Paul Reubens was born Paul Rubenfeld on August 27, 1952 in Peekskill, New York, to Judy (Rosen), a teacher, and Milton Rubenfeld, a car salesman who had flown for the air forces of the U.S., U.K., and Israel, becoming one of the latter country’s pioneering pilots. Paul grew up in Sarasota, Florida, where his parents owned a lamp store. During winters, The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus called Sarasota home, and young Paul counted such big-top families as the Wallendas and the Zacchinis among his neighbors. When he was 11-years-old, he joined the local Asolo Theater, and during the next six years, he appeared in a variety of plays. After graduating from Sarasota High School in 1970, he attended Boston University for one year before deciding to seek his fortune as Paul Reubens in Hollywood, where he enrolled as an acting major at the California Institute of the Arts and accepted a string of pay-the-rent jobs ranging from pizza chef to Fuller Brush salesman.
In the mid 1970s, his acting career grew slowly and steadily with small roles in theater productions, gigs at local comedy clubs and four guest appearances on The Gong Show (1976). During this time of education/employment, he joined an improvisational comedy troupe called The Groundlings. The popular gang of yuksters, whose roster has included Conan O’Brien, Lisa Kudrow, the late Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, and Julia Sweeney, wrung laughs from audiences with skits starring scads of imaginative, self-created characters. Among Reubens’s contributions to this comedic community were a philandering husband named Moses Feldman, an Indian chief named Jay Longtoe, and the now fallen Pee-Wee Herman, who debuted in 1978.
Pee-Wee was a funny man-child of indeterminate age and sexuality who created a sarcastic enthusiasm for the popular culture of the ’50s and ’60s. The geeky character’s wardrobe consisted of a gray suit, a white short-sleeved shirt accessorized with a red clip-on bow tie, and white patent-leather loafers. He wore his jet-black hair military short with a defiant tuft in front, and he accentuated his lily-white complexion with pink cheeks and red lipstick. Reubens drew inspiration for Pee-Wee’s geeky behavior from a youth he had attended summer camp with, and derived his creation’s boyish voice from a character he played as a child actor. Pee-Wee appeared for only 10 minutes of The Groundlings show, but he nonetheless built up a considerable following and turned out to be a star of the ’80s and early ’90s. The Pee Wee Herman Show (1981), ran for five sellout months at the Los Angeles’s Roxy nightclub, and HBO taped the performance and aired it as a special.
Now a genuine comedy-circuit star, he became a frequent guest of David Letterman and a favorite at Caroline’s in New York. In 1984, he sold out Carnegie Hall. He later auditioned for the cast of Saturday Night Live (1975), but when that didn’t turn out as planned, he started writing a feature-length screenplay for Pee-Wee to star in, and asked friend Tim Burton to direct. Released to wildly divergent reviews, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), followed its star cross-country in a madcap search for his beloved, stolen bike. The $7 million picture ended up grossing $45 million. That following year, CBS which had been losing children’s audiences to cable programming, was interested in finding something to shore up its Saturday Morning lineup. The network company signed him to act/produce and to direct its live-action children’s program called Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1986). They doled out an eye-popping budget of $325,000 per episode – the same price as a prime- time sitcom. Reubens received complete creative control, albeit with three minor exceptions. During its five-year-run on CBS, he never appeared in general as himself. He even granted printed interviews in full Pee-Wee regalia.
The image of Pee-Wee was broken on July 26, 1991. On his summer vacation, Reubens was visiting his parents in Sarasota and sought escape from boredom by catching a showing of the X-rated film, Nurse Nancy. He fell victim to a police sting operation and was arrested for sex charges when detectives allegedly saw him playing with his private parts. He was released on $219 bail and nobody realized what had happened until somebody recognized him beneath his long hair and goatee. The media went berserk: ‘Kids show star arrested for indecent exposure’. Because of his behavior, CBS dropped the Playhouse and related merchandise was released from its shelves. He agreed to pay a $50 fine plus $85 in court costs to Sarasota County, and he produced a 30 second public service message for the Partnership For Drug-Free America commercial. As part of the deal, the county sealed all legal papers relating to the actor’s arrest and didn’t leave Reubens with a criminal record. The scandal marked the virtual death of Pee-Wee Herman. Reubens appeared as his favorite character for the last time at that Autumn’s MTV Music Video Awards. The enthusiastic reception was not surprising, as he had received 15 thousand supportive letters during his arrest. Regardless, he had recently made a promise not to play Pee-Wee anymore and used his arrest as an chance to portray other roles. A new feature length film by Netflix available beginning March 18, 2016 will allow Reubens to show Pee-Wee fans his character again in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016).
Reubens has landed a series of offbeat character roles. One year after he was taken into custody, he appeared in Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) as the Penguin’s unloving father, and as a vampire henchman in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). Subsequent jobs have included a voice over for Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), a healthy stint as Andrew J. Lansing III on Murphy Brown (1988), and roles in the feature films, Dunston Checks In (1996), Matilda (1996), Buddy (1997) and Mystery Men (1999). He also signed to emcee a new game show based on the popular ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ CD-ROM version.
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