Even in death, their legacies live on through the famous TV characters they played. For Perry, it was his portrayal as the endearingly sarcastic Chandler Bing on Friends. For Somers, it was her performance as the likably aloof Chrissy Snow on Three’s Company. And for Reubens, it was his fun-loving, childlike comedic alter ego, Pee-wee Herman.
“Audiences have a special, surprisingly intimate relationship with the stars of their favorite TV shows,” Jason Lynch, curator at the Paley Center for Media, told Yahoo Entertainment. “We welcome those characters — and the actors playing them — in our homes, our basements, even our bedrooms. We turn to TV, and our favorite shows, for comfort food in good times and in bad, and those performances have helped us laugh, and cry, through the best and worst of times.”
“They feel like family to us, which is often why the death of a beloved TV icon feels like losing a family member,” he said. Many of them are “a part of our lives far longer than most other meaningful relationships we’ve had.”
Whenever a major TV icon dies, that intimate connection, built up over years, sometimes even decades, leads audiences to rediscover what made them fall in love with the actors in the first place by revisiting their best performances.
“It offers us a way to honor them and their work, but it reminds us of that time in our lives when we first connected with that person, and how important that bond is,” Lynch said.
There’s also something deeply profound about how comedic performers like Perry, Somers and Reubens, who became pillars of pop culture through their bodies of work, gave viewers permission to identify with the most eclectic parts of themselves.
“They make us feel good, get us to confront our own faults, allow us to escape from daily pressures [and] not take everything so seriously, and embrace our humanness — especially if we can see ourselves in those characters,” Leah Aldridge, assistant professor at Chapman University’s Dodge School of Film and Media Arts, told Yahoo Entertainment.
“It’s the way these performers breathed life into words on a page. They made our idiosyncrasies real and in doing so, made us feel less odd about ourselves, and accepted,” she said.
Perry’s career spanned four decades across film and television, but the actor — who died on Oct. 28 in Los Angeles, at the age of 54 — was best known for playing Chandler Bing on Friends. Perry was the youngest of the six main cast members on the hit comedy series, which ran on NBC from 1994 to 2004.
For many, Perry’s Chandler was the epitome of deadpan, witty sarcasm, introducing unique comedic timing with his unorthodox verbal delivery (see: Chandler’s famous “Could I be more…” catchphrase). Perry represented “the friend many of us wished we had, or the type of person we wanted to be,” Lynch explained.
In his 2022 memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, Perry wrote about how close he felt Chandler was to himself. “It was as if someone had followed me around for a year, stealing my jokes, copying my mannerisms, photocopying my world-weary yet witty view of life. It wasn’t that I thought I could play Chandler. I was Chandler.”
The blurred lines between reality and fiction were likely why Chandler resonated so significantly with millions of people globally and across multiple generations. Perry, who had been open about his struggles with addiction and recovery, expressed a desire for his legacy to not solely be Friends but to also be recognized for his work helping others navigate sobriety.
“When I die, I don’t want Friends to be the first thing that’s mentioned. I want that to be the first thing that’s mentioned,” Perry said in a 2022 interview on Q with Tom Power. “And I’m going to live the rest of my life proving that.”
The actress shot to fame as the likable blonde Chrissy Snow on Three’s Company, which endeared her to the Gen X crowd when she starred in the ABC sitcom from 1977 to 1980. Later, she stepped into the role of single mother Carol Lambert on Step by Step, which ran on ABC from 1991 to 1998 and introduced her to the millennial generation. Somers, who died Oct. 15 at age 76 from an aggressive form of breast cancer, was a standout comedy queen who possessed the “ability to laugh at herself,” Aldridge said of the actress’s iconic TV roles.
“It’s funny that what would bring my success would be playing a dumb blonde. I really like her. I’m enjoying doing that character so much,” Somers said in a 1978 interview about her Three’s Company role. “When they said I had to [play] a ‘dumb blonde,’ I thought, how do you do a dumb blonde and have women like her and men like her and children like her? And somehow, I think Chrissy’s done it. I would say, more than half of my mail is from women, [and they’re] not threatened at all.”
Somers later reflected on the lasting impact her Three’s Company character had, telling Yahoo Life in a 2021 interview she loved being Chrissy Snow.
“Because she had a moral code, she was lovable. Most people don’t realize that Chrissy Snow from Three’s Company was the first feminist,” she said, referring to the off-screen salary dispute that ultimately led to her firing. “I was the first one in television who asked to be paid commensurate with the men… All the men were being paid 10 to 15 times more than me. So my contract was up, I renegotiated, and I was fired for asking, essentially.”
In one of her final public appearances in a 2023 episode of The Drew Barrymore Show, Somers admitted it took some time for her to fully comprehend the sitcom’s significance. “The character and the show [were] iconic, and I now realize that. You don’t start out to do an iconic show, but people yell, ‘Chrissy! and it creates a stir when I walk in places. And I think, ‘That was 30-something years ago. It’s crazy. How lucky am I?'”
Somers will “forever, ever, be grateful to Three’s Company,” she said in another 2023 interview. “What an opportunity to create a character so beloved. I would morph into her, and I miss [playing] her.”
When Reubens — who died on July 30 at age 70, of leukemia — created the character of Pee-wee Herman in the late 1970s during his time in the Groundlings sketch comedy troupe, it probably didn’t dawn on him that the persona would become his greatest comedy invention.
“Between Pee-wee’s Playhouse and his early films, he encouraged kids to embrace the weird and wild at a time when most children’s programming was more straight-laced,” Lynch said. Reubens reminded everyone, adults and children alike, “to nurture our inner child,” Aldridge added.
Known for exuding a childlike whimsy, radiating positivity and celebrating everyone’s eccentricity, Reubens shared in a 2004 conversation with NPR that he created Pee-wee after feeling “like a total oddball, like, almost every minute of growing up.” When he appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brienin 2006, Reubens acknowledged that, as a child, he was already Pee-wee “to a degree.”
Reubens recalled making one of his first jokes as Pee-wee on Late Night with David Letterman before transitioning the character into the wacky kids show host people would remember him as. “That character got such a great response on the first night that it ever appeared that I very quickly realized this is something to pursue, so I did pursue that character,” he told NPR.
Reubens was never one to look back on his legacy or show deep interest in making sense of what he and his creation, Pee-wee Herman, represented within pop culture.
“That’s not stuff that I deal with, ever. At all. That’s your job. It’s not my job,” he told GQin 2016. “It’s not because I’m being coy. I just don’t think about it. And when I do think about it, it ruins it for me. It takes all the joy out of what I do. And I’m afraid it would change what I do.”