On the Nick Jr. show Blue's Clues in the late '90s and early 2000s, Steve Burns, who played the animated pup's bestie, was always affable on the outside. But on the inside, it was a different story.
"I didn't know it yet, but I was the happiest depressed person in North America," Burns told Variety on the eve of his appearance in the new movie Blue's Big City Adventure. “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."
Burns said he hadn't expected to take a job on a children's show, especially not at that time in his life.
"I moved to New York to be a much, quote-unquote, 'cooler' thing — an Al Pacino-Dustin Hoffman hybrid. 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," he said. "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."
After landing the show, he ended up staying until 2001. But even his departure that year wasn't a quick remedy to his mental health struggle.
The unexpected move even inspired conspiracy theories that he had died, with the cause often being attributed to a car crash or heroin overdose. “I was under the working assumption that most of y’all thought I was dead,” he said. “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.”
Burns said he regrets not having sought help while he was still on Blue's Clues.
"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," he said. "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."
Following the his father's death in 2015, Burns felt called to move to an unnamed town in the Catskill Mountains, not unlike the Pennsylvania locale where he grew up; It's very distinct from Brooklyn, N.Y., which had been his adopted home.
And his love affair with it had started when, still grieving, he had stopped in the town for gas.
"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," Burns said. "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. I was like, 'That's a sign!'"
Now, when Burns is not at his new home or appearing in Blue's Clues, which he's enjoying more than ever, he's visiting colleges to talk to students about mental health.