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Pee-Wee's Playhouse Actors You May Not Know Passed Away

Amid the veritable bonanza of educational shows and Saturday morning cartoons that entertained kids of the 1980s and early '90s, some were clearly more memorable than others. With its unique combination of wacky characters, cool segments, a crazy setting, and one of the most iconic personas ever to grace screens small or big, "Pee-wee's Playhouse" stands apart with an enduring legacy atypical of the era's offerings.

From the mind of Groundlings alum Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman, "Pee-wee's Playhouse" was less something to watch and more something to experience. The live-action show featured Herman getting wild with a talking chair, a robot, his pet pterodactyl, a young Laurence Fishburne as a pastel-adorned cowboy, and myriad other human and puppet characters at his favorite hangout. The series ran for five seasons on CBS from 1986 to 1990 and won multiple Emmy awards.

Alas, with so many years passed since the Pee-wee craze reached its high-water mark, some of the performers who helped make the playhouse what it was are no longer with us. With that in mind, here are some of the other "Playhouse" legends that you may not know passed away.

Shirley Stoler

During the first season of "Pee-wee's Playhouse," Mrs. Steve was one of the more frequent guests (invited or otherwise) at Herman's swanky pad. Mrs. Steve was essentially a snoop and gossip, often sauntering up to the playhouse with bad vibes and a floral dress draped over her. She was replaced in subsequent seasons by Mrs. Renee, who was her opposite in many respects. However, Mrs. Steve nonetheless made her mark in a relatively short amount of time.

The character was played by actress Shirley Stoler, who enjoyed a decades-long career in Hollywood, appearing in films and television programs alike. According to her IMDb page, her first major appearance onscreen came in the movie "The Honeymoon Killers," which was directed by Leonard Kastle and Martin Scorsese.

She later raised eyebrows as a Nazi prison commandant in "Seven Beauties," a role that garnered her major media attention by way of The New York Times. Other credits include "Charlie's Angels," "Kojak," "Desperately Seeking Susan," and "Law & Order." 

Stoler died on February 17, 1999 — a matter of weeks before her 70th birthday — of heart failure after a lengthy illness.

Gilbert Lewis & William Marshall

The King of Cartoons was a fixture at the playhouse, descending upon Pee-wee's place with a film projector or antique television in tow every episode. His mission, besides ruling over Cartoonland, was simple and unchanging: he was there to share a classic cartoon, ranging in origin from the 1920s to the '70s, with the Playhouse Gang and all of the children at home. King Cartoon, as he was originally called, was actually played by two different Black actors, namely Gilbert Lewis and William Marshall.

Lewis was the first King of Cartoons, having filled the role during the first season of "Pee-wee's Playhouse." He worked steadily before and after his stint on "Playhouse," appearing in films like "Candyman" and "Don Juan DeMarco," as well as making guest appearances on series such as "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "Spenser: For Hire," and "General Hospital." Per The Press of Atlantic City, he died in 2015 at the age of 79.

Marshall, meanwhile, may be the best-remembered King, wearing the cartoon crown for the show's final four seasons. He was well-known long before his Pee-wee days, having played the title role in the iconic blaxploitation film "Blacula," as well as its sequel, "Scream Blacula Scream." He was also in "Star Trek," "Bonanza," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," and a host of other programs and movies, despite having been blacklisted as an alleged Communist sympathizer. He died in 2003 at the age of 78, per the Daily Press.

Phil Hartman

Phil Hartman may be best-known for his iconic work on "Saturday Night Live," but he actually got his start at The Groundlings with Paul Reubens, John Paragon, and fellow "Playhouse" legend Lynne Marie Stewart (Miss Yvonne). From there, he jumped feet-first into Pee-wee's wild world as Captain Carl — a rough-and-tumble sea captain — in Reubens' original stage production of "The Pee-wee Herman Show" in the early 1980s.

Hartman also made an appearance as a reporter and co-wrote Reubens' breakout film effort, the Tim Burton-directed "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," before reprising his role as Carl for the first season of "Playhouse."

From there, his career exploded on "SNL," where he came to be known for impersonating the likes of Phil Donahue, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Charlton Heston and creating characters like the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. Hartman was a fixture on the show for eight seasons from 1986 to 1994. He was later a regular on "NewsRadio," did a number of voices on "The Simpsons," and showed up in films like "Jingle All the Way" and "Sgt. Bilko."

According to CNN, Hartman was murdered by his wife, Brynn Omdahl, in 1998, when he was just 49. Omdahl died by suicide soon after confessing to the crime. The couple had been married since 1987 and had two children together.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

John Paragon

The history of "Pee-wee's Playhouse" can't be written without any mention of John Paragon. The actor and comedian was a frequent collaborator of Paul Reubens and their working relationship can be traced back to the inception of the Pee-wee Herman character in the late '70s, when they were both members of the Groundlings comedy group.

"Pee-wee's Playhouse" saw Paragon play Jambi the Genie, a blue/green being who lived in a disembodied head. He appeared in most episodes to grant a wish to Pee-wee Herman, even though the results didn't always go according to plan. The character was also a key component of engaging the titular Playhouse's audience guests, as he'd make them shout the catchphrase, "Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney ho" so that he could gain his magical abilities. Elsewhere, Paragon voiced Pterri the Pterodactyl, a green dinosaur who was afraid of thunderstorms.

Sadly, John Paragon died in April 2021 at the age of 66, but the news didn't become public knowledge until months after it occurred. Furthermore, the autopsy reports revealed that heart disease stemming from alcohol abuse was the cause of death.

Paul Reubens

"Pee-wee's Playhouse" wouldn't exist without Paul Reubens, the comedian who portrayed Pee-wee Herman on the beloved children's show and beyond. Reubens played the childlike, fun-loving playhouse owner throughout the series' entire run and eventually took the character everywhere from Hollywood to World Wrestling Entertainment.

Pee-Wee is an undeniable icon of popular culture, and his legacy will undoubtedly live on forever. In fact, Reubens' dedication to the character led many people to believe that there was no difference between the real man and his fictional persona. As he told Interview Magazine, "I spent a lot of time and energy making sure that people thought Pee-wee was a real person. My billing was always 'Pee-wee Herman as Himself.'"

Reubens' performance as Pee-wee Herman made him a beloved figure in the eyes of many people, which is why the comedian's fandom was heartbroken to learn about his death on July 31, 2023. According to the reports, Herman died aged 70 after a multi-year battle with cancer, which he kept hidden from the public until the sad news came to light.