On July 31, 2023, Pee-wee Herman’s official Instagram account posted the sad news that Paul Reubens had passed away the previous night. “Paul bravely and privately fought cancer for years with this trademark tenacity and wit,” read the statement. Reubens was most famous for playing Pee-wee Herman in multiple movies and television shows.
Between 1986 and 1990, Reubens played Pee-wee on Pee-wee’s Playhouse for a total of 45 episodes. During the show’s run, many actors who are now well-known made appearances.
Before Laurence Fishburne became famous for playing roles in franchises such as The Matrix and John Wick, he appeared as Cowboy Curtis on Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
Cowboy Curtis, who looked like a stereotypical cowboy from the 1950s westerns, wore a hat, chaps, a bandana around his neck, and a fringed shirt and vest. His appearance had an ’80s twist, with Fishburne sporting a curly mullet.
Of his time on the show, Fishburne said, “When I think about Pee-wee’s Playhouse, I think about what it might have been like to work on the Batman television series with Adam West because it was… campy and colorful and sort of for kids and grownups, too. That’s my attempt at working in a Western.”
Phil Hartman is perhaps best known for his work on Saturday Night Live, where he co-starred for eight seasons between 1986 and 1994. In 1975, before he joined the cast of SNL, Hartman was part of the Groundlings comedy group, where he met Paul Reubens. Hartman actually helped Reubens create the character of Pee-wee Herman and co-wrote the film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure with Reubens and Michael Varhol.
In 1986, Hartman appeared as Captain Carl in six episodes of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Captain Carl was a gruff and gritty sea captain who is friends with Pee-wee, although his patience is usually tested when dealing with Pee-wee’s antics.
Known for his roles on LA Law, NYPD Blue, and The West Wing, Smits has played a range of roles, usually as serious characters in legal/police/political dramas. In 1989, while still playing Victor Sifuentes on LA Law, Smits made an appearance on Pee-wee’s Playhouse as Johnny Wilson.
Johnny Wilson is an officially licensed “Conky repairman.” His appearance on the show provided some tongue-in-cheek lines that adults watching the show definitely got. For instance, when talking with Miss Yvonne, he explained that qualified repairmen always “have the right tools and know how to use them.”
S. Epatha Merkerson
Before taking on her most famous role as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on Law & Order between 1993 and 2010, Merkerson played Reba, The Mail Lady, on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. This was her first on-screen role, and she appeared in 16 episodes between 1986 and 1989.
Following the news of Reubens’ passing, Merkerson took to Instagram to share her thoughts. With a photo of herself and Reubens, taken years after her appearance on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, she wrote, “I’m going to miss my friend!”
The comedian and actress Sandra Bernhard is arguably best known for playing Nancy Bartlett Thomas on the hit sitcom Roseanne between 1991 and 1997. In one episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Bernhard played the Picture Phone operator named Rhonda. Despite only being in the one episode, Rhonda made it clear that she was interested in marrying Pee-wee.
When Rhonda and Pee-wee said goodbye, they said so over 20 times. Unfortunately, we all recently had to say goodbye to the man behind Pee-wee, Paul Reubens. He will be dearly missed.