Paul Reubens, the acclaimed actor celebrated for portraying the exuberant and joyfully childlike Pee-wee Herman, passed away Sunday night after a private battle with cancer. He was 70 years old.
In a posthumous statement on Instagram, Reubens expressed his regrets for not publicly sharing his six-year-long struggle. He conveyed his immense gratitude for the love and support from his friends, fans, and well-wishers while acknowledging his pleasure in creating art for them.
The iconic Pee-wee Herman character was instantly recognizable with his vibrant red bowtie, grey suit, and distinctive flattop haircut. His famous catchphrases, like “I know you are, but what am I?” delivered in his unmistakable high-pitched voice, endeared him to generations of children and adults alike.
Reubens’ estate paid tribute to him, emphasizing his significance as an American actor, comedian, writer, and producer. Pee-wee Herman’s enduring legacy lies in the character’s ability to inspire positivity, whimsy, and a profound belief in the power of kindness. Throughout his life, Reubens valiantly fought cancer with his trademark tenacity and wit, leaving behind a remarkable body of work that will forever secure his place in the comedy pantheon and in the hearts of his fans as a cherished friend.
Paul Reubens embarked on his career during the 1970s when he joined the Los Angeles live comedy troupe called the Groundlings as an improvisational comedian and stage actor. In 1980, he introduced “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” a stage production centered around a character he had nurtured for years. The show’s enormous success led to a sold-out five-month run and an HBO special. Reubens consistently embraced the persona of Pee-wee in interviews and public engagements.
Collaborating with Tim Burton in 1985, Reubens brought Pee-wee to the big screen with “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” a critically acclaimed and commercially successful feature film. He returned three years later for the sequel, “Big Top Pee-wee,” directed by Randal Kleiser. Pee-wee’s character transitioned to television from 1986 to 1990 with the CBS weekend morning show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”
“Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” influenced by vintage kids’ shows like “Captain Kangaroo,” was artistically groundbreaking, winning multiple Emmys. The show featured colorful postmodernist set design and music from New Wave icons, including Mark Mothersbaugh, Cyndi Lauper, and the Residents. It also boasted a roster of guest stars, such as Laurence Fishburne, Natasha Lyonne, and Jimmy Smits.
However, in 1991, Reubens’ image as a beloved childhood hero suffered a setback when he faced an arrest for indecent exposure at an adult movie theater in Sarasota, Fla., resulting in a national sex scandal. In response, he distanced himself from the Pee-wee character and began publicly appearing as himself. Despite the challenges, Reubens received support from fans and fellow celebrities, receiving a standing ovation at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards.
After a long hiatus, Reubens resurrected Pee-wee Herman in 2010 with “The Pee-wee Herman Show” on Broadway, followed by appearances on “WWE Raw” and digital sketches for Funny or Die. In 2016, he co-wrote and starred in “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” a Netflix sequel to 1988’s “Big Top,” marking his final film role before his passing.
Throughout his illustrious career, Reubens appeared in various other projects, including “Mystery Men” and “Blow.” He made notable appearances in “Batman Returns,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and “Matilda.” On television, his credits include “30 Rock,” “The Blacklist,” “Pushing Daisies,” “Hercules,” “Rugrats,” “Reno 911!” and “What We Do in the Shadows.”
In 2002, Reubens faced legal trouble, being charged with misdemeanor possession of obscene material depicting a child in sexual conduct. A self-proclaimed collector of erotica, he disagreed with the city’s material classification. However, the child pornography charges were dropped in 2004 when he pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor obscenity charge.
In a 2005 interview with NBC News’ Stone Phillips, Reubens vehemently denied pedophilic inclinations and urged people not to associate him with such allegations. He emphasized that while he may be perceived as weird or eccentric, being labeled a pedophile was untrue and damaging.
Before his passing, Reubens worked on two Pee-wee Herman projects, including a black comedy titled “The Pee-wee Herman Story” and a family adventure film named “Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Movie.” His untimely death leaves a void in the entertainment world, but his legacy and impact on generations of audiences will endure.