American comic actor Pee-Wee Herman was born Paul Rubenfield, which he later shortened professionally to Paul Reubens. While growing up in Sarasota, FL, Reubens began acting in junior high school, carrying this extracurricular interest through several colleges before graduating from the California Institute of the Arts. A natural-born clown, Reubens joined an improv group called the Groundlings, which during its existence would boast such formidable talent as Phil Hartman and Jon Lovitz. In 1978, Reubens developed the comic persona of Pee-Wee Herman, a childlike, squeaky-voiced kiddie show host reminiscent of Pinky Lee (with a little Soupy Sales thrown in). Soon "The Pee-Wee Herman Show" became a nightclub act unto itself; this multi-layered skewing of the whole children's entertainment ethic included a huge supporting cast, deliberately repulsive puppets, bizarre props, and, of course, Pee-Wee himself, who cavorted about the set like a baby speed freak. Reubens, who for all intents and purposes was Pee-Wee Herman at this point, was given frequent TV exposure thanks to Late Night With David Letterman and the home-video version of The Pee-Wee Herman Show. With former Groundling Phil Hartman, Pee-Wee/Reubens co-scripted the 1985 film Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Though it was the inaugural project of director Tim Burton, it was not Pee-Wee's first film (he'd already shown up in The Blues Brothers  and Cheech and Chong's Nice Dreams ). A surrealistic reworking of the classic Italian film The Bicycle Thief, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was a tad too bizarre for its distributor Warner Bros. The studio chose to release the film slowly on a regional basis -- but when the box-offices began to bulge, Warners gave the film a major big-city push. Audiences immediately understood that Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was meant to be a nine-year-old's notion of the Perfect World; critics, to whom nothing is ever simple, insisted upon reading all sorts of motivation and subtext into the film, and suddenly Pee-Wee Herman was the darling of the wine-and-cheese crowd. In 1986, Pee-Wee launched a Saturday morning kid's show, Pee-Wee's Playhouse, which immediately scored a hit, attracting as many adults as children (some of those adults began renting the original Pee-Wee Herman Show for their children, assuming that it would be as "safe" as the Saturday morning program -- only to be amazed at how raunchy the earlier Pee-Wee could be). The performer's popularity peaked in 1988, at which time his second film, Big Top Pee-Wee, was released. This film was not as cohesive nor as funny as the first, and it was a disappointment for both Reubens and his fans. The actor began announcing plans to "kill" his alter-ego and become Paul Reubens again in public. But the death of "Pee-Wee" came not as a suicide, but more of a crime of passion when Reubens was arrested in 1991 for indecent exposure at a screening of a porno movie. Backlash from the incident -- including the pulling of Pee-Wee merchandise off the shelves of stores and CBS' immediate cancellation of his Saturday morning show -- effectively forced the performer to abandon the Pee-Wee character. Since his fateful night at the movies, Reubens has appeared as the Penguin's father in Batman Returns (1992), a hand-me-down Dracula in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), and a voice in Tim Burton's animated feature The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Reubens also became a semi-regular guest on the CBS television sitcom Murphy Brown. As time went on the public either forgot or forgave Reubens for his past indiscretions, and after a series of small film roles lead to larger roles in such films as Blow (2000), Reubens' past (as well as the Pee-Wee Herman alter-ego that made him famous) faded, giving the public a chance to reacquaint themselves with the actor outside of the context of his once-famous persona. In 2001 Reubens' popularity experienced something of a revival as he returned to television as the host of the popular computer trivia game turned game show You Don't Know Jack. Interviews with Reubens even hinted at a resurrection of Pee-Wee Herman in the form of a proposed trilogy in which the character, after becoming a popular celebrity, would struggle with the ill-effects of fame.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- His father, Milton Rubenfeld, was an accomplished pilot , flying for both the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Air Force in WWII and was one of five original pilots for the Israeli Air Force.
- Appeared on The Gong Show 15 times in the late 1970s.
- Originally created the character of Pee-wee Herman, along with Phil Hartman, for a Groundlings improv-group sketch.
- Auditioned for Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s, but was not cast.
- Pee-wee's Playhouse had a budget of $325,000 per episode, one of the largest ever for a children's show and won 22 Daytime Emmys.
- His career was damaged by a 1991 arrest for exposing himself in an adult theater, resulting in a no-contest plea and a period of self-imposed seclusion.
- Made a cameo appearance in Batman Returns (1992), playing the Penguin's father; in 2016, he played the same role in the TV show Gotham.
- In 2010, presented The Pee-Wee Herman Show at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York.
- Appeared in a 2011 Saturday Night Live digital short with Andy Samberg.