Paul Reubens was an actor and comedian best known for his character, Pee-wee Herman, and his cult favorite TV show, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”
- Died: July 30, 2023 (Who else died on July 30?)
- Details of death: Died of cancer at the age of 70.
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Paul Reubens’ legacy
To many, Paul Reubens and Pee-wee Herman were one and the same, in part because Reubens committed so fully to his best-known character that for years, he gave all his interviews fully in character. He began developing the character as a member of the Groundlings improv troupe in the 1970s, adopting a cartoonish voice and laugh and wearing his signature suit and red bowtie.
Reubens first brought Pee-wee to his stage show, “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” performed at the Roxy Theater in West Hollywood, California and featured on HBO. He began appearing widely as Pee-wee, including in “Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie” and on “Late Night with David Letterman.” In 1985, the feature film “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” debuted, written by and starring Reubens and directed by Tim Burton, his first feature film. A moderate box office success that received mixed reviews, the film went on to become a cult classic. And it spawned another cult classic, the TV show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”
Debuting in 1986, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” was a children’s show that Reubens carefully kept wholesome, including being sure never to be photographed with a cigarette. He wove positive lessons into the show’s goofy, frenetic half-hours – even as he delighted children with bits like the secret word, instructing them to “scream real loud” when they heard it on the show. Reubens was joined on his show by such actors as Laurence Fishburne, Phil Hartman (1948–1998), John Paragon (1954–2021), and a young Natasha Lyonne. While the show ran, gaining him several Daytime Emmy Award nominations, Reubens also starred in a big screen sequel, “Big Top Pee-wee.”
Shortly after the 1991 series finale of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” Reubens made headlines for an incident in which he was arrested for indecent exposure at an adult movie theater. He pled no contest to the charges and performed community service. The incident soured Reubens and Pee-wee in the eyes of some, but he also received widespread support from celebrities. Another high-profile arrest came in 2002, when police seized his large collection of vintage erotica, alleging that it included child pornography. Reubens strongly denied the charges, which were later dropped.
The two arrests had a dampening effect on Reubens’ career, but he did continue to work throughout his life. In 1992, not long after his high-profile arrest, he had notable roles in both “Batman Returns” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” stealing the show in the latter with his vampire character’s hammy death scene. His other movies would include “Mystery Men,” “Blow,” and “Reno 911!: Miami,” as well as voice roles in such animated films as “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “The Smurfs.” In 2016, Reubens brought back Pee-wee for a Netflix feature film, “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.”
On TV, Reubens had a recurring role on “Murphy Brown,” receiving another Emmy nomination, and he appeared on such shows as “Sesame Street,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Reno 911!,” “30 Rock,” “The Blacklist,” and “What We Do in the Shadows.” He also worked extensively as a voice actor for TV, voicing characters on cartoons including “Rugrats,” “Robot Chicken,” “Star Wars Rebels,” “American Dad,” and “Bob’s Burgers.”
“I always sort of felt like Pee-wee Herman was performance art a little bit, and what I personally liked about it was that I was the only person who knew that.” –from a 2009 interview with Paul Rudd for Interview