Paul Reubens, the Jewish Talent Behind Pee-Wee Herman, Was a Mensch – Kveller
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Paul Reubens, the Jewish Talent Behind Pee-Wee Herman, Was a Mensch

Following the comedian's passing, many of his friends in show business have shared tributes to the icon.

LOS ANGELES - MAY 1980: Actor Paul Reubens poses for a portrait dressed as his character Pee-wee Herman in May 1980 in Los Angeles, California.

via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Paul Reubens, who gave us the unforgettable character of Pee-wee Herman, has died of cancer at age 70. As the star of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” Reubens inspired a generation of kids — and adults — to dream and think outside the box, and to feel worthy of subversive, funny, unique art. And he was, according to those who knew him best, warm, loving, generous and a purveyor of one-of-a-kind, bountiful happy birthday messages.

Reubens was a true original, and he even announced his own passing from cancer, a diagnosis he kept private, in a way that felt wholly like him. “Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years. I have always felt a huge amount of love and respect from my friends, fans and supporters. I have loved you all so much and enjoyed making art for you,” a posthumous message shared on his social media read.

Reubens urged those who loved him to donate to Stand Up to Cancer and organizations that involve Alzheimer’s and dementia care and research, and to make those donations on behalf of his late Jewish parents — Judy and Milton Rubenfeld.

It was Milton who built Reubens his first stage at age 5. The Peekskill-born son of Orthodox Jews had quite an amazing life before he became a father. Milton was a WWII American air force pilot who volunteered to fight for Israel in 1948’s War of Independence, and was one of five pilots who helped found the country’s air force (you can hear Reubens talk about his heroic efforts in Nancy Spielberg’s documentary, “Above and Beyond”).

Reubens may not have been very loud about his Jewish identity, but he was wholly devoted to his Jewish parents. He moved to Florida to care for his father in the last two years of his life, and you can see both Milt and Judy as extras in “Big Top Pee-wee.”

Reubens didn’t have kids, but he did help raise a generation. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that there hasn’t been a show quite like “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” which aired from 1986 to 1990. It spoke to what it means to be a child in a way that didn’t feel belittling, with colors and characters and fantastical props and quirky jokes that embraced an other-worldy kind of silliness and evoked our imagination.

Herman was created for a Groundlings bit, a joke about Reubens’ own inability to memorize funny lines. His squeaky, childlike voice and his ageless demeanor, humor and charm delighted both children and adults alike.

Herman was a pop culture staple for many years, making appearances on the likes of “Saturday Night Live” and late night TV. David Letterman may have been befuddled by Herman, but another late night talk show host, Joan Rivers, called him her dearest friend, even letting him guest host “The Late Show With Joan Rivers.” (Rivers also starred in the incredibly excellent Pee-wee holiday special, “Christmas at Pee Wee’s Playhouse”).

“I know it’s a cliché, but everything about him is nice,” is how Rivers introduced Herman in one magical appearance, in which he walked in with rat-shaped shoes.

“It was really easy being guest host, a child could do it,” he joked, alluding to the fact that no one really knows, to this day, if Pee-wee was meant to be a child, or a man-child, or maybe something completely alien, with his red tinted lips and flushed cheeks.

Despite high profile scandals — an arrest for public indecency that halted his career — Reubens stayed in all our lives. He starred in “Batman” movies, as the ridiculous Habsburg prince in “30 Rock,” and in what is arguably one of the best “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” scenes ever made (he later reprised the character in an episode of “What We Do In the Shadows.”) But he always came back to Herman, like in a 2011 Broadway show, as drunk Pee-wee with Andy Samberg on SNL, and a 2016 Netflix film “Pee-wee’s Vacation.” And despite the fact that it has been almost five decades since he first came on TV, those who grew up on Pee-wee, and raised their families on him, keep coming back to him as well.

Following his passing, many of his friends in show business have taken the time to share tributes to the icon. And he was, by all accounts, a mensch.

Jewish filmmaker Ed Solomon, who worked with Reubens on “Mosaic,” called him one of “the kindest souls I’ve known.”

His friend for three decades, Ricki Lake, shared a birthday message that he shared with her, one of the many he sent friends, in which he said he took time out of his busy celebrity schedule to share a birthday message with the star and former talkshow host because “I’m crazy… about you.”

“I am shaking with disbelief and unbearable sadness at this news,” Lake wrote of Reubens’ death. “Such a unique and incredible creator and talent but also a gracious, loyal and absolutely hilarious friend.”

Former SNL cast member Laraine Newman recalled how she met Reubens at the California Institute of the Arts and they remained friends for half a century. “I feel sick,” she wrote about his death.

Actress Katey Sagal also attended CalArts with Reubens, and recalls spending most of her time before she dropped out of the school in Reubens’ dorm room, which she wrote on Instagram “looked like the playhouse.”

“We’d sneak out at night, break into the music dept. find a piano. I’d play, he’d sit in the corner listening, loving… I knew his struggle,” she wrote, adding, “your beautiful soul beats on in my heart.”

Many of the child stars who worked with Reubens also shared their stories about him.

Actress Mara Wilson recalled a joke he told her on the set of “Matilda” that still makes her smile. Child star Corey Feldman first met him on the set of “Goonies” when he was 12, and had kept in touch ever since.

“Just spent bday texting each other back and forth all day, genius groundbreaking comedian,” Feldman wrote on Twitter, and shared pictures of the two of them.

“Love you so much, Paul… Thank you for my career,” Natasha Lyonne, who starred in the first season of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” wrote on Twitter, thanking him also for his “forever friendship all these years [and] for teaching us what a true original is.”

Judd Apatow recalled him showing up on the set of “Bridesmaids” saying, “he wasn’t just funny, he got huge laughs” and that the loudest he’s ever seen his wife laugh was at a Pee-wee sketch of the character emptying a balloon.

“Paul Reubens was a true artist,” Andy Cohen wrote on his Instagram. “We are so lucky we got to enjoy him.”

SNL cast member Sarah Sherman, known as Sarah Squirm (who is also about to play a rabbi in the upcoming Netflix film “You Are So NOT Invited to My Bat Mitzvah”), whose aesthetic and humor both take inspiration from Herman and Reubens, called him her “patron saint.”

“You invented everything,” she wrote on Twitter. “You created a world we all wish we could live in.”

“I don’t think there was a fictional character who meant more to me as a kid than [Pee-wee],” comedian Billy Eichner wrote on Instagram, adding that he inspired his ongoing series “Billy on the Street.”

“He was a liberating force for a lot of kids, especially me. And a truly subversive, delightful original who comforted me as much as he blew open my imagination and my creativity,” Eichner added.

“RIP to the greatest. A true comedic artist,” comedian Brett Gelman wrote on Instagram. “A lightning bolt of joy. Innovation incarnate. The influence he had on me cannot be measured. Thank you Mr. Reubens for all you gave us.”

Phil Rosenthal, the creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Somebody Feed Phil,” wrote a moving ode to the comedian on Instagram: “You were always one of my heroes and a huge influence, so when we met some 25 yrs ago, and got to work together, and actually become great friends, it was blessing upon blessing. I love you, my family loves you, you are family. Thank you for being so generous and kind and caring and above all, funny. Your impact on the world will last forever.”

Last year, Reubens starred in an episode of “Somebody Feed Phil,” sharing a joke for Rosenthal’s late father, whom he loved — and a Jewish joke at that.

“How do you keep a bagel from running away?” Reubens sets up the joke. “You put lox on it.”

They both laugh, and Rosenthal can’t help but admit the joke is “adorable.” It’s such a sweet human moment, and encapsulation of was Reubens was all about.

“Your achievement, your character, Pee-wee, is one of the greatest inventions in the history of comedy,” Rosenthal told Reubens in that episode.

I can’t help but agree. May his memory be a blessing.

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