Both silly and subversive and championing nonconformity, the Pee-wee universe was a trippy place, populated by things like a talking armchair and a friendly pterodactyl.
Director Guillermo del Toro tweeted on Monday that Reubens was “one of the patron saints of all misfitted, weird, maladjusted, wonderful, miraculous oddities”.
The act was a hit because it worked on multiple levels, even though Reubens insists that wasn’t the plan.
“It’s for kids,” Reubens told The Associated Press in 2010. “People have tried to get me for years to go, ‘It wasn’t really for kids, right?’ Even the original show was for kids. I always censored myself to have it be kid-friendly.
“The whole thing has been just a gut feeling from the beginning,” Reubens told the AP. “That’s all it ever is and I think always ever be. Much as people want me to dissect it and explain it, I can’t. One, I don’t know, and two, I don’t want to know, and three, I feel like I’ll hex myself if I know.”
Reubens’ career was derailed when he was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult movie theatre in Sarasota, Florida, the city where he grew up. He was handed a small fine but the damage was incalculable.
He became the frequent butt of late-night talk show jokes and the perception of Reubens immediately changed.
“The moment that I realised my name was going to be said in the same sentence as children and sex, that’s really intense,” Reubens told NBC in 2004. “That’s something I knew from that very moment, whatever happens past that point, something’s out there in the air that is really bad.”
Reubens said he got plenty of offers to work, but told the AP that most of them wanted to take “advantage of the luridness of my situation”, and he didn’t want to do them.
“It just changed,” he said. “Everything changed.”
He did take advantage of one chance to poke fun at his tarnished image. Just weeks after his arrest, he would open the MTV Video Music Awards, walking on to the stage alone and saying, “Heard any good jokes lately?” (Herman appearances on MTV had fuelled Pee-wee’s popularity in the early 1980s.)
In 2001, Reubens was arrested and charged with misdemeanor possession of child pornography after police seized images from his computer and photography collection, but the allegation was reduced to an obscenity charge and he was given three years probation.
Born Paul Rubenfeld in Peekskill, New York, in 1952, the eldest of three kids, he grew up in Sarasota where his parents ran a lamp store and he put on comedy shows for neighbour kids.
After high school he sought to study acting. He spent a year at Boston University, and was then turned down by the Juilliard School and Carnegie-Mellon University. So he enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts. That would lead to appearances at local comedy clubs and theatres and joining the Groundlings.
“Paul’s contributions to comedy and entertainment have left a lasting impact on the world, and he will be greatly missed by all in the Groundlings community,” the group said in a statement.
After the 1991 arrest, he would spend the decade playing primarily non-Pee-wee characters, including roles in Burton’s 1992 movie Batman Returns, the Buffy The Vampire Slayer film and a guest-star run on the TV series Murphy Brown.
He also appeared in the 1999 comedy film Mystery Men and Johnny Depp’s 2001 drug-dealer drama Blow.
Reubens – who never lost his boyish appearance even in his 60s, would slowly re-introduce Pee-wee, eventually doing a Broadway adaptation of The Pee-wee Herman Show in 2010, and the 2016 Netflix movie.
Reubens was beloved by his fellow comedians, and fans of Pee-wee spanned the culture.
“His surreal comedy and unrelenting kindness were a gift to us all,” Conan O’Brien tweeted. “Damn, this hurts.”