By: Jesse Striewski
I remember my introduction to the now-iconic Pee-Wee Herman, perfected masterfully by comedian Paul Reubens, as though it were yesterday; it was that now-magical time known as the ’80s, and another memorable movie night with the family to watch the then-new Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure together.
The 1985 Tim Burton-penned hit was the pinnacle of ’80s storytelling, and sheer escapist entertainment. Reubens had perfected the character in the late ’70s and early ’80s, originating it on stage as a member of The Groundlings (many times alongside fellow comedian Phil Hartman), then via the popular LA-based stage show, The Pee-Wee Herman Show.
Reubens first appeared on screen as the character via the help of stoners Cheech & Chong, first in 1980’s Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie, and its follow up, Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams (1981). A 1981 HBO special of The Pee-Wee Herman Show also helped catapult the character into stardom, eventually leading to Big Adventure (but not before appearing as one zany bus driver in the whacked-out Meatballs Part II from 1984), and the popular children’s show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, which ran from 1986-1990.
1988’s follow-up to Big Adventure, Big Top Pee-Wee, was a far cry from its predecessor, and seemed to usher in a breif darker period for Reubens that found him arrested in a Florida adult film theater in 1991 (I was actually able to see the famed site in person once upon a time while staying in Sarasota in my teens).
But the early ’90s did actually bring some memorable roles for Reubens, most notably 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and two more Tim Burton vehicles, 1992’s Batman Returns (the one and only time I would actually get the chance to see him on the big screen, albeit in one of his much smaller roles) and 1993’s A Nightmare Before Christmas.
1999’s Mystery Men and 2001’s Blow were a couple more stand out roles for him, before switching over almost entirely to voice acting, doing work in both of the big screen Smurfs films, as well as parts in some Scooby-Doo and Tom & Jerry animated features. But by 2016, Pee-Wee had one more outing in him, with what is now Reubens’ final film role, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday.
But unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Reubens had been fighting a battle with cancer behind the scenes for several years, and on July 30, lost that war at the age of 70. As heartbreaking of a loss it may be, I take comfort in the fond memories I have from my childhood (and beyond) thanks to this one unique soul. For me, he felt like the long-lost, quirky distant relative whom I never really got the chance to know, but will now always wish that I had. Au revoir Mr. Reubens, you will be as missed, as you were loved by many.