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The origin story of Steve from 'Blue's Clues' is even more wholesome than you think

Steve Burns didn't set out to inspire a generation of children as the host of Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues.

"I wanted to be a dangerous little short guy actor from the seventies, like Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman," Burns told NPR. "You know, that's what I came to New York to do."

Instead, in the mid-1990s, Burns found himself vying to host a children's show with another man Burns described as "conventionally handsome." And a little girl played a pivotal role in determining the outcome of that showdown nearly 30 years ago.

Nickelodeon execs weren't sold on Burns yet, Burns recalls. So they set up a screening of Burns and the conventionally attractive man for children to watch.

The conventionally attractive man played it straight.

Burns took a different tack when he asked children if they knew where a triangle was.

"I remember getting way too close to the camera and pausing until it felt weird. And then I paused a little longer. Right? And really tried to do that listening thing," he said. That empathetic listening and treating children as insightful viewers became a hallmark of the show.

Burns called his inspiration a cross between Ferris Bueller breaking the fourth wall in the 1980s classic Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Grover of Sesame Street fame.

"I'd love to say that I was just a forward-thinking and insightful, brilliant actor, but it had nothing to do with anything like that. It was just desperation," he said.

A little girl's enthusiasm changed Burns' life

A photo of Astraea Regina as a young girl.
/ Lisa Headley
Lisa Headley
A photo of Astraea Regina as a young girl.

The children watching Burns reacted with wild enthusiasm. Especially the toddler daughter of MTV Networks employee Lisa Headley.

"She kind of like went a little feral, you know, dancing and carrying on, jumping up and down," Headley recalled.

Headley had her husband bring in their daughter, dressed in a Gap dress with yellow flowers, in response to an email blast asking employees for pint-sized volunteers for the focus group. Her daughter was 2, about to turn 3 at the time.

Her reaction was so enthusiastic, it was used in promo ads for the show. And the tot grew up watching Blue's Clues.

A photo of Astraea Regina as a young girl.
/ Lisa Headley
Lisa Headley
A photo of Astraea Regina as a young girl.

"I watched every episode," said the girl, who grew up to be a TikTok creator known as Astraea Regina. Regina's reaction and the enthusiasm she stirred up with the other children helped convince Nickelodeon bosses that Burns was the one, and turned him into a pillar of so many childhoods.

The first episode of Blue's Clues aired on Sept. 8, 1996, starring Burns and the titular Blue, an animated dog who helped kids solve mysteries. It was educational fare that proved a smashing success. Burns' last episode aired in 2002, when he was succeeded by the man who played his younger brother, Donovan Patton. In 2019, a nostalgic revival called Blue's Clues & You brought Blue back into toddler homes with host Josh Dela Cruz.

The three hosts of Blue's Clues stand together in this image. From left to right, they are Steve Burns,  Josh Dela Cruz and Donovan Patton.
/ Paramount
The three hosts of Blue's Clues stand together in this image. From left to right, they are Steve Burns, Josh Dela Cruz and Donovan Patton.

A chance meeting reunites Burns and his first fan

And this spring, for the first time, Regina and Burns met serendipitously at a comic convention in Indiana. A friend told Regina that Burns was there, and she waited in line to tell him her story.

"I went over to him and then I explained to him the story and his face looked so shocked," Regina said.

"I kind of thought she was just saying, 'I used to watch you on TV,'" Burns said. "I was like, 'Oh, cool, thank you. You know, that's great.' She's like, 'No, dude, that was me. I was the one who got you. I was the one in that focus group.' And that was just mind-blowing."

The two hugged in a video that overwhelmed social media with its wholesomeness.

The video garnered well over 1 million likes on Instagram.

"I think it gave a lot of people some context that a child's love and a child's adoration and a child's voice actually does mean something," Regina said of the video's popularity. "And I think Steve wanted that type of story to really come through because that's what he wanted someone to know, that he was still listening."

Burns and Regina have kept in contact since that moment. They message each other the most grotesque faces they can make. It's a tradition that Burns started with his replacement at Blue's Clues, Donovan Patton. The two of them still hang out and Burns calls Patton "just an enormously likeable dude."

"It turns out Astraea has mad skill in this capacity and so she and I do that too," Burns said.

Both Burns and Regina have a glowing admiration for one another.

"I got to meet someone from my own origin story like 30 years later, or however many years later it is. And she's cool as hell. She's like, awesome," Burns said.

When asked what he would tell his younger self auditioning to be a children's show host, Burns replied: "I would say, 'Get into it. This is cooler than you think. This is so much cooler than you could even imagine.'"
Copyright 2024 NPR

Alina Hartounian
Alina Hartounian is a supervising editor for NPR's NewsHub, an audience focused team of reporters and editors who largely write for NPR.org. While guiding coverage, she has also taken time to write about bicolored lobsters and microchip graffiti.