Famous People Who Worked on Pee-Wee's Playhouse
"Pee-wee's Playhouse" captivated audiences young and old during its run from 1986 to 1990, due to its colorful and imaginative world filled with unforgettable characters and creative storytelling. And it continues to do so today.
Beyond its iconic main character, Pee-wee Herman (played by the late Paul Reubens), the show boasted a talented ensemble of people who contributed their skills both in front of and behind the camera, many of whom share their memories of the show and its beloved star.
Born: Sept. 24, 1948
Died: May 28, 1998
Role on "Pee-wee's Playhouse": Cap'n Carl
Bottom Line: Phil Hartman
"Saturday Night Live" alum Phil Hartman played Cap'n Carl, a friendly but short-tempered and gruff sea captain who would often visit the playhouse and tell tales of his time at sea.
Hartman and Reubens met at L.A.'s famed Groundlings improv theater, formed a fast friendship and would also go on to write "Pee-wee’s Big Adventure" together. Reubens also introduced Hartman to Lorne Michaels — and Hartman became a member of the SNL cast in 1986 and stayed for eight seasons.
Born: July 30, 1961
Role on "Pee-wee's Playhouse": Cowboy Curtis
Bottom Line: Laurence Fishburne
Laurence Fishburne was already a well-known child actor through Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic, "Apocalypse Now," which he starred in at just 14 years old. He would go on to play dramatic roles in 1993's "What's Love Got to Do With It" (in which he snagged an Oscar nod for playing Ike Turner) and "The Matrix" franchise.
But Fishburne also played Cowboy Curtis, who was a regular visitor to the playhouse for most of the show's run. He sang cowboy songs and was a generally good-natured character.
Fishburne is mostly known for his serious roles, but said of his time on the show, "[Cowboy Curtis has] given me the opportunity to give a lot of people a lot of joy and make people smile and laugh, which is not something that I often get to do in the work, because I mostly work in the dramatic part."
Born: Jan. 12, 1965
Role on "Pee-wee's Playhouse": Production assistant
Bottom Line: Rob Zombie
White Zombie frontman and horror director Rob Zombie worked as a PA on "Pee-wee's Playhouse" and recalls his short time on the show fondly.
He served as a runner but was a huge Pee-wee fan. Of his time on the show, he said, "Back in 1986, I was lucky enough to be working at a place called Broadcast Arts in New York when they announced they were doing his [Reuben's] new show. It was a very unconventional setup with the playhouse built in a loft space on Broadway, not a sound stage.
"I can still remember his first day in the office. Everyone was waiting for Pee-wee to step off the elevator ... when the doors opened, out stepped Paul looking exactly like his mugshot. He took one look at the live band playing ‘Tequila,’ rolled his eyes and walked straight into a meeting. Everyone was bummed. I thought it was hilarious.
"I only talked to him once. He asked me where the restroom was and I said, ‘Right over there.’ After the first season, they moved the whole show to California, and the rest is history."
Born: April 29, 1955
Died: Oct. 24, 2022
Role on "Pee-wee's Playhouse": Busby
Bottom Line: Leslie Jordan
"Will and Grace" star and internet sensation Leslie Jordan played Busby, a man who borrows Pee-wee's things without his knowledge because he wants to be just like Pee-wee. Reubens wanted Jordan for a role on the show after seeing him on an episode of "Murphy Brown."
“He was so unique and funny. I loved him instantly,” Reubens said. "I was immediately so obsessed with his talent and ability that we wrote an episode for him ... he was kind, generous, gentle and would quip stuff under his breath that was hilarious."
Born: Jan. 6, 1968
Died: April 28, 2019
Role on "Pee-wee's Playhouse": Production assistant
Bottom Line: John Singleton
Like Rob Zombie, John Singleton was also a PA on the show. According to Fishburne, Singleton had already written "Boyz n the Hood" and had attempted to get Reubens to read it to no avail.
Fishburne offered to take a look. "John started talking to me about it. I said, 'Look, when it’s ready; send it to me.' About two years later, I got the script. I was really blown away by it. I turned the last page, and I was in tears. Once he got his financing together [to direct], there was another actor the studio was interested in playing my role, but John was really committed to me playing it. He went to bat for me."
Fishburne took the part of Furious Styles, a Vietnam vet and single parent in the movie. It became his breakthrough role.
Born: April 4, 1979
Role on "Pee-wee's Playhouse": Opal
Bottom Line: Natasha Lyonne
Natasha Lyonne was a child actress who made her debut on "Pee-wee’s Playhouse" as a member of the playhouse gang. She later went on to star in "Orange is the New Black," "Russian Doll" and "Poker Face."
She described her time on the show as "really fun ... nothing makes me feel like legitimately cool quite so much as the fact that I was on this show."
When Reubens died, she posted: "Love you so much, Paul. One in all time. Thank you for my career and your forever friendship all these years and for teaching us what a true original is."
S. Epatha Merkerson
Born: Nov. 28, 1952
Role on "Pee-wee's Playhouse": Reba the Mail Lady
Bottom Line: S. Epatha Merkerson
Reba the Mail Lady delivered Pee-wee's mail, particularly his pen-pal letters. She was also prone to falling for his pranks. She was played by S. Epatha Merkerson, who currently stars as Sharon Goodwin in the series "Chicago Med" and has made crossover appearances in "Chicago P.D." and "Chicago Fire."
She said of Reubens: "I always called him Pablo. I will truly miss my friend ... We met at my audition for 'Pee-wee’s Playhouse.' I did not know of the character … my nephew Sean told me who he was. However, when I walked into the audition, I was introduced to a man named Paul Reubens in cut-off jeans, with long hair and a goatee. He looked like a '60s reject! I think Paul saw the confusion on my face and he teased me all through the audition.
"When I left there I thought, ‘I’ll never get that job!’ I couldn’t concentrate; he kept making me laugh! Well, fast-forward to the first day of shooting, he came over to me in costume, and I realized then that he knew all along that I had NO idea who Pee-wee Herman was. We became fast friends. I’m gonna miss you, Pablo!"
Born: June 6, 1955
Role on "Pee-wee's Playhouse": Rhonda the Picturephone Operator
Bottom Line: Sandra Bernhard
Comedienne and actress Sandra Bernhard appeared on one episode of the show as Rhonda, the sultry and flirtatious picturephone operator, in 1990.
She recently spoke of the show and eulogized Reubens saying, "The brilliant subversive children’s show created by [Reubens] broke all the rules ... he called me a couple of years ago ,and it surprised me. We spoke for quite a while.
"There was a lot on his plate back in the day — all that success, high expectations, tremendous fame, I think it does a number on a person. It’s hard to distill, and it all goes by so very fast."
Born: July 9, 1955
Role on "Pee-wee's Playhouse": Johnny Wilson
Bottom Line: Jimmy Smits
When Conky, the playhouse's resident robot, conks out, Pee-wee attempts to fix it but makes things even worse. Enter Johnny Wilson (Smits), the authorized Conky repairman.
Smits went on to star in shows like "L.A. Law," "NYPD Blue" and "Dexter."
Born: May 18, 1950
Role on "Pee-wee's Playhouse": Series composer
Bottom Line: Mark Mothersbaugh
Mark Mothersbaugh has been the lead singer of Devo since 1973, but it was only upon meeting Reubens that his life and career would take a different turn.
He and Reubens met at Groundlings, became friends and first collaborated on a little-known 1980 film, "Pray TV." Mothersbaugh was set to write the score for "Pee-wee’s Big Adventure" but had a scheduling conflict (that went to Danny Elfman). So, Reubens kept him in mind when creating "Playhouse."
Mothersbaugh said, "I’d never done a TV show before. That took me into the world of film and television and video games. It totally changed the trajectory of my career."
Aside from his continued duties with Devo, he has composed music for "What We Do in the Shadows," "Shameless," "Cocaine Bear" and "Thor: Ragnarok."