Paul Reubens, best known for playing the iconic tv show character Pee-wee Herman, died on Sunday, July 30 after a six-year battle with cancer. He was 70.
Reubens was born Paul Rubenfeld in Peekskill, New York, on August 27, 1952, and grew up in Sarasota, Florida, where he spent a lot of time at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In high school, he was named president of the National Thespian Society. While attending Boston University, he began auditioning for acting schools, and eventually attended the California Institute of the Arts.
Reubens made his feature debut in Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie, but his real break came when he got to headline in Pee-wee’s big screen debut, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which also marked the feature debut of legendary director Tim Burton. “I’ll never forget how Paul helped me at the beginning of my career,” Burton wrote today on Instagram. “It would not have happened without his support. He was a great artist. I’ll miss him.”
At New York Comic-Con in 2019, Reubens told the charming story of how he managed to book Burton for the gig:
The film and subsequent tv series were adapted from Reuben’s stage show and an HBO tv special titled The Pee-wee Herman Show, which had a more adult sensibility to it. In his work though, Reubens aimed to appeal to all ages as he told Chris Robinson in 2005:
The stage show was conceived as an homage to kids’ shows of the 50s and 60s. I always wanted something that kids and grown-ups could both enjoy. So I tried to make it speak to both groups. We did matinee performances of the so-called “adult” version for kids. My theory was if there was a double entendre it would go over the kid’s heads. On the other hand, if a child understood it, then that would be based on them having some knowledge that we didn’t teach them. I felt like originally we took a kid’s show and added some adult elements.
In 1986, Reubens’ hit show Pee-wee’s Playhouse debuted on CBS, where it ran until 1990. The show’s mixed-media approach combined live action, puppetry, stock footage, various animation techniques, motion-control photography, and video effects, making it feel like as much like a conceptual art fever dream as a Saturday morning kids show. The show’s colorful postmodern setting was inspired in part by the Memphis Group, as well as the joyously surrealy sensibilities of contemporary cartoonists and illustrators like Wayne White, Ric Heitzman, and Gary Panter, all of whom contributed to the live-action production design. Animation figured into about one-quarter to one-third of each episode’s running time.
The show’s animated segments featured original work by Craig Bartlett (pre-Hey Arnold), as well as an early American breakthrough for Aardman Animations. David Daniels employed his trippy Strata-cut technique for certain segments, while Ellen Kahn shot Reubens on greenscreen and incorporated him into Magic Screen segments using the Quantel Paintbox.
Other animators who worked on the show and have gone on to even bigger successes include Oscar-winning director John Canemaker and Lucasfilm vice president and executive creative director Doug Chiang. The show also reignited the public’s interest in classic animation through the character King of Cartoons, who introduced audiences to vintage animated shorts.
Prudence Fenton, who won multiple Emmys in her role as animation producer of the series, said of her time on the series: “That show was so much fun to do. It was like getting paid to eat ice cream.”
The seminal series inspired many who would later work in children’s entertainment, including Spongebob Squarepants creator Stephen Hillenburg, who credited Pee-wee as a central influence of his creation. Another Pee-wee devotee, animation director Elaine Bogan (Spirit Untamed), explained her early fascination with the series to Cartoon Brew:
I really loved the stop-motion segment that took us into Pee-wee’s fridge: believable-looking cartoon versions of items we all had in our own kitchens. For me, that was the magical part, and it made me look at things differently from a very young age. I loved imagining that when we closed the freezer downstairs, our ice cream and chicken fingers were all having a wild party together. … The limited stop motion so perfectly blended with the use of puppetry and color in the rest of the show, only adding to the feeling that this place and these characters actually existed. It was the perfect mix of reality and the surreal, which is exactly what goes on in a kid’s imagination all the time. It did in mine, anyway.
Reubens also did a tremendous amount of voice acting during his 40-plus year career, appearing on shows such as Adventure Time, Chowder, Robot Chicken, and Tom Goes to the Mayor as well as films including Flight of the Navigator, The Smurfs, and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Reubens’ official social media pages posted the same message announcing the actor’s passing:
Last night we said farewell to Paul Reubens, an iconic American actor, comedian, writer and producer whose beloved character Pee-wee Herman delighted generations of children and adults with his positivity, whimsy and belief in the importance of kindness. Paul bravely and privately fought cancer for years with his trademark tenacity and wit. A gifted and prolific talent, he will forever live in the comedy pantheon and in our hearts as a treasured friend and man of remarkable character and generosity of spirit.
On his Instagram page, Reubens included a personal message:
Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing for the last six years. I have always felt a huge amount of love and respect for my friends, fans, and supporters. I have loved you all so much and enjoyed making art for you.
– Paul Reubens