The word of the day is sad — especially for many 80s kids who grew up watching Paul Reubens play Pee-wee Herman as a Saturday morning staple — upon hearing the news that Reubens passed away on Sunday at the age of 70.
Paul Reubens was a comedic actor, writer, producer and children's performer who became famous for his childlike alter-ego character Pee-wee Herman. Reubens first started out as an improvisational comedian and stage actor in the popular and star-making Los Angeles improv troupe The Groundlings in the 1970s. From there, Reubens would go on to develop the Pee-wee Herman character and start performing as him in a live show called The Pee-wee Herman Show. HBO then produced a special about the show, and Pee-wee Herman quickly gained a hard-core, cult-like fan base. Reubens went full method-acting with the character, doing all public appearances and interviews as Pee-wee.
His first feature film also marked the feature directorial debut of Tim Robbins; it was called Pee-wee's Big Adventure and was a box office hit that also garnered a sequel, Bit Top Pee-wee. Reubens also brought the character to the small-screen in an immensely popular Saturday morning cartoon on CBS called Pee-wee's Playhouse that ran from 1986-1990.
Then in the early 1990s, Reubens became infamous for something that happened off-screen and felt very un-Pee-wee-like to his fans. He was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult movie theater in Sarasota, Florida. The arrest and sex scandal became fodder for late night television and did substantial damage to Reuben's career and image as Pee-wee Herman.
But Hollywood loves a comeback story, and Reubens began getting acting jobs again in the late 1990s, this time as himself and not in character as Pee-wee Herman, at least at first. Once the public showed an interest in his work again, Reubens was comfortable enough to bring back the Pee-wee Herman character as well. In 2010, he starred on Broadway in The Pee-wee Herman Show. In 2016, Reubens co-wrote and starred in the Neflix original movie Pee-wee's Big Holiday — the last time he appeared as the character before his death.
His longtime representative Kelly Bush Novak confirmed on Monday that he had passed away, explaining he had “privately fought cancer for years with his trademark tenacity and wit.” She did not say where he died.
Paul Reubens will be remembered for Pee-wee Herman's signature bow tie, short drainpipe pants, flattop haircut, and Pee-wee's signature laugh — as well as more generally as a symbol of childlike whimsy. His death brings to mind Sinead O'Connor‘s recent passing as well, as both were pop cultural icons of the late 80s and early 90s who were able to battle back from very public incidents that interrupted their careers.