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Of all the characters created by Paul Reubens, one - a nasal-voiced rascal of stunted maturity in an ill-fitting suit and cupie-doll bowtie - unexpectedly struck a chord with the inner-child in audiences everywhere. After years as a struggling comedian and actor, Reubens first introduced his signature character to audiences nationwide with a taped performance of his silly, yet subversive Los Angeles stage production, "The Pee-wee Herman Show" (HBO, 1981). Reubens' cult following eventually grew large enough to merit a feature film and "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" (1985), directed by Tim Burton, became a genuine hit. He enjoyed continued success with the beloved Saturday morning kids show, "Pee-wee's Playhouse" (CBS, 1986-1991) and the movie sequel, "Big Top Pee-wee" (1988), until an indecent exposure arrest altered the public's perception of both Reubens and his creation. After nearly a decade of seclusion and battles with depression, the performer gradually returned with appearances on television and in films like "Mystery Men" (1999) and "Blow" (2001), until a dubious arrest for child pornography in 2002 once again tarnished his image, despite the fact that the charges were later dropped. Still,...
Of all the characters created by Paul Reubens, one - a nasal-voiced rascal of stunted maturity in an ill-fitting suit and cupie-doll bowtie - unexpectedly struck a chord with the inner-child in audiences everywhere. After years as a struggling comedian and actor, Reubens first introduced his signature character to audiences nationwide with a taped performance of his silly, yet subversive Los Angeles stage production, "The Pee-wee Herman Show" (HBO, 1981). Reubens' cult following eventually grew large enough to merit a feature film and "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" (1985), directed by Tim Burton, became a genuine hit. He enjoyed continued success with the beloved Saturday morning kids show, "Pee-wee's Playhouse" (CBS, 1986-1991) and the movie sequel, "Big Top Pee-wee" (1988), until an indecent exposure arrest altered the public's perception of both Reubens and his creation. After nearly a decade of seclusion and battles with depression, the performer gradually returned with appearances on television and in films like "Mystery Men" (1999) and "Blow" (2001), until a dubious arrest for child pornography in 2002 once again tarnished his image, despite the fact that the charges were later dropped. Still, Reubens found comfort and redemption as his alter-ego when a new stage production enjoyed sold-out runs in Los Angeles and New York City prior to being aired on cable as "The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway" (2011). Forever channeling the socially inept child of wonder in everyone, Reubens and Pee-wee had left an indelible, joyful mark on the memories of an entire generation.
Born on August 27, 1952, Paul Rubenfeld was raised in Peekskill, NY until, just into the fourth grade, his parents opted for the warm embrace of Sarasota, FL where they had opened a lamp store. The energetic Rubenfeld found himself performing even as a child, doing bits and funny characters for friends in school. Living in Sarasota, Rubenfeld was often surrounded by circus performers, as Florida was the winter base for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and his school had many children of circus performers as attendees. Rubenfeld even acquired skills on the tightrope and the trapeze, figuring that if acting did not pan out, he could always become an acrobat or clown. In 1970, after graduating from Sarasota High School, Rubenfeld studied acting at Boston University for one year. Unsuccessfully attempting to transfer to both Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University and the acting department of Juilliard in New York, he headed west to study acting at the California Institute for the Arts. While living in California, he began to run across people he had met at Boston University a few years back, as well as others who attended the school after he had left. One of them had recently been a contestant on "The Gong Show" (1976-1980) and recruited the young actor, now going by Paul Reubens, to do a routine with her on the show. He agreed, despite the fact that up until this point he considered himself a serious dramatic actor and had not thought about doing comedy. Their routine, "The Hilarious Betty and Eddie," was a hit with the judges. During the late 1970s, Reubens ended up appearing on the show 15 times, playing various characters and winning four times, but he always expected to be gonged.
The "Gong Show" experience led Reubens to an improvisational group in Los Angeles called The Groundlings, in which members were proactive in writing their own material and developing their own characters. Reubens already had more than a dozen or so characters, but in 1979, introduced a new character named Pee-wee Herman in a Groundlings sketch that took such children's television icons as Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers one step further. Pee-wee was a manchild-ish hybrid of Howdy Doody's appearance and a children's show host's sensibilities, only with a slightly more mischievous side. The look - rouged cheeks and grease-flecked hair, a perennially too-small grey suit and red bowtie - was always the same. The character's moniker came from a harmonica he owned with the brand name of Pee-wee and the memory of a high-strung boy he remembered from childhood with the last name of Herman. The voice he came up with for Pee-wee had its origins in a Florida stage production of "Life With Father," which featured the young Rubenfeld. Over the course of the show's run, he unconsciously began to modify the voice into the cartoonish style that later became synonymous with Pee-wee Herman.
In 1980, Reubens' creation was starting to make appearances on NBC's "The David Letterman Show" (1980) and Reubens soon became one of 22 finalists considered for a cast spot on "Saturday Night Live (NBC, 1975- ). At the auditions, he realized he wasn't going to get the job when one member of the competition included comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who was too similar to him in voice and comedic tone to make him stand out. Gottfried indeed got the gig, but Reubens continued to hone the Pee-wee character with the Groundlings and at various clubs. The character became a popular draw that year, and Reubens called upon his parents in Sarasota, borrowing $5,000 to develop "The Pee-wee Herman Show." With the money, he moved the act from the Groundlings Theater to the bigger venue of The Roxy on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip for a five-month run. Word of mouth was so strong that comedy duo Cheech & Chong caught the show and then had Reubens appear in the films "Cheech & Chong's Next Movie" (1980) and "Nice Dreams" (1981). The attention he got was also significant enough to land him a deal with HBO to tape one of his performances at the Roxy. A somewhat different creation than in later years, the Roxy's version of Pee-wee was slightly more adult in his sense of love and sexuality, but was still the mischievous childlike man with the familiar fashion sense. The show featured other original characters such as Miss Yvonne, Captain Carl, Jambi the Genie and Mailman Mike, all played by fellow Groundlings cast members.
With Pee-wee Herman gaining more national attention, Reubens became a recurring guest on NBC's "Late Night with David Letterman" (1982-1993), appearing to tell jokes and offer his bag of toy props over a half-dozen appearances through the mid-1980s. Letterman, like his audience, seemed to be both befuddled and enthralled by the act all at once. Reubens had stints, both in and out of character, in projects from "Saturday Night Live" alums such as "The Blues Brothers" (1980), "Steve Martin: Comedy is Not Pretty" (1980) and "Steve Martin: All Commercials" (1980), as well as on the popular sitcom "Mork & Mindy" (ABC, 1978-1982).
In 1984, Reubens as Pee-wee embarked on a tour across the United States that culminated with a sold-out show at New York's Carnegie Hall, hoping to demonstrate to Hollywood that he had now built a dedicated audience. He and fellow Groundling, Phil Hartman, then collaborated with writer Michael Varhol on a movie script based on a "true story" Reubens half-seriously intoned came from his youth. With another young CalArts alumnus, the gifted animator, Tim Burton, recruited into the fold, Warner Brothers was convinced, shelling out $6 million to make "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" (1985). The story about Pee-wee's strange and sweet-natured quest to find his stolen bike, a dream two-wheeler modeled after the eye-catching Schwinns of the 1950s, was a big hit with audiences upon its release in July of 1985, offered everything that was fresh and innovative about the character and expanding it into a more imaginative world.
After finally making his own film, Reubens took Pee-wee Herman and returned to New York that November, wrapping up the year by hosting "Saturday Night Live" in character. In 1986, Reubens seized an opportunity to give Pee-wee his own kids' show for CBS, hence the creation of "Pee-wee's Playhouse" (1986-1991), which became a popular Saturday morning offering with kids as well as adults. The show was an innovative blend of ornate set design and techniques in clay and stop-motion animation, as well as puppetry mixed with some Groundlings-style character development. For the series, Reubens brought back some old friends like Jon Paragon's Jambi the Genie, Phil Hartman's Captain Carl and Lynne-Marie Stewart's Miss Yvonne, along with a host of new characters over the years such as the King of Cartoons, Conky the Robot and Cowboy Curtis, played by then-rising star Laurence Fishburne. During its run, "Pee-wee's Playhouse" won 25 Emmy Awards in total, including three for Reubens' acting, and resulted in a special, "Pee-wee Herman's Christmas Special" (1988).
Though Pee-wee Herman kept putting in small appearances in such projects as the sitcom, "227" (NBC, 1985-1990); Paramount's Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon vehicle "Back to the Beach" (1987); and Dolly Parton's variety show, "Dolly" (ABC, 1987-88), the success of "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" made a sequel inevitable. Co-written with "Playhouse" writer George McGrath, "Big Top Pee-wee" (1988) was clearly close to its creator's heart, with Pee-wee now engaged and the owner of a small-town farm. When a circus blows into town on the heels of a terrible storm, the troupe soon decides to put on a local circus starring the bowtie-wearing hero, who falls for its beautiful acrobat. Sadly, the movie proved uninteresting to viewers and ultimately unsuccessful, lacking both the innocent charm and inspiration that propelled its predecessor.
On July 26, 1991, Reubens faced what was perhaps the second biggest challenge in his successful career. While visiting family in Sarasota, he was arrested for allegedly exposing himself during a screening at a local adult movie theater. He was charged with indecent exposure, took a plea of no contest and received a fine. The incident had a very strong, but mixed public reaction. Disney swiftly axed the presence of Pee-wee Herman in one of its tour attractions and CBS cancelled five scheduled re-runs of "Playhouse." The show was already set to end, although not due to cancellation. A creatively spent Reubens had, in fact, earmarked the fifth season as a time to finally give his Pee-wee persona a rest. For many, the reality of Reubens' arrest seemed irrevocably tied to the make-believe character, but not everyone was ready to condemn the actor behind the suit. When he appeared onstage as Pee-wee at the "MTV Video Music Awards" in September of 1991, it was to an unabashed standing ovation.
Though he felt mortified by the scandal, Reubens ultimately decided to forge ahead with his career, simply reverting back to being the actor Paul Reubens. In the year after his arrest, old friend Tim Burton put him into a walk-on cameo as the Penguin's father in the opening of the big-budget blockbuster, "Batman Returns" (1992). He also landed a small, but significant role as a menacing, smarmy ghoul in the horror satire, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (1992), provided a voice for Burton's animated "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993), and in 1995, landed a recurring role as a sarcasm-laden television executive on CBS' long-running sitcom "Murphy Brown" (1988-1998). At this point, he had even begun to re-develop an old pilot idea for executive Warren Littlefield at NBC called "Meet the Muckles," a big sitcom about a madcap performing family. Three years, a couple of producers, and a trio of production companies later, Littlefield was fired and Reubens' trepidations about returning to TV screens on a weekly basis kicked in. Nonetheless, appearances in the Danny DeVito-directed "Matilda" (1996) and the successful Eddie Murphy vehicle "Doctor Dolittle" (1998) was proof enough that Reubens had not worn out his welcome with the studios and that all seemed forgiven. In August of 1999, he even landed a lead role as The Spleen in Universal Studios' summer comedy, "Mystery Men" (1999).
In 2001, Reubens wowed film critics with his portrayal of Derek Foreal, a hairdresser who partners in the cocaine business with Johnny Depp's George Jung in "Blow" (2001). Only a year earlier, he had given a dark performance as a cowboy in Dwight Yoakum's western drama "South of Heaven, West of Hell" (2000). It had finally seemed that despite his arrest, the shedding of Pee-wee Herman a decade earlier had perhaps reinvigorated Reubens' creative spirit. But the law came intruding upon his life again, this time much more seriously than in Florida. In November 2002, Reubens was arrested on the charge that he was in possession of child pornography. An internet sting brought Reubens to the attention of the Los Angeles police, and some 30,000 or more pieces of rare and vintage erotica and several computers were taken into evidence during a subsequent house raid. Even after friends like Courteney Cox-Arquette and David Arquette publicly leapt to his defense, Reubens took a plea bargain and was sentenced to a three-year probation period. His charge was later reduced to one of obscenity, but he always contended that the material confiscated was legally collected artwork of rare historical value as opposed to pornography.
Once again, facing a career-ending scandal, Reubens found he still had good will within the entertainment industry and was able to work. He voiced one of the characters in Disney's animated feature, "Teacher's Pet" (2004), then went back to doing comedy work in big profile television comedies such as the Comedy Central "Cops" satire, "Reno 911!" (2003-09) and NBC's "30 Rock" (2006- ). He also signed up to appear in the movie version of "Reno 911!" entitled "Reno 911!: Miami" (2007). After some careful thought, Reubens finally felt the time was right to revisit his most famous creation as "Pee-wee's Playhouse" DVD sets had been released to a surprisingly enthusiastic reception in 2004. As he began to rally the troupes for a return to the Playhouse, Reubens kept himself busy with various film and television endeavors. Putting his quirky vocals to excellent use, he played the recurring character of Reuben on the bizarre fantasy cartoon "Chowder" (Cartoon Network, 2007-2010), as well as the trickster alien Bat-Mite for several episodes of the animated cartoon-adventure "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" (Cartoon Network, 2008- ). In one of his more somber feature film roles he turned up in indie filmmaker Todd Solondz's comedy-drama "Life During Wartime" (2009) as a deceased ex-boyfriend appearing in the visions of a troubled woman (Shirley Henderson).
Finally, Reubens' quest to bring Pee-wee back to the public bore fruit with a live stage show that combined the best of the original incarnation with new material. After performing to packed houses at Los Angeles' Nokia Theater for a four-week run in early 2010, Reubens moved the reinvigorated "The Pee-wee Herman Show" to the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York City. Accompanied by his familiar cadre of puppets and talking furniture, in addition to original castmates like Lynne Marie Stewart as Miss Yvonne and new additions like Phil LaMarr filling in for Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis, Reubens thrilled nostalgic fans nationwide with the taped-for-TV movie "The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway" (HBO, 2011). Reubens continued to provide his unique brand of vocal dexterity to films like "The Smurfs" (2011) and the animated sci-fi adventure series "Tron: Uprising" (Disney XD, 2012- ).
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"All I can say about Paul is that he is one of the most creative people I know. Very serious and un-Pee-wee-like in person. He had to approve every story idea I came up with for political correctness. At first I had the popsicles and fudgecicles rapping in the freezer but he thought it was too racist so I made them ice-fishers hoisting up presents from the fridge below. He approved the idea and I scrapped trhe rappers." --Bill O'Neil, creator of "Life in the Fridge" segments from "Pee-wee's Playhouse"
During the five-year run of "Pee-wee's Playhouse", Reubens was nominated for 22 Daytime Emmy Awards in various categories including Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series.
"I'm lower-key than people think I am." --Reubens to Vanity Fair, September 1999.
"If somebody thinks that I'm creepy or a pedophile, all I can say it's not ture."---Reubens on his 2002 arrest for child pornography EW April 9, 2004
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