I’m in a cabin in the middle of nowhere eating vegan chili with Steve from “Blue’s Clues.”
He’s been here — in a town in the Catskill Mountains he asks me not to name — for six years. There’s no train station nearby; from Los Angeles, it took me a flight to Albany plus a 90-minute drive south to get to this place. But for Steve, who lives with the odd kind of fame that leads people to think of his last name as “from ‘Blue’s Clues’” rather than Burns, that remoteness is the appeal.
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“I’m most often alone up here, but I’m very rarely lonely,” says Steve, 49, who lived in Brooklyn for most of his adult life before retreating upstate. “There’s much more of me to share here than there was in New York City. I was deflecting all of the stimulus at all times.”
“I grew up in the Pennsylvania version of this,” he continues, gesturing to the landscape of shedding trees and country roads surrounding us. “My mother always said that as soon as she turned on a vacuum cleaner, I would be like, ‘Nope, I’m out,’ and go into the woods and build a fort.”
In the late ’90s and early aughts, Steve was a rock star to me and my toddler peers, as big as Fred Rogers (whom he idolizes) or Dora the Explorer (whom he’s less sure of). “Blue’s Clues,” which ran on Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr. from 1996 to 2006, featured him as the eager, ditzy, ageless, sexless best friend to an animated puppy who left him messages via paw prints around their house. As he decoded the prints — constantly asking the viewer for their help and pausing to hear their thoughts — Steve taught a generation of children about the ABCs, types of weather and how to recycle. He signed off each episode with a catchy tune that ended, “With me and you and my dog, Blue, we can do anything that we wanna do.”
Then, in the middle of the show’s run, Steve mysteriously left the kids’ juggernaut, handing over the emceeing duties to another actor, Donovan Patton, who played Joe, Steve’s little brother. He held down the fort while Steve went off to college.
Fans speculated for years about what caused his disappearance, though the answer isn’t as scandalous as people imagined: He was pushing 30, and it was time. But Steve has recently resurfaced as an internet folk hero, and soon he’ll return to his beloved Blue in the movie “Blue’s Big City Adventure.” The film, which drops on Paramount+ on Nov. 18, unites Steve, Patton and new host Josh Dela Cruz.
“I’ve never enjoyed being Steve more than I do now,” Steve says. “I get to wear a trenchcoat. It’s like Grover-meets-Columbo — a clown character. That’s really freeing somehow.”
Steve jokes that his affinity for the wilderness might mean he hasn’t changed since his childhood in Pennsylvania, but it was a profoundly adult experience that brought him to this town: the death of his father in 2015, and the mourning period that followed.
“I cared for him while he was dying of cancer, and it changed me,” Steve says as he grabs two cans of sparkling water from the fridge and sets one down in front of me. “It made me think about things I hadn’t thought about, like legacy and the value of the things we’ve left behind. It forced me to reevaluate and take much more seriously my mental health. And New York City never was much good for my mental health.”
A year and a half after his father died, while on a camping trip, Steve stopped for gas in this town. “I felt my dad say, ‘Hey, man. Go back behind this gas station.’ I’m very skeptical about this kind of experience, but it was the most casual, pragmatic, unspiritual vibe ever. I said, ‘Yeah, sure, Dad, whatever,’ and went back there. There were 150 monarch butterflies drinking from a little puddle. I won’t get into why, but butterflies had a special meaning between me and my father, so I went over to take a picture, and they Batman’d me” — Steve wiggles his fingers and makes a whooshing sound. “I was like, ‘That’s a sign!’”
He put an offer on an empty plot nearby the next day. “I feel very led here. My whole experience on this mountain feels connected to my dad. Whose birthday was yesterday, by the way.”
The meal Steve has made for us is emblematic of his life in the mountains, with vegetables sourced from small farms enjoying autumn harvest season. He’s entranced by this time of year — more than once during our conversation, he tells me he wishes I’d visited two weeks earlier, when the changing leaves “looked like Fruity Pebbles.” Things are calm here, and that helps him feel emotionally available — to his friends, who regularly come to stay, and now to me.
Despite the new routine Steve has found in the Catskills, he still resembles the Steve that the “Blue’s Clues” generation knew and loved. He still sings songs to help himself remember things; in fact, as I first step into his home, he makes up a song on the spot about the pronunciation of my name. And while his wardrobe these days features more than just multiples of the same green-striped shirt, his cabin is a treasure trove of “Blue’s Clues” paraphernalia, including the original Handy Dandy Notebook and Thinking Chair. As he geeks out about the little details, I can’t help but feel like I’m sitting crisscross on the rug in front of the TV in my childhood home, where I used to watch his show all those years ago.
“I shouldn’t have a favorite, but I just love the guy who played Mr. Salt,” Steve says. He can hardly keep from cracking up: “I was a befuddled man-child walking around that house, and Mr. Salt was the same. He always did everything wrong, just like me.”
This is Steve’s demeanor throughout all of the stories he tells me about “Blue’s Clues” — cheerful, funny, self-deprecating — but until recently, the internet would have had you believe he’d left it behind in a fit of fury.
Steve was 22 when the show premiered, having landed the gig after a fluke audition. “I moved to New York to be a much, quote-unquote, ‘cooler’ thing — an Al Pacino-Dustin Hoffman hybrid,” he says. “But I gotta say, even at the first audition, there was a thing that I loved: this idea of talking to the camera, like a Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton thing. I thought the interactivity was really breakthrough. I used to call it ‘The Rocky Horror Children’s Show.’ But yeah, the persona was not what any 22-year-old dude would have wanted.”
Surprisingly, being the star of one of the most-loved children’s shows ever did offer Steve some of the lone-wolf quality he’s always been after. “The environment was a blue screen, which is a void, and some lights,” he says. “Point being, I couldn’t see anybody else. Sometimes I could see the director, but mostly ‘Blue’s Clues’ felt like a gentle, small, personal experience. It was me and a camera. That’s what I remember. The whole thing was me and my ride-or-die, which was you.”
I’ve admitted to Steve by this point that I was a big enough fan to have attended “Blue’s Clues Live!” at age 4, but it still startles me each time he uses the word “you” to talk about his audience. I ask him about it.
“Because it was you!” he says. “‘Blue’s Clues,’ ostensibly, is a one-on-one situation where I’m talking to you. And it felt real to me.”
Steve never lost that affection. Not even in 2001, when he left the show. When asked about his departure, he usually points to the fact that he was beginning to lose his hair and didn’t want to have to wear a wig on TV. And while he maintains that was an honest reason, his shaved head points to a bigger, simpler truth from that time in his life: “I wasn’t going to be boyish anymore.”
Even a kids’ TV host has to grow up. “I didn’t know it yet, but I was the happiest depressed person in North America,” he says. “I was struggling with severe clinical depression the whole time I was on that show. It was my job to be utterly and completely full of joy and wonder at all times, and that became impossible. I was always able to dig and find something that felt authentic to me that was good enough to be on the show, but after years and years of going to the well without replenishing it, there was a cost.”
Steve is better now, but it took him a while to recover. “My strategy had been: ‘Hey, you got a great thing going, so just fight it!’ Turns out, you don’t fight depression; you collect it. After I left ‘Blue’s Clues,’ there was a long period of healing. It wasn’t until the death of my father that I really started to take things seriously, and my life became so much more manageable.”
His greatest wish, he says, is that he had gotten help while he was still on the show, though he doesn’t think it would have delayed his exit. “But I would have been able to throw my arms around the role, and relax into it a little more. Because now, when I look back, all I see is what an impossible gift that was.”
Public perception of Steve after he moved on was complicated to say the least. While “Blue’s Clues” has been beloved for more than two decades, there was a darker side to people’s feelings about Steve, perpetuated by online trolls for shock value. That is, an absurd number of rumors circulated that Steve was dead.
A car crash and a heroin overdose were the most often proliferated causes of death, though fringe forums also pointed to a murder by the “Blue’s Clues” producers or an unsuccessful attempt to fight the Taliban.
Throughout the years, Steve made several media appearances with the sole purpose of dispelling the rumors, but they kept coming back.
“I was under the working assumption that most of y’all thought I was dead,” he says. “That rumor was so persistent and so indelible that I assumed it was a cultural preference. I eventually just took the hint. I kept my head down and left public life.”
That’s why he was shocked to learn, in 2021, that millions of people desperately wanted to know where he’d gone.
In a video posted to Nick Jr.’s Twitter account for the 25th anniversary of “Blue’s Clues,” Steve, in character, says, “You remember how when we were younger, we used to run around and hang out with Blue … and then I left and we didn’t see each other for a really long time? Can we just talk about that? Because I realize that was kind of abrupt.” He goes on to recount the joys and hardships of college and adulthood and wraps up addressing the audience, as always: “I just wanted to say, I never forgot you. Ever.”
The post was retweeted 800,000 times and liked by 1.9 million people, with a multitude of responses to the tune of “This is the closure I didn’t know I needed.”
“Everyone wants to feel seen and heard,” Steve says now. “I think it punched through because it was about respectful, active listening — a more direct conversation than you’re used to seeing on your screen.”
The trailer for “Blue’s Big City Adventure” sits at nearly 5 million views. In it, wearing a detective costume, Steve reunites with his beloved audience: “You? Is it you?” he says. (Though real Steve jokes: “That trailer makes it look like I’m in every frame of the film. Sorry, Paramount, but I’m not.”)
It’s not exactly Steve’s return to the franchise; he has actually been directing, writing, producing and occasionally guest starring in revival series “Blue’s Clues & You!” since its 2019 debut, though the now-adult millennials and Gen Zers who watched the original series were largely unaware of that before last year’s viral video.
As he returns to what he calls being “fame-ish,” he’s found a new delight: He now travels to colleges to speak to students about mental health, including what inspired him to work on his own well-being.
“It’s very on brand for me to not have the answers. Steve was the guy who needed you. He doesn’t appear like a role model. He had difficulty differentiating between shapes and colors,” Steve says, laughing.
Then he pauses, and softens a bit. “But Steve became my role model. Because he was not afraid to ask for help.”
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