Three decades after 'Pee-wee's Big Adventure' and a career-threatening scandal, the 67-year-old has become a comedy cult hero with a shocking new Pee-wee script: "I make the rules about when I'm coming back."
Paul Reubens has chosen the meeting place: a retro diner not far from the Hollywood home he's lived in for 35 years, paid for with his earnings from 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure. But he does not arrive, as one might hope, on a red beach cruiser outfitted with a Tiger Super Siren Horn. He pulls up in a silver Honda Accord. And he's not wearing a two-sizes-too-tight gray suit and red bow tie; he's in rimless glasses, a brown corduroy jacket and a navy button-down. He might easily be mistaken for a tax attorney.
"You know, my picture used to be up on the wall here," he says after settling down in a booth and ordering a hamburger. "And then they sold it and all of a sudden it wasn't show business pictures anymore. But it used to be."
Picture or not, Reubens, now 67, is having a late-career moment — or at least trying his hardest to make one happen. Twenty-nine years after a notorious run-in at a Florida adult movie theater derailed his career — which was heading toward becoming the biggest children's-programming phenom since Mister Rogers — he's still hoping to pedal his red Schwinn back into America's hearts. In a few days, he's embarking on a 25-city road show celebrating the 35th anniversary of Pee-wee's Big Adventure — the film that put Tim Burton on the map — that's selling out at 2,000-seat theaters across the country. He's at work on a radio project — something akin to a Pee-wee podcast — and is in talks to develop an animated series centering on Pee-wee and the puppets from his old TV show's Puppetland. Most intriguing of all, he's been pitching studios on The Pee-wee Herman Story, a very un-Pee-wee-sounding screenplay that takes his puckish TV persona into dark and unexpected territory (Pee-wee gets sent to a mental hospital for shock treatment for his alcoholism, no joke).
Reubens has become a beloved icon among today's cool comedy people (Taika Waititi loves him so much, he put him in a 2019 episode of FX's What We Do in the Shadows), but even so, achieving a late-career comeback promises to be an uphill ride for his oddball alter-ego. In today's overstuffed entertainment landscape, it's hard to imagine a lane for a sexagenarian man-child who talks to his furniture. If Reubens is showing his age a bit — his iconic baby face is now covered in fine lines — he's still pedaling away, upbeat about his future and determined to keep Pee-wee in the race.
"People have argued I've done everything consciously or unconsciously to destroy [the character]," he says. "But it's the brand that won't die. It's still around."
It all started in the early 1970s at the California Institute of the Arts, where Reubens — who grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Sarasota, Florida — was enrolled in an acting class alongside David Hasselhoff and Katey Sagal. "The really big thing at the time was conceptual art, performance art, that kind of stuff," Reubens says. He later moved to L.A.'s Echo Park and found a group of like-minded collaborators at The Groundlings, the legendary sketch-comedy theater on Melrose Avenue that launched many a Saturday Night Live star. "Me and Phil Hartman and John Paragon, who was Jambi the Genie, we were the three male 'stars' at The Groundlings," he remembers. "We would sit in my car in the parking lot and fantasize and talk about what it would be like to be working actors."
Another person around at that time was Cassandra Peterson, better known as Elvira. "The first time I saw Paul, I thought he was the funniest person I had ever seen in my entire life," she says. "I just remember staring at him and going, 'I want to be his best friend.' "
Pee-wee was just one of a stable of characters Reubens had been developing (another was Moses Feldman, a 100-year-old comic strip creator). At first, he was conceived as a super-geeky stand-up comedian who cracked extremely blue jokes. But the character evolved, with Reubens drawing inspiration from the children's entertainment of his youth — Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo and Rocky and Bullwinkle in particular. And then one day Reubens slipped into the now-iconic costume — the suit was a loaner from Groundlings founder Gary Austin, the bow tie he grabbed from a pile of accessories backstage — and something inside him clicked.
"It dawned on me that I could actually become Pee-wee Herman," he says. "I could do something that was conceptual art, and the only person who would really know it was conceptual was me." He tested the waters by auditioning for The Dating Game in character as Pee-wee. He was instantly cast — his first paying Hollywood gig.
It was in 1980, after returning dejectedly from a trip to New York for a failed SNL audition, that Reubens decided to take his fate into his own hands. "I just got off the plane and went, 'I'm doing a show.' I made some phone calls and two days later I had the whole cast." The Pee-wee Herman Show, mounted first at The Groundlings and later at The Roxy on the Sunset Strip, introduced live audiences not just to Reubens' high-pitched oddball but also to the denizens of Puppetland, including Pterri the pterodactyl, Clockey the talking clock, flirty neighbor Miss Yvonne (played by Groundling Lynne Marie Stewart) and the grizzled Kap'n Karl (Hartman).
The show was a buzzy enough hit to land an HBO special in 1981. That led to semi-regular Pee-wee appearances on Late Night With David Letterman, which gave Reubens enough of a national profile to embark on his first tour, a 22-city circuit billed as The Pee-wee Herman Party, which included sold-out shows at New York's Carnegie Hall and L.A.'s Universal Amphitheater. Warner Bros. executives at the L.A. date were so impressed that they greenlit Big Adventure on the spot.
In those early days, film executives often mistook Reubens for his character. "I would go into meetings as myself, and people would look at me and call me Pee-wee," he recalls. "They would be like, 'How does $200 for this project sound to you, Pee-wee?' " He credits an unlikely inspiration — Sylvester Stallone, who had famously refused to allow anyone else to star in or direct Rocky — with giving him the chutzpah to demand creative control over his movie debut. "When I look back on it, I was extremely self-assured," he notes. He rejected the first director assigned to him by then-Warner chiefs Terry Semel and Bob Daly. He remembers the studio heads telling him, "You have one week to find somebody who's approvable, affordable and available — the three A's." It was Lisa Henson, Jim Henson's daughter and a Warners executive at the time, who recommended that Reubens see Frankenweenie, a short by a promising Disney artist.
Big Adventure was released Aug. 9, 1985, and was immediately recognized as something of a bizarro masterpiece. Made on a relative shoestring budget of $7 million ($17 million in 2020) it went on to gross $41 million ($98 million today). At the premiere, attended by the likes of Eddie Murphy and David Lee Roth, a CBS executive approached Reubens with the idea of turning Pee-wee into a Saturday morning cartoon. "I immediately went, 'What about a live-action show?' And they went, 'Sure. Fine.' "
Everything about Pee-wee's Playhouse, which ran on CBS from 1986 to 1991, was ahead of its time. The sets were designed by the punk-rock cartoonist Gary Panter, while the stop-motion animation was created by the same company that designed MTV's eye-popping interstitials. Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh co-composed the theme song, which was sung by an uncredited Cyndi Lauper. The cast drew from some of Reubens' Groundlings favorites (Hartman reprised his sea-captain character for one season before going on to bigger things at SNL) plus some new faces like S. Epatha Merkerson as Reba the Mail Lady (until she found Law & Order fame) and Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis (who, of course, would play The Matrix's Morpheus).
His second Pee-wee movie — 1988's Big Top Pee-wee, directed not by Burton but by Randal Kleiser, who hadn't made a hit since 1978's Grease — bombed. "It was my first un-golden, un-Midas-touchy kind of thing," Reubens remembers. "I listened to the critics, which was a huge mistake." Licking his wounds, he retreated to TV, where he was still very much a beloved personality. One moment he was filling in as guest host on The Late Show With Joan Rivers, the next he was hosting Christmas at Pee-wee's Playhouse, a CBS primetime special that featured a cavalcade of late-1980s gay icons — Cher, Grace Jones, Dinah Shore, k.d. lang, Annette Funicello and Little Richard among them — all but inviting speculation about Reubens' own sexuality, a subject he has never publicly broached. "And I don't plan on it," he says. "It just takes all the fun out of it."
But then, on July 26, 1991, while on a trip to Sarasota to visit his parents, Reubens was arrested in the lobby of the XXX South Trail Cinema for indecent exposure during the porn theater's triple bill of Catalina Five-O Tiger Shark, Nurse Nancy and Turn Up the Heat — and within hours his long-haired mug shot was plastered everywhere, feeding late-night monologues for weeks and pretty much crushing his career as a kiddie show star. Disney World deleted a Pee-wee voiceover from its MGM Studios tour. Toys R Us removed Pee-wee toys from its shelves. And while Reubens had already called it quits on Playhouse — he says he was suffering from Pee-wee burnout at the time — CBS pulled five remaining episodes of the show, giving the impression that the network had fired him. Despite pro-Pee-wee rallies held in cities like San Francisco, New York and L.A. — and vocal support from the likes of Lauper, Funicello and (a then-still-golden) Bill Cosby — Reubens retreated from the public eye.
It was a strategic retreat, at least in his mind. "When people go, like, 'Was your career over in '90, '91?' I never viewed it like that," he insists. "I make the rules of when I'm coming back and when I'm not coming back, and what I do next."
Beyond those few words, Reubens refuses to discuss the three-decade-old arrest. Every question about it receives the same answer: "That's all going to be in my book. Whatever I'm going to express, it's going to be in my book. And even then, I don't know if I'm going to express much about it." Ask when the book will be written and he admits he hasn't quite started yet.
In any case, his Pee-wee character would remain dormant for almost two decades, even if Reubens did not. He continued to pop up throughout the '90s as everything from the Penguin's father in Burton's Batman Returns in 1992 to flatulent superhero Spleen in 1999's Mystery Men. In 2010, however, an idea "just came" to Reubens to remount The Pee-wee Herman Show, first at L.A.'s Club Nokia and then for a 10-week stint at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Broadway. The run, which drew positive reviews, had an ulterior motive: Reubens hoped it might help him get another film off the ground. And it did. After seeing the show, Judd Apatow approached Reubens with the possibility of producing a third Pee-wee movie.
It took six years from his first conversation with Apatow for Pee-wee's Big Holiday to reach the screen — and even then it wasn't a big screen. First Universal Pictures, where the project was set up, passed after several years of development. Further complicating matters, Reubens and Apatow weren't seeing eye-to-eye creatively. Reubens — who concedes to being a "control freak" — was determined to make what he refers to as "the dark Pee-wee movie." It's a script whose first draft was completed in the late 1990s, and Reubens has been tinkering with it ever since. In it, Pee-wee emerges from prison to become an unlikely yodeling star; then moves to Hollywood and becomes a movie star; then he develops a severe pill and alcohol addiction that turns him into a monster. "I've referred to it as the Valley of the Dolls Pee-wee movie," Reubens says, dead serious. "It's about fame."
Apatow had no interest in making that movie and instead urged Reubens to collaborate on something more in step with the upbeat Big Adventure. The result was the 2016 Netflix movie Pee-wee's Big Holiday, which the streamer's content chief, Ted Sarandos — a comedy aficionado with a soft spot for Pee-wee — greenlit at a budget of $30 million. Reubens had a hard time making it. He remembers repeatedly clashing with Apatow over how Pee-wee looked on camera. "Judd kept going, 'You look great.' And I'd be like, 'No. Sorry. It doesn't work for Pee-wee Herman. I don't mind looking my age in something else, but I don't want to look like that in a Pee-wee movie. There's a creepy weirdness to it. It looks like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?' "
But then Reubens saw what modern-day postproduction de-aging technology could do. When the final results were screened, Reubens couldn't believe his eyes — and it gave him an idea. "I was so buoyed by that, I realized, I could do [Pee-wee] for 10 more years if I wanted to," he says. "I think I could do it for a while longer, and just fix my face."
Undoubtably he could. Except Reubens, now more than ever, still wants to make his Valley of the Dolls Pee-wee movie, even if nobody else does. According to several well-placed sources, he's been aggressively shopping the Pee-wee Herman Story script around town and is open to making the movie for as low as $15 million, half the budget of Big Holiday. Apatow still isn't interested and Sarandos passed on the project for Netflix, saying it "doesn't check off all the boxes" of a Pee-wee movie, according to a source with knowledge of the exchange. Undeterred, Reubens approached the Safdie brothers, the sibling-director wunderkinds behind Uncut Gems, who are considering the project. With his quote being $3 million, and de-aging technology alone running around $1.5 million, the viability of the film has drawn skepticism from the finance departments of CAA, UTA and Endeavor Content.
Still, not all hope is lost for The Pee-wee Herman Story. One deep-pocketed super-fan from the U.K. — he showed up to a meeting decked out in full Pee-wee regalia — has offered to put up $10 million of his own money for the budget, according to the source (Reubens wouldn't confirm). It's now up to Reubens to find the rest. "I do feel like it's going to probably happen," he says. "I have a couple of people that are interested. But this is Hollywood. A couple people interested and five bucks will get you five bucks."
At some point there might even be a Pee-wee Herman movie, dark or otherwise, that doesn't star Paul Reubens, at least not in the flesh. "I think actors are going to be obsolete really quick," he predicts. "And part of me would love to sell the whole thing. That would include my digital scans, a couple of scripts, some other stuff. I don't for one second feel I'm George Lucas or that Pee-wee Herman the franchise is Star Wars, but it's worth something, you know? And I feel like I could step away from it." (Reubens retains ownership of the Pee-wee character and his Playhouse entourage.)
And with that, Reubens politely excuses himself from the booth at the diner. The first of his Big Adventure roadshow appearances is just a few days off, he explains, and he's still not entirely sure what he's going to say to the audience after the screening is over. This show will be different from his previous live tours. For one, he'll be appearing as Paul Reubens, not Pee-wee Herman. "It's advertised as interesting stories, or never-before-told stories," he explains. "It's going to be mostly trivia that people won't know. In 35 years, all kinds of weird stuff's happened from that movie. I think it's going to be really fun." The rare opportunity to spend some face time with their hero has proven an irresistible draw for Pee-wee superfans (in fact, Reubens spoke for more than two hours to a capacity crowd at the first performance in Ventura, California, on Jan. 24).
Still, even after he reminisces for two hours onstage — or spends three in a diner answering a reporter's questions — there remains a nagging sense that you've barely pierced the surface. Because, to paraphrase Pee-wee's iconic cri de coeur in Big Adventure, when it comes to Paul Reubens, there will always be things you wouldn't understand, couldn't understand, shouldn't understand.
Beyond Pee-Wee: Reubens' Other Movie Roles
From hotel desk clerk to the Penguin's dad, here's how he's acted outside the 'Playhouse.'
Cheech & Chong's Next Movie (1980)
In one of his earliest screen roles (he’d previously played a waiter in The Blues Brothers), Reubens portrayed a hotel desk clerk checking in "two crazies" whom he reports to the police. "I think they’re Iranians."
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
In the movie that inspired the TV series, Reubens was a vampire who attacks Luke Perry and David Arquette. For his big death scene, the director told him: "Figure it out and die."
Mystery Men (1999)
Reubens shared the screen with Greg Kinnear, William H. Macy, Janeane Garofalo, Geoffrey Rush, Hank Azaria and Ben Stiller, playing a superhero who knocks out bad guys with his powerful flatulence.
In a rare dramatic role — alongside Johnny Depp and Penélope Cruz — Reubens played Derek Foreal, a marijuana dealer who gets mixed up with Pablo Escobar and a scheme to sell cocaine in California.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.