‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ (1985)
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This film may well be one of the most extravagantly weird comedies of the 1980s — and possibly ever. A breakthrough for both Reubens and the director Tim Burton, the film built on the Reubens’s live show, which had been captured for an HBO special in 1981 (and is available on Max). Strapped into a fitted gray suit with a bright red bow tie, his face a collection of sharp angles in a kid’s idea of Kabuki makeup, Pee-wee is simultaneously innocent and crafty, unencumbered by social mores and deliciously arch, accessible to all and cultishly weird. And Reubens brought him to life in a performance of utter physical and verbal precision.
‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’ (1986-1990)
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Like the finest children’s shows, this series delighted both the younger set and its parents. The first could laugh at Pee-wee’s antics and his gallery of wacky friends, while the second would get a kick out of the double entendres, the brilliant art direction and the surreal guest stars — like Grace Jones turning up to sing “The Little Drummer Boy” in a Christmas special. The show, which aired for five seasons on CBS on Saturday mornings, remains one of the oddest productions to ever land on American televisions.
‘Flight of the Navigator’ (1986)
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Reubens had distinctive intonations, and he put them to good use in extensive voice work, especially during the 2010s. An earlier example is this family friendly science-fiction film from 1986 in which he voiced Max, the computer helming the Trimaxion Drone Ship on which the pint-size hero, David (Joey Cramer), found himself. Sadly, Reubens’s second outing with the movie’s director, Randal Kleiser, did not turn out quite as charmingly: It was “Big Top Pee-wee,” the disappointing sequel to “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” (The final entry in the movie trilogy, “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” premiered on Netflix in 2016.)
‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (1992)
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The year after Reubens’s career was temporarily derailed by indecent exposure charges in 1991, he began quietly making his way back with small, quirky roles like Amilyn, the henchman of a vampire kingpin (Rutger Hauer), in the original “Buffy” movie. Sporting a dashing goatee and looking as if he’d just escaped from a prog-rock band, Reubens chewed the scenery with gusto. He fully embraced camp in a death-by-stake scene that went over the top, and then did not even stop there. (It continued after the end credits.)
‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993)
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Reubens reunited with Burton for this stop-motion classic in which he voiced Lock, who with Shock (Catherine O’Hara) and Barrel (the composer Danny Elfman, who did the music for “Big Adventure”) forms a trio of minions who are “Halloween’s finest trick-or-treaters.” Together, they assist the villain Oogie Boogie (Ken Page) and, most important, sing “Kidnap the Sandy Claws.” Reubens and his team even went on to perform the song live.
‘30 Rock’ (2007)
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Reubens’s gift for the, shall we say, unusual found one of its most outlandishly grotesque outlets with the simultaneously funny and unsettling Prince Gerhardt — an inbred royal with a terrifying left hand who felt as if a John Waters character had suddenly invaded a prime-time sitcom. Sadly, Gerhardt appears only in Episode 12 of the show’s first season.
Stream it on AMC+; rent or buy it on most major platforms.
As the lawyer defending a couple of Goths played by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in the series’s Season 5 finale, Reubens gets a fitting speech that includes the line “Being weird is not a crime!” He turns it into a statement of pride and a rallying cry, as well as a moment of, well, weirdness.
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Reubens was terrific as the gay best friend of a successful author and illustrator played by Sharon Stone in this Utah-set murder drama from Steven Soderbergh and Ed Solomon. Sardonic and supportive, his character, J.C. Schiffer, was the dream confidante, and Reubens beautifully underplayed him. For some insights into his sensibility, you can read his account of shooting the series on his official website, complete with candid photos.