The Forgotten Roles of Paul Reubens, From Batman to Blow
From Bit Player to Underrated Character Actor
Most people know Paul Reubens chiefly for his persona as Pee-wee Herman, the gleeful oddball character he debuted almost 40 years ago. But away from Pee-wee, Reubens has had an under-appreciated career as a character actor and voiceover performer in films like Batman Returns (right) and television shows like Mork and Mindy and The Blacklist. With the impending debut of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday on Netflix set to once again cause Reubens’ most recognizable creation to overshadow the rest of his work, here are the films and television shows where he notably appears as someone other than Pee-wee Herman.
Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie (1980)
Reubens’ role in the second feature from Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong is arguably the first appearance of Pee-wee Herman on film. He plays a hotel clerk who argues with Chong and Cheech’s cousin “Red” (also played by Marin), and is later mistakenly arrested by the police. Despite exhibiting the same mannerisms he’d employ as Pee-wee, this isn’t strictly speaking a Pee-wee Herman appearance, and given the content of a Cheech & Chong film, it’s certainly not the kind of environment Reubens’ character would occupy later in his career (even if Chairy often did seem stoned).
Blues Brothers (1980)
In the first film based on characters from Saturday Night Live, Reubens appears as a waiter in the restaurant where trumpet player Mr. Fabulous is now the maître d’. This scene was filmed at the now-closed Chez Paul in the Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago—the same fancy restaurant featured in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Meatballs Part II (1984)
A narratively unrelated sequel to the Ivan Reitman-directed, Bill Murray-starring 1979 summer camp comedy, the opening scene features Reubens as Albert, a disgruntled bus driver. He’s so cranky at his job that he leaves the driver’s seat to turn around and yell at kids pelting him with garbage and tries to run down somebody in a suped-up electric wheelchair.
Flight of the Navigator (1986)
This somewhat forgotten science-fiction family film centers on David (Joey Cramer), a 12-year-old who falls into a ravine in 1978 and wakes up to find himself in 1986, having been presumed dead by everyone he knows. Reubens provided the voice of Max, the spaceship that scoops David up to study him. It’s difficult to hear Reubens behind the voice except for one scene, where Max learns how to laugh, and Reubens unleashes his unmistakable giggle.
Batman Returns (1991)
Tim Burton rose to live-action prominence by directing Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, so it made sense that he would cast Reubens in the sequel to the overwhelmingly successful first Batman film. In Burton’s version of Gotham City, the Penguin, aka Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), is a deformed child who survived for years in the sewers of the city after being rejected by wealthy couple Esther (Diane Salinger) and Tucker Cobblepot (Reubens) in the prologue. Though this lineage wasn’t a part of Penguin’s continuity before this film, Reubens is reprising his role after 25 years on an upcoming episode of Gotham.
Reubens and Danny DeVito didn’t share any screen time in Batman Returns, but their connection on that film must have meant something, since DeVito cast Reubens in a small part when he directed his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. In the movie, Harry Wormwood (DeVito), Matilda’s father, runs a crooked used car lot and trades in stolen parts. Since he’s a bad criminal, he’s under investigation by two FBI agents (Reubens and Tracey Walter), who dupe Matilda’s parents into believing they’re actually speed boat salesmen.
Mystery Men (1999)
If the smash success of Deadpool leads to reclaiming offbeat superhero movies like James Gunn’s Super, then the time is also ripe for a friendlier re-evaluation of Mystery Men, without which there would not be gems like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), and a team of other rejected, questionably powerful superhero wannabes team up to take down an evil villain. Reubens plays The Spleen, a flatulently powerful “hero” whose precise control over where he sends noxious gas might be the grossest ability ever imagined. He’s not as useless as Kel Mitchell’s Invisible Boy, but there’s a good reason why even the other reject superheroes are reluctant to include him.
Smack dab in the middle of Johnny Depp’s peak years is this biopic of drug smuggler George Jung, who gets his start by selling marijuana procured by Derek Foreal (Reubens). In one of the film’s best scenes, Jung returns from Colombia with 100 percent pure cocaine and coerces his old friend Foreal to sell it after proving its worth. The effectiveness of the product, and the ease with which it disappears, forms one of the films best comedic moments—though Reubens hints at the dark corner turned by this escalating endeavor.
30 Rock (2007)
During the first season of the NBC comedy, Reubens played Prince Gerhardt Hapsburg—a foreign royal based on the 17th century monarch Charles II of Spain—whose birthday party Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), and Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) all attend. While Jack and Liz are sorting out whether or not they’re on a date (they’re not, it’s one of the key features of the show), Jenna psyches herself up to become another Grace Kelly, getting over Gerhardt’s physical disabilities and deformities brought on by “centuries of inbreeding.”
Tron: Uprising (2012-2013)
The long-awaited sequel Tron: Legacy didn’t create a new blockbuster franchise, but it did spin-off this one-season wonder of an animated series, which takes place between the two films. Reubens voices Pavel, the right-hand man of series antagonist General Tesler (Lance Henriksen). Pavel is sadistic, uncompromising, but ultimately not clever enough to carry out his main task of catching and disposing of The Renegade (Elijah Wood). In a voice cast with several bold names, including Mandy Moore and Emmanuelle Chriqui, Ruebens stands out by projecting menace while consistently being on the verge of complete failure.