Probably the most subversive and authentic figures in Eighties standard tradition was a whey-faced, cherry-lipped, matchstick-thin child-man who wore a pink bow tie, white tasselled loafers and a shrunken gray swimsuit, and lived in a large playhouse with sentient furnishings and a floating head. This was Pee-wee Herman, created and performed by the actor Paul Reubens, who has died aged 70 of most cancers.
The character appeared on stage in The Pee-wee Herman Present throughout the early Eighties however didn’t grow to be recognized internationally till the discharge of the movie Pee-wee’s Massive Journey (1985), which marked the doolally debut of the director Tim Burton. US cinema within the Reagan period drew closely on the iconography of the 50s and early 60s, whether or not for functions candy (Again to the Future, Peggy Sue Bought Married) or unsavoury (Blue Velvet, Dad and mom); this big-screen outing for Pee-wee, who was already suffused with the spirit of bygone youngsters’s reveals corresponding to Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo, fell someplace in between. As with the stage and TV incarnations, the movie’s undercurrent of kinkiness and innuendo by no means contaminated its air of gleeful innocence.
In a narrative modelled on the Italian neo-realist basic Bicycle Thieves, Pee-wee travels throughout the US searching for his beloved stolen bike. Alongside the best way, he meets the undead truck driver Massive Marge, poses because the spouse of a convict, charms a gang of snarling bikers by dancing on the bar in platform heels, rescues the occupants of a burning pet store (saving the snakes for final as a result of he’s frightened of them) and finally ends up on the premiere of a Hollywood film about himself.
Pee-wee’s nasal voice and honking chortle appeared cultivated to annoy each bit as a lot as his playground rejoinders (corresponding to “I do know you’re, however what am I?” repeated advert infinitum). However Reubens’s single-minded give attention to taking part in him completely straight – if that’s not the fallacious phrase for a personality steeped in camp – was important to his success, which ballooned with the kids’s TV present Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1986-90).
“We by no means tried to do ‘a-kids’-show-but-weird,’” he stated in 2014. “I really feel like my dedication to Pee-wee, the focus required to remain in that character, makes it actual to me.
“It’s a throwback and has numerous homage components to it, however I at all times thought-about it a full-on actual children’ present although it had all this grownup humour in it. I took numerous satisfaction in having the ability to determine methods to do stuff that might be seen by children and grownups.”
Pee-wee’s Playhouse pushed the surrealism of the movie even additional. In a single episode, Pee-wee marries a bowl of fruit salad, which is sporting a marriage veil. Years later, the scene was held up for instance of the character’s progressiveness, although in reality it could be a problem to discover a second from Pee-wee’s oeuvre that didn’t serve that perform.
Whether or not filling his 1988 Christmas particular with LGBT+ performers and allies corresponding to Grace Jones, kd lang, Cher and Little Richard, or hiring strapping, shirtless building employees to construct an extension product of fruitcake on the facet of his playhouse, Pee-wee personified queerness with out scary the horses. One of many present’s messages, stated Reubens, was that “nonconformity isn’t dangerous”.
Bumps within the street arrived within the type of a lacklustre movie sequel, Massive High Pee-wee (1988), and two scandals: the primary in 1991 when Reubens was arrested and fined for masturbating in an grownup cinema, after which in 2002 when a police search of his assortment of classic erotica resulted in a misdemeanour cost for possession of kid pornography, later decreased to probation for possession of obscene materials.
He was born in Peekskill, New York, to Judy (nee Rosen), a instructor, and Milton Rubenfeld, a former founding pilot of the Israeli air pressure, who went on to promote automobiles and to personal a lamp retailer. When Reubens was 9, the household moved to Sarasota, Florida. He was educated at Sarasota highschool and Boston College, and studied performing on the California Institute of the Arts, the place his classmates included David Hasselhoff.
He grew to become a daily fixture on the comedy membership circuit, and appeared 14 occasions on The Gong Present, the aggressive TV selection collection. “You possibly can go on greater than as soon as in case you have been in disguise,” Reubens defined; he acquired membership of the Display screen Actors Guild after successful the competition.
It was as a part of the Los Angeles improvisational comedy group the Groundlings that he first developed Pee-wee Herman. He additionally went on The Relationship Sport (recognized to UK audiences as Blind Date) as Pee-wee, having stuffed out the appliance kind and auditioned fully in character.
After failing an audition for the 1980-81 season of Saturday Evening Dwell, Reubens borrowed $5,000 from his dad and mom to provide The Pee-wee Herman Present. It ran for 5 months in Los Angeles, later touring the US, and led to a one-off HBO particular in addition to absurdist activates Late Evening with David Letterman, throughout which Reubens by no means broke character.
“I at all times felt it was conceptual artwork, however nobody knew that besides me,” he stated. “I went out of my method to make individuals really feel Pee-wee was an actual individual. It labored approach higher if individuals have been going: ‘Who the hell is that?’”
His non-Pee-wee appearances have been largely restricted to the years after Pee-wee’s Playhouse led to 1990. Burton gave him a cameo because the Penguin’s father in Batman Returns, and he performed a vampire within the authentic movie model of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (each 1992).
He starred within the household comedies Dunston Checks In and Matilda (each 1996) and performed a flatulent superhero within the comedy Thriller Males (1999) in addition to a pot-dealing hairdresser within the crime drama Blow (2001). Most of his subsequent roles took the type of animation voice-work or eccentric visitor spots on sitcoms, corresponding to 30 Rock (2007) and What We Do within the Shadows (2019).
Pee-wee’s periodic returns have been at all times greeted with affection. A brand new model of The Pee-wee Herman Present, which reached the stage in 2010, and the pleasant, Judd Apatow-produced Netflix movie Pee-wee’s Massive Vacation (2016), gave Reubens an opportunity to restore definitively any lingering injury achieved by his arrests.
“I wrecked it to some extent, you recognize?” he informed the New York Instances. “It bought made into one thing totally different. The shine bought taken off it. At a sure level, I simply wished to have a greater finish to my profession.”
He’s survived by his sister, Abby, and brother, Luke.