For a Saturday morning children’s show, the number of rising stars who passed through Pee-wee’s Playhouse is a marvel — and indicative of just how developed an eye Paul Reubens had for spotting emerging talent. There was Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis; Phil Hartman as Captain Carl; S. Epatha Merkerson as Reba the Mail Lady; Jimmy Smits as repairman Johnny Wilson.
And eagle-eyed viewers of 1986’s season one might also recognize a young kid named Opal — who’d grow up to earn multiple Emmy nominations for creating and starring in a completely original sci-fi dramedy on Netflix. Opal was played by a 6-year-old Natasha Lyonnewho is once again in the Emmy conversation for the second season of Russian Doll.
Lyonne didn’t last long on Playhouse — CBS relocated production from New York City to Los Angeles in season two, and the Playhouse Gang trio was replaced with three new child actors (including Alisan Porter, who went on to star in 1991’s Curly Sue). Lyonne, meanwhile, continued to find work, eventually breaking through with memorable turns in 1996’s Everyone Says I Love You1998’s Slums of Beverly Hills and 1999’s But I’m a Cheerleader.
As for Playhouse, The Hollywood Reporter got it right away, raving in its review that it was “TV gone Dada … a zany catchall of irreverent, and sometimes irrelevant, cultural artifacts placed cheek-by-jowl alongside the other.”
Lyonne looks back on her time in the Playhouse fondly, declaring in an interview in 2018, “Nothing makes me feel legitimately cool quite so much as the fact that I was on that show.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.