If you grew up near a TV in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, there was no one like Pee-wee Herman, Paul Reubens’ brilliant misfit alter ego. Pee-wee paraded through his own kitschy stage show and Tim Burton’s debut film with a childlike demeanor, an iconic gray suit and red bow tie, and instantly imitated mannerisms (“I know you are, but what am I?”), bringing underground cartoonists like Gary Panter to America’s Saturday morning programming. In 45 episodes and one unforgettable Christmas special between 1986 and 1990, Pee-wee’s Playhouse managed to strike an incredible balance between surreal humor and honest family entertainment, never talking down to its young viewers.
Most remember what happened next: in 1991, a year after Reubens wrapped the show, he was arrested in Florida for exposing himself in an adult movie theater, and America’s classic moral panic meant Reubens stayed out of the spotlight for many years. He never stopped working — even after another arrest in 2002 — and stepped back into the Pee-wee persona for a warmly received revival of the character’s original stage show in 2010 and a 2016 film for Netflix.
The unexpected news on July 31 that he had lost a private six-year battle with cancer at the age of 70 shocked anyone who delighted by Pee-wee’s big adventures — and it’s as good a time as any to peer into some of the other memorable, unusual and just plain hilarious roles he took before, during and after his time in the spotlight.
The Blues Brothers (1980)
Before Pee-wee, Rubens cut his teeth as a six-year member of the L.A. improv troupe the Groundlings — a pipeline to Saturday Night Live for Laraine Newman, Cheri Oteri, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, and many others.In 1980 Rubens secured a small role in the very first SNL film spin off, The Blues Brothers, as a waiter in a fancy French restaurant terrorized by the titular musical duo. While it’s hard to make an impression when John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd are feeding each other shrimp cocktail, Reubens’ distinctive features make this role one of the better “before they were famous” moments in ‘80s cinema.
Mork & Mindy (1981)
Reubens developed Pee-Wee Herman with the help of friend and fellow Groundlings member Phil Hartman. His big break came when, after a failed audition for Saturday Night Live, he put his money into a Pee-wee Herman stage show that became a cult sensation after a taped performance aired on the upstart pay-cable network HBO. That same year, he made a brief but memorable appearance on in the final season of Mork and Mindy. Sharing the frame with Robin Williams in a dorky suit and bow tie he’s clearly in his comfort zone.
Star Tours (1987)
One of Reubens’ most high-profile performances during the Pee-wee era was in Star Tours, the hit Disney thrill ride based on the Star Wars universe (a good 25 years before the company decided to make it part of their corporate portfolio). As the harried, inept pilot droid RX-24 — better known as “Rex” to fans — Reubens offered a charming counterpoint to all the jostling through space, and even reprised the role in a Disney-owned Star Wars cartoon a decade after the original ride was updated.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Though his Florida arrest damaged his public image some, industry and fan support for Reubens was through the roof. After getting a standing ovation as Pee-wee at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, Reubens took minor roles in two twisted blockbusters in 1992: a cameo as the father of the Penguin in Batman Returns, and the bumbling Amilyn, acolyte to the villainous vampire in the cult film Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While Buffy would become far better known in its TV incarnation, Reubens’ performance was memorable enough to secure him a cameo as a member of a council of vampires in another bloodthirsty satire: the FX series What We Do in the Shadows.
Murphy Brown (1995-1997)
Reubens’ highest-profile post-Pee-wee TV appearance was playing Andrew Lansing, a sniveling employee at FYI, the fictional news show hosted by Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown on the long-running CBS sitcom. Owing to his familial ties — Andrew’s uncle, played by Garry Marshall, was the network president — the character did everything from mailboy to secretary to short-lived executive; the part netted Reubens a Primetime Emmy nomination as a guest performer.
Mystery Men (1999)
Before the superhero genre became a parody of itself at the box office, Reubens was part of this bizarre ensemble send-up of caped crusaders as the Spleen, a flatulent crime fighter. Even stranger than his performance? Reubens also joined the cast for a music video to a song from the soundtrack, the deathless pop/rock jam “All Star,” by Smash Mouth.
You Don’t Know Jack (2001)
For one summer before 9/11, TV viewers had the chance to catch another bizarre performance by Reubens: Troy Stevens, the fictional bewigged host of You Don’t Know Jack, a short-lived game show based on the briefly popular computer game series. His deeply off-kilter delivery makes you wish Ken Jennings had some bizarre alter ego on Jeopardy!
Reubens’ most memorable film role that didn’t involve Pee-wee may have been the dealer Derek Foreal in the fact-based drug drama Blow. Acting opposite a pre-Pirates, pre-scandal Johnny Depp, Reubens was memorable enough for some at the time to suggest he should be up for an Oscar nomination.
Reno 911! (2006-2007)
With a rich background in improv, Reubens could “yes and” with the best of them, and did so twice on the Comedy Central cult favorite. He appeared in a 2006 episode as a citizen’s patrolman who bore a stunning resemblance to Guardian Angel turned New York mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa. A year later, he cameoed in the feature film Reno 911! Miami as an obnoxious rich father of Terry (Nick Swardson), a regular mischief maker on the series.
30 Rock (2007)
Decades honing his craft meant Reubens could make any part memorable, and one of his best TV guest appearances was in a side-splitting episode of 30 Rock where he played Prince Gerhardt, an Austrian royal romancing Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski). Generations of inbreeding rendered the Prince immobile, with three tiny, misshapen limbs, a pale countenance and some seriously busted false teeth — but Reubens made every small part a winner.