I hear his voice first. Not as Pee-wee Herman, a character I frankly never liked much, but as Max. Or Rex. The two robots he did for Disney, both now largely and unjustly forgotten. Flight of the Navigator is obscure, one of those movies Gen-X kids delighted in that no one else seems to know, and Rex was replaced on Star Tours with C-3PO, with Max himself relegated to the line area. If you know where to look. Both roles were pivotal to my childhood even as I turned off the TV when Pee-wee’s Playhouse began.
Paul Reubens was born Peekskill, New York, son of one of the founders of the Israeli Air Force. He grew up in part in Sarasota, Florida, the winter home of the traveling circuses. Between growing up near circus people and watching a lot of I Love Lucy, he realized he wanted to make people laugh. By age five, he had asked his father to build him a stage. In high school, he was the head of the school’s Thespian Society. He wanted to go to school to act, and eventually, he got into Cal Arts.
Reubens was a Groundling. He appeared on The Gong Show an astounding fourteen times. Slowly but surely, he built up a cult following, which exploded when he developed a man-child character named Pee-wee Herman. He appeared in character in the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello nostalgiafest Back to the Beach (which I saw in the theatre) and was given his own Saturday morning live-action show despite not being entirely sure his character was appropriate to children.
Eventually, he seems to have burned out on Pee-wee; his arrest for public indecency doesn’t seem to have helped. (He insisted the charge physically could not have been true, but I have no opinion.) Later, he was busted for child pornography; apparently, he collected vintage porn, and some of his massive collection may have had inappropriate materials in it, though according to his dealer he wasn’t inclined toward it and likely just didn’t know the images—involving teenagers—were in some of the magazines he had.
The Spleen is another over-the-top character but one completely different. He works in Mystery Men only because the movie doesn’t fully focus on him. Reubens did the Comedians Must Be Serious Actors stint in Blow, but he’ll always be remembered for making people laugh. It’s what he would have wanted, which is likely why he kept his cancer diagnosis secret.