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Pee-Wee is back in the big time

Mon., April 16, 2007, midnight

The line at the autograph table snaked out of the Burbank Marriott ballroom, the longest by far at the recent Hollywood Collectors & Celebrities Show.

They could have had Batman. They could have had the cast of “Married … With Children.”

But they wanted to see Paul Reubens, the man famous for playing Pee-wee Herman.

“This is unbelievable,” marveled Reubens, who hosted “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” from 1986 through 1991.

In the last couple of years, the publicity-shy comedian – whose career dramatically stalled after his 1991 arrest for indecent exposure – has been steadily attracting fresh regard.

NBC just signed him to star in “Area 57,” a buzzed-about sitcom about a passive-aggressive alien being watched over by a bunch of government employees.

Critics are still lavishing praise on his recent “30 Rock” stint as an inbred European monarch. A guest appearance on “Reno: 911!” led to a role in the movie, “Reno: 911! Miami.”

Then there’s his recurring character as Courteney Cox‘s old tabloid mentor on “Dirt,” the F/X drama. And her husband, Reubens’ old pal David Arquette, cast him in the upcoming horror film “The Tripper.”

“Every time people talk about the show, they bring up his performance,” says “Dirt” creator Matthew Carnahan. “I feel like he’s on a second or third round now of his career.”

Now 54, Reubens looks less like his rosy-cheeked alter ego and more like Pee-wee’s well-mannered father.

Originally trained, he says, as “a serious actor, in the James Dean kind of school,” he landed in Hollywood as part of a boy-girl act on “The Gong Show.”

He graduated to the Los Angeles-based improv troupe the Groundlings, where he debuted Pee-wee Herman in 1978.

That led to a Pee-wee stage show, an HBO special, a movie (directed by then-unknown Tim Burton), a Saturday morning show, another movie and a pop-culture phenomenon.

His style paved the way for a new generation of children’s entertainment, from Johnny Depp in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to the animated SpongeBob SquarePants.

After the show was canceled, however, Reubens’ career faltered.

In 1991, he was caught in a vice sting at an adult theater in Florida. Reubens paid a fine, did public service announcements and sought to put it behind him.

But the morals charge damaged his marketability as a children’s entertainer, and Reubens has not appeared in full Pee-wee voice and regalia in 15 years.

Now “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” is airing on Cartoon Network and Reubens has said he is nearing a deal for financing on the third Pee-wee movie.

Whether that film comes to fruition, Reubens appears to have found a place in the spotlight.

“As Pee-wee moves further into the background,” says Carnahan, “I think the actor is moving into the forefront.”

The birthday bunch

Singer Bobby Vinton is 72. Singer Gerry Rafferty is 60. Actress Ellen Barkin is 53. Singer Jimmy Osmond is 44. Actor-comedian Martin Lawrence is 42. Actor Jon Cryer is 42. Actor Peter Billingsley (“A Christmas Story”) is 36. Actor Lukas Haas is 31.

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