty to a charge of obscenity instead. Now, in a television first, the man best known as Pee-Wee Herman tells a side of the story you haven't heard -- his side.

He was the impish clown, whose undersized suit and oversized laugh captivated a generation with films like "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.” The television show that followed was a big hit, too, and Pee-Wee became a big star. But for years the man behind it all remained a mystery.

Until now. He is Paul Reubens, Pee-Wee's creator, alter ego, and a comedian whose life out of costume has taken him from the heights of Hollywood celebrity to the depths of tabloid infamy.

Paul Reubens: “I probably have become more infamous from two misdemeanors than probably anyone i could think of.”

Given the nature of the charges and his notoriety as a children's icon, to think he wasn't headed for the list of Hollywood's most notorious would have made Reubens almost as naive as the character he plays.

Reubens: “I always viewed Pee-Wee Herman as somebody with a really good heart, but like, you know didn't have a clue about a lot of things. Somebody who was truly naive and was trying to do the best he could do, but it didn't always come out like that.”

Stone Phillips: “Even at the height of your popularity not everyone was entirely comfortable with the persona you created. Newsweek, I think, at one point wrote, ‘You either love him or he gives you the willies.’”

Reubens: “I don't know if I can view Pee-Wee Herman as someone that would give you the willies. I mean maybe that's because he's certainly part of me. Part of me is like Pee-Wee Herman. Look at me, I'm getting defensive about something that happened so many years ago, somebody said. I'll have to find out who that was and if he's still alive.”

Phillips:” What's interesting is that Pee-Wee didn't seem to care.”

Reubens: “Mmm hmm. You've probably hit on the one area that we were different. Pee-Wee had like a very different take on it. Like, you don't like me? Too bad.”

Phillips: “That's pretty healthy.”

Reubens: “Yeah, I mean, I'm hating to admit that Pee-Wee was healthier than me. But I think in some ways, he was.”

As Pee-Wee's fame grew, Reubens remained an enigma. Few people outside of the business even knew his real name. And that's exactly how he liked it.

Reubens: “I thought Pee-Wee Herman worked better if one didn't know that I was an actor. So I went out of my way to try and get the public to think that that was a real person.”

But on July 26, 1991, that separation between actor and icon disappeared in a flash. It had been a year since he'd wrapped production on the final season of "Pee-Wee's Playhouse.” Reubens was catching a triple feature in an adult movie theater in Sarasota, Fla. Undercover police were in the theater, too, and said they witnessed an act of indecent exposure.”

Phillips: “I guess think the question everybody was asking at the time was, what were you thinking?”

Reubens: “Well, obviously I wasn't thinking. You Know? I certainly wasn't thinking to myself you're a children's show host. Your show is stll on television. I wasn't making those lists. I felt like they were insinuating like, well, I was sitting in you know, a darkened movie theater, in my Pee-Wee suit.”

Phillips: “But you had to know that being caught in a place like that, being a children's entertainer, would lead to everything getting blown up.”

Reubens: “I guess I did have to know that. But yet, there I was. I mean that didn't seem like a crime to me. It didn't seem like anyone's business but my own.”

Phillips: “And the indecent exposure part of it?”

Reubens: “I maintained  at the time that it didn't happen and I maintain that still.”

Phillips: “To this day?”

Reubens: “Yes.”

Phillips: “Did not happen?”

Reubens: “Oh yeah.”

Such denials aside, he ultimately pleaded "no contest" to the charges and paid a $75 fine, fearing, he says, that a trial would only prolong an already embarrassing situation.

Reubens: “It was kind of like a mortifying kind of situation, where I felt like you know people are laughing at me.  I'm a professional comedian. I've never claimed to able to take it as good as a dish it out, ever. I mean I'm just sensitive.”

Throughout the 90s, Reubens continued to act off and on. There were roles in films like "Batman 2" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but he kept a low profile, preferring, he says, to write and focus on his long-time passion for collecting, everything from fake food, to lamps, to grease containers -- that's right, containers that hold, well, grease.

Reubens: ”Again what would attract me to grease contains? No clue!”

Then in 2000, after back-to-back roles in hits like "Mystery Men" and "Blow,” word was out. Paul Reubens was back.

Reubens: “Things were going great. Things were really, really going good. And then they weren't.”

In November of 2001, he was on the set of an Elton John video when the phone rang.

Reubens: “I got a phone call from somebody saying, ‘The police are at your house, with a search warrant.’”

Phillips: “What were they looking for?”

Reubens: “Child pornography.”

Acting on a tip from a witness in another pornography case, police searched Reubens' Hollywood home. Inside, among the boxes of fake food and other kitschy memorabilia, they found what the city attorney's office would later characterize as a collection of child pornography.

Reubens: “The moment that I realized my name was going to be said in the same sentence as children and sex, that's really intense. That's something I knew from that very moment, whatever happens past that point, something's out there in the air that is really bad.”

Reubens acknowledges possessing a massive collection of what he calls "vintage erotica,” films and muscle magazines with titles like: "Boy Nudist" and "Shame Dame," as well as some photographic studies of teen nudes. But he says that what the city attorney's office views as pornography, he considers art.

Reubens: “Magazines. photographs. films. Incredible, beautiful stuff that I stand behind.”

Phillips: “Did you ever stop and think while you were massing this collection, maybe it's not such a good idea, especially given what had happened back in 1991?”

Reubens: “I didn't. I never did. I wasn't really thinking to myself, wow this is my creepy, weird stuff that I shouldn't be collecting. It's not titillating. It's not something that I use for any kind of sexual purpose.”

Phillips: “Is it sensual, erotic to you, you acknowledge that?”

Reubens: “I think some of it is erotic. Some of it is sensual. Most of it I don't view like that.  It seems so innocent to me. You would immediately look at that collection and to tell very, very, very quickly this is not a collection of child pornography.”

Phillips: “It wasn't obvious to the city attorney's office. They have characterized it quite differently. I mean, they say that in and amongst these magazines were photographs that depict people underage engaged in masturbation, oral copulation, in short, pornographic images.”

Reubens: “I know what they say. It depends upon whether it's you or the city attorney looking at them. It depends upon what one sees in those images for example.”

Phillips: “Well, it's pretty clear and pretty specific. I mean, were there photographs of young men, boys, underage people, performing, masturbating?”

Reubens: “No. Absolutely not. One hundred percent not.”

Phillips: “So what are they referring to when they describe it that way?”

Reubens: “One photograph for example has a young man with his hand on his thigh. It is close to his genitals, but not even that close. That's what they're calling somebody getting ready to perform a sex act.”

The city attorneys office told us the images involved are more graphic that what Reubens describes. Even so, last month the child pornography charges were dropped. Reubens agreed to plead guilty to possessing obscene images of minors.

Phillips: “If you're secure in your belief that this was art, nothing illegal, why not let a jury look at the evidence? Why settle?”

Reubens: “Personally, I think we're living in a very scary time. Do we let the legal system decide in a courtroom what's obscene and what's not obscene? I didn't want be in a situation where there was a possibility I could got to jail for something that's that material. I mean, that just seemed insane to me.”

Early on in the investigation, word leaked out that Reubens had possessed home video of teenage boys engaging in sexual acts, but late last year, his attorneys proved that the tape was never part of collection -- the product they believe of a mix-up in the LAPD evidence room.

The plea is not without penalty. For the next three years, Reubens must register his address with the sheriff's office and he cannot be in the company of minors without their parents' permission.

Reubens: “You know is that a hard pill to swallow? Yeah. That's pretty intense. I mean for someone who loves kids, that's just sad. Ironic is probably too mild a word, you know?”

Phillips: “Are you someone who needs to be supervised with children?”

Reubens: “No. I don't think so. I don't think I've ever led my life in that way, ever. One thing I want to make very, very clear, I don't want anyone for one second to think that I am titillated by images of children.  It's not me.  You can say lots of things about me. And you might. The public may think I'm weird. They may think I'm crazy or anything that anyone wants to think about me. That's all fine. As long as one of the things you're not thinking about me is that I'm a pedophile. Because that's not true.”

Phillips: “You know some people will say, one questionable event, we can forgive.  Two, it's a little harder. Especially when the allegation involves minors and sex.”

Reubens: “And I would agree. I'm as guilty as the next person at looking at like, where there's smoke there's fire. Until you've been in a situation where the police come in your house, and look at things that you view as 100 percent innocent, and view them in a completely different way, I don't think you necessarily understand everything to this story.

Today, at age 51, Reubens is pondering his next moves, putting the finishing touches on a script for a new Pee-Wee movie, and wondering just how forgiving or forgetful the American public will be this time around.

Reubens: “I spent an awful long time 12 years ago thinking to myself, you know, this can't be my final thing. I'm a big believer in the happy ending. I want a Pee-Wee movie to have a happy ending. Pee-Wee gets his bicycle back. I don't know what the ending is to my story. But I think it's going to be a happy one.”

The terms of Paul Reubens' plea agreement allow him to appeal his conviction. And his lawyer has already filed the paperwork declaring his intent to do just that. As for the Los Angeles city attorney's office, a spokesman told Dateline that it was pleased with the resolution of the case, and that pending the outcome of any appeal, it plans to destroy any images in Reubens collection that it considers contraband.