Home #Hwoodtimes PEE-WEE HERMAN: Passing of a Legendary Actor and Comedian Paul Reubens.

PEE-WEE HERMAN: Passing of a Legendary Actor and Comedian Paul Reubens.

By Robert St. Martin

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/1/23 – Actor and comedian Paul Reubens just passed away at age 70 from an undisclosed cancer challenge. Paul Reubens is known for his creation of the comic fictional character of Pee-wee Herman. He starred in films and television series during the 1980s. The childlike Pee-wee Herman character developed as a stage act that quickly led to an HBO special in 1981. As the stage performance gained further popularity, Reubens took the character to motion picture with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, toning down the adult innuendo for the appeal to children. This paved the way for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, an Emmy Award-winning children’s series that ran on CBS from 1986 to 1991. Another film, Big Top Pee-wee, was released in 1988.

Due to negative media attention following a scandal in 1991with an arrest in a Florida movie theatre for indecent exposure, Reubens decided to shelve his alter ego during the 1990s, but gradually resurrected it during the following decade. It was at that time that Reubens addressed plans to write a new Pee-wee film, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, The Movie. In June 2007, Reubens appeared as Pee-wee Herman at the Spike TV Guys’ Choice Awards for the first time on television since 1992. After a lengthy hiatus, a third film, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, was released by Netflix in 2016 and was the last time Reubens portrayed the character before his death in 2023.

Paul Reubens began his comic acting career with the Los Angeles-based improvisational comedy team of Groundlings and remained a member for six years, working with Bob McClurg, John Paragon, Susan Barnes and Phil Hartman. Hartman and Reubens became close friends, often writing and working on material together. Reubens wrote sketches, developed his improvisational skills and, with Hartman, he developed the Pee-wee Herman character.

Paul Reubens with The Groundlings before inventing Pee-wee Herman

In 1977, The Groundlings staged a performance in which its members created characters one might see in a comedy club. Reubens decided to play a guy that everyone immediately knew would never make it as a comic, partly because Reubens could not remember jokes in real life – he had trouble remembering punch lines and could not properly piece information in sequential order. Pee-wee Herman was born that night, his distinctive guttural “Ha Ha”, followed by a low, “Heh Heh Heh” laugh became the character’s catch phrase, as did his insult comeback, “I know you are, but what am I?”

Pee-wee Herman’s signature gray glen plaid suit was originally a custom-made suit that Reubens had borrowed from the Groundlings director, Gary Austin; the small red bow tie was given to him by an acquaintance. Pee-Wee’s later checkered clothing and persona were largely lifted from manic 1950s children’s TV host Pinky Lee. Also incorporated into the look were short black hair, pale skin with red rouge and red lipstick.

Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman on Melrose Blvd in 1984

Throughout his film and television programs, Pee-wee Herman’s background has remained relatively ambiguous. During interviews, he has been portrayed as though he is a real-life stand-up comedian who expanded his career by playing himself in his films and TV series. This is echoed by the fact that a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was awarded to Pee-wee Herman rather than Paul Reubens.

Pee-wee is commonly portrayed as an impatient and fun-loving child with dainty, effeminate mannerisms and quirky facial expressions. His age has never been explicitly stated; although, he once proclaimed on The Pee-wee Herman Show, “I’m the luckiest boy in the world.” Paul Reubens auditioned for Saturday Night Live for the 1980–81 season but was not accepted into the cast. Instead, he started a stage show with the Herman character, which made one of his first appearances in the 1980 film Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie. Originally, Reubens imbued Pee-wee with sexuality that was later toned down as the character made the transition from raucous night club to children’s television. The stage show was popularized by HBO when The Pee-wee Herman Show aired in 1981. The show featured the writing and acting of Groundlings alumni Phil Hartman and John Paragon, who would both reprise their characters on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. The Pee-wee Herman Show played for five sellout months at The Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles, whereupon HBO filmed it and aired it as a special on September 11, 1981.

The script for Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure has a story loosely on Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. The film was directed by Tim Burton, his feature film debut, and scored by Danny Elfman. It was released on August 9, 1985, and, while receiving mixed reviews, performed well at the box office and become a cult film. In both Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, the character surrounds himself with strange inventions and decorations and has no visible means of support, whereas Big Top Pee-wee depicts him as a farmer/inventor.