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Paul Reubens Two Decade Friendship With Boxer Michael Onello



By Scoop Malinowski
A chance random barber shop encounter ending up becoming an over two decades long friendship. The interesting twist was the barber was a muscular, fit extrovert named Michael Onello, the client was the iconic Hollywood film star and noted introvert Paul Reubens, best known for his “Pee Wee Herman” character.
Onello tells the story. “I worked at a barber shop in Sarasota. We had seven or eight barbers working. One day, a guy walked in and ended up in my chair. I had no idea who he was. One of my co-workers asked me, ‘Do you know who that is?'” Onello had no idea. “That’s Paul Reubens, who is Pee Wee Herman.” Onello, a straight shooting Italian, former Golden Gloves boxer from Cliffside Park, NJ, responded without much diplomacy. “Are you the guy who got caught jerking off in the movie theater? Are you a pervert?”
Onello was referring to Reubens infamous July 1991 arrest for public masturbation in a movie theater.
Instead of being outraged or offended by Onello’s brutal honesty, Reubens actually admired the authenticity. The unlikely pair became fast friends. Onello, also a part time boxing coach in Sarasota, even gave Reubens a boxing lesson, “but that didn’t go too well. He wasn’t much of an athlete and he made funny sounds when he threw punches.”
Later Reubens invited Onello to his parents house in a swanky neighborhood near the Ringling Museum in Sarasota where some of the residents include former world no. 1 tennis star Marcelo Rios and former US Open finalist Kei Nishikori from Japan. “It was a huge compound with a gate,columns and long driveway. I don’t remember much about it because I went there at night. I do remember him saying he bought the home for his parents” due to the enormous success of his Hollywood film career. “He had like a wing of the estate. I remember one of his rooms had a black painted ceiling with like stars painted in, it was really cool.”
They spent hours hanging out. Reubens asked Onello if he would like a massage, to which Onello, who is not gay, replied, “No, I’m good.”
That was the last time Onello and Reubens were actually together. But they maintained contact and a bond. The two opposites were intrigued by each other. They asked a lot of questions of each other. “I remember I asked him how he developed his Pee Wee Herman character. He said as a child in school he was a loner, he had no friends, the other kids thought he was weird, they called him a spastic. He said he spent a lot of time alone in his bedroom and developed the Pee Wee Herman character which he said he later introduced to the kids at school and his created character was a huge hit, the kids loved it.” The affirmation of his Pee Wee Herman character resulted in a smash hit TV show and Hollywood film sensation, earning Rubens a fortune.
Reubens was born as Paul Rubenfeld on August 27, 1952 in Peekskill, NY. Paul grew up in Sarasota, where his parents owned a lamp store. He later attended Boston University and California Institute of the Arts. His first breaks were performing at comedy clubs, four appearances on “The Gong Show” and a small role as a waiter in the 1980 hit film “The Blues Brothers.” In 1985 his own film “Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure” grossed over $40m on a $7m budget.
Another interesting revelation Onello remembers his friend telling him was how proud he was about his successful role as a flamboyant hairdresser turned drug dealer in the  2001 film “Blow.” It was a character totally different from Herman. “He was very proud of that film. He said he wanted to prove he can act. He could play different characters and not just Pee Wee Herman. He wanted to prove that he truly belonged in Hollywood.”
Reubens was equally curious about Onello’s unique career as a barber and boxing coach. Onello has authored two boxing training books – including “Boxing: Advanced Tactics & Training” and “Boxing: A 12 Week Course.” Onello, now 57, also trained a white teenager from Sarasota named Kenny Blair to a Junior Olympics title. Blair and Onello were even invited to the Lennox Lewis training camp two weeks before the Mike Tyson fight in 2002 to spar with another one of Lewis’s trainer Emanuel Steward’s professional featherweights named Rey Beltran. The 13 year old Blair boxed so well against the adult Beltran, who later became a world champion, that Steward needed to bark out instructions to the man to help him defend himself from the kid. Onello also boxed himself as an amateur in New Jersey in the Golden Gloves.
Onello would later relocate from Sarasota to San Francisco where he opened a boxing gym/barber shop called “Michael The Boxer.”  Today Onello lives in the Southern California desert town of Rancho Mirage, where he still coaches boxing, nutrition and yoga.
All through the years, since the early 2000s, Reubens kept in touch with Onello. “Every year, he always called or texted or sent cards for my birthday. Every single year, he never forgot it. That was weird.”
Onello said Reubens invited Onello to visit him in Los Angeles but he never made the trip from San Francisco. The two friends haven’t seen each other since the Sarasota days.
But Reubens thought enough of Onello to text and call him urgently two weeks ago. “He sent me about ten texts and he called me. I still have the memes on my phone, it’s a bunch of Muppets wishing me a happy birthday. But I didn’t respond or call back. Then I found out he died. I had no idea he was 70. He never told me he was sick. I have no idea what he was calling about. I’ll never know. Maybe, who knows, he was calling me as part of his Will.”
“Another old poet whose name I cannot recall just now, said that truth is the daughter of time.” – Quintus
“Genius is but a greater aptitude for patience.” – Jean Baptiste Louis Gresset
“Love that which will never be seen more than once.”  – Alfred De Vigny

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