Actors create characters all the time. It’s literally what they do. The truly great ones create characters that seem to exist on its own. Some actors so fully commit to a character that they even begin to appear in public as the character, going on talk shows, and making cameos as the character. Andy Kaufman, for instance, did it with depraved lounge singer Tony Clifton. Sacha Baron Cohen did promotion for Borat in character. But no actor-turned-character has ever been so successful, prolific, or beloved as Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman.
In addition to several movies, stage productions, and his own series, Pee-wee has appeared in numerous talk shows, movies, and sitcoms as himself. In fact, for much of the ’80s and into the ’90s, Reubens seldom gave interviews or made public appearances as himself, with Pee-wee as his public persona. However, Reubens never fully gave up playing other roles. Once Pee-wee’s popularity began to wane in the mid-’90s, the actor dove into a lot more non-Pee-wee roles, building a nearly four-decade career with just as much work outside of Pee-wee’s shiny shoes as in them.
As a tribute to an actor who doesn’t always get the credit he deserves for his versatility, we present to you the Paul Reuben’s 15 Best Non-Pee-wee Roles.
15. Elijah Van Dahl – Gotham
The Fox series Gotham does a great job at making clever little callbacks to the storied history of the Batman brand. In one of the best examples of this, Paul Reubens reprises his role as Oswald Cobblepot’s dad, which he first played in the very beginning of the Tim Burton film Batman Returns. However, the similarities between the two characters end at Reubens being the eventual Penguin’s biological father.
In Gotham‘s version, Cobblepot’s father comes back into his son’s life after Cobblepot is already an adult and established criminal mastermind. Upon learning of his son’s deeds, Elijah is proud rather than disgusted, and the two share a brief reconciliation before Elijah is killed (not by Cobblepot).
Reubens does a masterful job playing a man who, by most accounts, is good, but who could somehow still feel connected to a son who is a calculating murderer. There is a darkness in Elijah’s eyes that reflects Oswald’s, suggesting that at least some of Oswald’s evil may have been inherited, rather than simply learned.
14. Oscar Vibenius – Pushing Daisies
The criminally short-lived ABC series Pushing Daisies was quirky and darkly funny, which of course made it the perfect home for one of Paul Reubens’ wacky characters. Reubens played “olfactory expert” Oscar Vibenius who worked for the utility company – such as a utility company would exist in the offbeat world of Pushing Daisies. Oscar was constantly at odds with rival olfactory expert– yep, there were two of them– Napoleon Lenez, with Oscar scoffing at Napoleon’s love of sweet, pleasant smells, saying that natural (read: foul) odors are more pure.
Unfortunately, Pushing Daisies wasn’t long for this world, and so neither was Oscar. Series creator Bryan Fuller confirmed that Oscar would’ve continued to be a series mainstay had the show continued, which would’ve provided a steady, satisfying role for Reubens. As it stands, he only exists on two episodes of a show that remains frustratingly difficult to watch due to it still being stubbornly unavailable on Hulu, Netflix, et al.
13. Ivor – Minecraft: Story Mode
Full disclosure: Much of the reason why Reubens’ turn as grumpy Ivor from Minecraft: Story Mode is so great is getting to hear him banter with Patton Oswalt. The two nerd culture heroes play off of each other wonderfully, and it can’t be soon enough that they are in something together again.
But Reubens’ performance is great on its own as well, playing the gruff, somewhat uneasy ally of the game’s protagonists. In one of the character’s best scenes, Ivor is walking around practicing his big “I’ve got you now!” moment for when he finds his enemies, providing Reubens the opportunity to play a character at his least guarded– and therefore, silliest.
Story Mode certainly isn’t one of the better Telltale Games series, but where it lacks in story, it is more than made up for by performances like Reubens’. To the game’s credit, Ivor ended up being a more well-rounded character than just the stock villain type he could’ve easily been.
12. The Weirdos’ Lawyer – Portlandia
On Portlandia, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein simultaneously mock and celebrate hipsters, freaks, and weirdos. One of the things that sets it apart from other sketch shows is that it has a consistent universe and an overarching– if loose–storyline that progresses with each episode. In the season five finale, the show’s cast of “weirdos” are put on trial for, well, being weirdos for the previous five seasons, essentially. And who better to defend them against a world that doesn’t understand or appreciate them than Paul Reubens?
In a brilliant monologue that serves as his lawyer character’s opening statements in court, Reubens tells of the importance and historical significance of weirdos, arguing that even the very concept of love wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for weirdos.
Reubens masterfully plays an elder weirdo of sorts, mostly calmed down in his later years but still prone to bursts of weirdness– including when he literally growls and barks at reporters outside. If anyone is a current elder statesmen for creative outcasts, its Paul Reubens.
11. Waiter – The Blues Brothers
In one of Reubens’ earliest mainstream roles pre-Pee-wee, he plays the snooty waiter at an upscale restaurant who has to contend with loud, abrasive, “smelly” Jake and Elwood Blues sitting at one of his tables. He only has a few lines, but he still does wonders with his short amount of screen time, showing his rude patrons the bare minimum of required respect while very obviously wearing his disgust on his face.
Reubens demonstrated his comedic accumen in this limited role, embodying the stuck-up waiter who communicated a lot while physically doing very little. Even in these early years, Reubens’ smaller roles still tended to be broad and tease his ability to play over-the-top characters, so it was nice to also get a taste of the more understated roles the actor would take on in the latter half of his career. Broad or specific, Paul Reubens makes an impression on the audience.
10. Spleen – Mystery Men
Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: Mystery Men wasn’t a great movie. The premise was ahead of its time– a parody of superhero tropes when superheroes were still a fairly niche cinematic conceit– and the cast was stellar– Ben Stiller, Jeneane Garofalo, William H. Macy, Hank Azaria, Geoffrey Rush, Eddie Izzard, and of course, Mr. Reubens– but it just didn’t quite come together like it should have. That said, one of the movie’s bright spots was in the scene devouring performance of Reubens as the gas-powered Spleen.
To play a character whose special ability is his powerful flatulence without being strictly appealing to five year old stakes a certain kind of actor to pull off, and Reubens manages to rise to the task. His speech impediment, warts, and funky ’70s garb are a little on the nose (pun intended), but Reubens somehow makes it work. His over the top reading of the line, “Because I smelt it, I would forevermore be… he who dealt it!” has earned its due place in the actor’s career highlight reel.
9. Andrew J. Lansing – Murphy Brown
Following his 1991 arrest for acts we shall not repeat while patronizing a theater showing movies that would’ve made Miss Yvonne blush, Paul Reubens’ reputation and career took a major hit in the beginning of the decade. He had a few movies release the following year, but they had likely already wrapped filming at the time of his arrest. His big comeback role, outside of voice-over work, was a six-episode stint on the long-running Candice Bergen newsroom comedy Murphy Brown. Reubens played one of Murphy’s parade of short-lived assistants, though the wiry Lansing actually stuck around for a decent stretch of time.
Murphy Brown had multi-episode stints, many of whom also played ill-fated administrative assistants, from some of the all-time great character actors– Wallace Shawn, Chris Elliot, David Paymer, Marcia Wallace, Anne Meara, et al– but Reubens remains one of the most memorable, and that’s including the shark-jumping stunt-casting of comedy legend Lily Tomlin toward the end of the show’s run.
8. Rick – Reno 911!
Not to be confused with Reubens’ appearance in the Reno 911! movie, where he plays the fur-wearing father of Nick Swardson’s Terry, his character Rick from the TV series is one of the best on-screen examples of the actor’s stellar improvisational skills. Reubens slips into the cast like a glove, as if he has been doing improv work with Tom Lennon and co. for years.
As Reubens’ began his career as a member of the Groundlings, his roots in improv comedy are well-established. Still, not everyone can keep those skills sharp for years and years outside of that environment. Just look at the stilted awkwardness often exhibited by old SNL cast members who come back to the show for cameos after being away from sketch comedy for a long time. But Reubens makes it look effortless, as if improv comedy is like riding a bicycle.
Not to sound like a broken record, but again, in a show known for scene-stealing cameos from recognizable stars– often intentionally playing against type– Reubens’ turn as the leader of a local Citizen’s Patrol group is one of the best of Reno 911!‘s run.
7. Penguin’s Father – Batman Returns
Reubens’ first turn as the father of Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin had far less screen time than his role on Gotham, and also didn’t have a single word of dialogue. But in Batman Returns, he has a much more important role: to establish the entire origin story of Penguin in just a few short scenes, without saying a thing.
In a mini-reunion of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Tim Burton directs Reubens and Diane Salinger (who played Simone in Adventure but this time is playing Penguin’s mother) as they discover that their new child is, well, different. Not wanting to deal with their unorthodox offspring, they take it to a bridge and drop the baby into a stream, where he floats down into the sewer and thus begins his road to becoming a disturbed supervillian.
6. Mr. Vargas – The Blacklist
Some of the best villains are the ones who never lose their cool, keeping an even-keeled demeanor as they say and do terrible things. It can be even more disturbing when it takes them a while to actually get to the evil, as they make random small talk before getting to their point. For his turn on The Blacklist, Reubens absolutely nails this trope.
A woman comes home to find armed, dark-clothed men in her house. Mr. Vargas enters the room and immediately starts berating the woman– again, in an eerily calm manner– for leaving her dog in the house all day. He then tells her that the dog had two accidents in the house, and not only points out the psychological trauma that that can cause an animal, but informs her that he cleaned up both of the messes. Again, this is before he has told her anything about who he is or why he has spent the day in her home.
5. Amilyn – Buffy the Vampire Slayer (movie)
It was the perfect role to kick off what would become Reubens’ long hiatus from Pee-wee: a villain in a campy horror comedy. Much like the rest of the cast of the 1992 cult classic, Reubens seems to be having the time of his life in his role as the weaselly vampire Amilyn. While it’s his ridiculously overacted and hilarious death scene that people remember most– made even more absurd with Rutger Hauer smiling and playing violin as Amilyn writhes and hisses– Reubens whole performance in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie is a treat. It’s Paul Reubens delivering Joss Whedon dialogue– what can be better than that?
In fact, Reubens’ performance is much of the reason why the movie gained cult hit status even before the franchise was revived by the Sarah Michelle Gellar-led TV series and had people curiously going back and giving the movie another look. Unfortunately, the show never featured a Reubens cameo. Then again, after that amazing death scene, anything else he would’ve done within that universe would have paled in comparison.
4. Troy Stevens – You Don’t Know Jack (TV series)
Did you happen to catch 2001’s You Don’t Know Jack TV series on ABC? Chances are pretty high that you didn’t, as the show received almost no promotion and was quietly cancelled after only six episodes. The show is so forgotten, in fact, that it doesn’t even have an IMDB page. It was actually a good show, too, capturing the irreverent humor and spirit of the video game franchise quite well. Tom Gottlieb– longtime performer of host “Cookie Masterson” in the game series– was even brought on to be the show’s announcer.
But the host for the TV version was Troy Stevens, a fictional character played by Reubens, who was the perfect emcee for such a goofy game show. Troy would mock the contestants, participate in funny interstitial skits, and mug for the camera in the perfect send-up of flamboyant ’80s-era television personalities. It was another rare opportunity for Reubens to show off his improv skills, coming up with hilariously cheesy on-the-fly zingers based on the contestants’ mistakes.
In addition to just deserving to carry on because the show itself was good, YDKJ being a longer-running series would’ve been a great way for Reubens to return to television with another zany character in tow.
3. Gerhardt Hapsburg – 30 Rock
Outside of his Pee-wee work, much of Reubens’ resume has been – likely by design – more realistic types of roles and fewer sketch comedy-caliber characters. However, he stepped back into his sketch roots in a big, hilarious way when he played Prince Gerhardt on an episode of 30 Rock. Many generations of inbreeding had left Gerhardt a mess physically, with awful teeth, a terrible complexion, and child-size legs. At one point, his eyebrow simply falls off his face for no apparent reason. He also struggled to control the volume of his voice, made apparent in Reubens’ brilliant delivery of Gerhardt’s opening line, “Thank you, thank you all, dear friends… for coming to my birthday!”
Gerhardt quickly develops a fondness for Jane Krakowski’s Jenna, falling in love with her and then intentionally drinking a fatal dose of champagne– he can’t metabolize grapes– just so that he could die happy having briefly known the love of a beautiful woman.
Reubens clearly excels at playing a character concocted by SNL-esque minds, and it really makes us wonder the type of work he could’ve done on that show if he had been allowed the chance to spend some time on there sans-Pee-wee.
2. Max – Flight of the Navigator
This might be a slightly controversial choice, as Max briefly becomes intentionally Pee-wee-esque towards the end of Flight of the Navigator. In fact, it is meant to be a twist when the voice of the computer that we’d been hearing throughout the film is revealed to be Reubens– Max is credited as Paul Mall so as to keep his identity a secret until viewers got to that point in the film.
To be sure, one of the movie’s best moments is when Max has his freak-out and breaks out into fits of Pee-wee-inspired gibberish. Still, what makes the entire performance one of Reubens’ best is precisely because you don’t know it is him until that moment, as he plays a cold, emotionless computer voice flawlessly. There is very little digital trickery aiding the performance– the bulk of the credit belongs to Reubens himself, and the skill of his wonderfully monotone line readings.
Flight of the Navigator in general doesn’t get the credit it deserves, often compared to– and considered lesser than– fellow child-based sci-fi movie E.T. Hopefully, more younger generations began to discover the movie as time goes on, if not only for Reuben’s flawless performance but for the greatness of the movie itself.
1. Derek Foreal – Blow
Although Blow‘s Derek Foreal is technically based on a real person, it’s only his relationship to Johnny Depp’s George Yung–also a real person– that is accurately represented. Because the “real Derek Foreal” wouldn’t allow the use of his name or sign off on any aspects of the portrayal, Reubens was basically free to create a new character from scratch, and in doing so, gave us one of his most compelling characters ever. Reubens steals every scene he is in, even the ones with Depp, and he makes Foreal so charming that it’s easy to forget what a huge role he played in bringing cocaine to the United States.
We can only hope that it is Reubens’ own decision and personal goals for his career path that he hasn’t done more roles and movies like this and not the result of people not casting him, because Blow proved that he could play serious award-caliber roles– and for more than just a couple episodes of a TV show– as well as anything else he’s done. But as it stands, if this is the only time he ever plays such a role, it would’ve been tough to pick a better movie and character to be the lone showcase for this impressive area of his skill set.
Which is your favorite non-Pee-wee role of Paul Reubens’? Let us know in the comments!