/Paul Reubens, Known For Pee-wee Herman Character, Dead At 70

Paul Reubens, Known For Pee-wee Herman Character, Dead At 70

Paul Reubens, who rose to fame playing the beloved character Pee-wee Herman, died on Sunday, social media accounts tied to the actor announced Monday.

Reubens “bravely and privately fought cancer for years with his trademark tenacity and wit,” posts on his Facebook and Instagram accounts said. He was 70 years old.

“Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years,” a statement from Reubens read. “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.”

“Paul was beloved and he will be terribly missed,” his talent agent, Donald Henry Birge, said Monday.

Reubens’ Pee-wee character soared to popularity in the 1980s, when he debuted “The Pee-wee Herman Show” at Los Angeles’ Groundlings theater after being rejected from “Saturday Night Live.” In the show, Pee-wee lived in Puppetland with a cadre of larger-than-life characters and spoke in a signature goofy, childlike voice that Reubens developed for the character.

As Pee-wee ― whose signature look was a gray suit and red bowtie that Reubens found backstage at Groundlings ― Reubens mastered the art of blurring the lines between fiction and reality.

“It dawned on me that I could actually become Pee-wee Herman,” Reubens reflected on the character’s early days in a 2020 interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “I could do something that was conceptual art, and the only person who would really know it was conceptual was me.”

The act caught on, Reubens said.

“I would go into meetings as myself, and people would look at me and call me Pee-wee,” he told THR. “They would be like, ‘How does $200 for this project sound to you, Pee-wee?’”

Paul Reubens appearing as Pee-wee Herman at WrestleMania XXVII in 2011.
Paul Reubens appearing as Pee-wee Herman at WrestleMania XXVII in 2011.

In 1985, the stage show’s wild success led to the character’s first full-length film, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” directed by Tim Burton in his feature directorial debut. The movie, which sent Pee-wee on a cross-country journey to find his stolen red bicycle, was a critical and financial success and went on to achieve cult film status.

Reubens later starred in “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” a CBS children’s program that ran from 1986 to 1991. The show was peppered with former Groundlings stars, including Phil Hartman and Lynne Marie Stewart, and existed as a sort of otherworldly Pee-wee dreamscape, complete with talking appliances and furniture, puppets interacting with human characters, and quirky clay animation.

But as the show was wrapping up, Reubens’ career came to a standstill. In 1991, he was arrested in Florida for masturbating in an adult movie theater, spawning a litany of jokes on late-night shows. Many of Reubens’ famous friends, including Cyndi Lauper and Zsa Zsa Gabor, spoke out in his defense, but Reubens largely retreated from public life, save for a few non-Pee-wee roles throughout the rest of the ’90s.

A publicity still from 'Pee Wee's Playhouse" in 1986.
A publicity still from ‘Pee Wee’s Playhouse” in 1986.

John Kisch Archive via Getty Images

He played a few small roles in big films, including “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Batman Returns” in 1992. He tiptoed back into public appearances to promote “Mystery Men,” a 1999 comedy where Reubens played an amateur superhero with flatulence so pungent it makes people faint. Over the years, Reubens appeared on a number of television shows as well, including “30 Rock,” “Reno 911,” “Portlandia” and “What We Do in the Shadows.”

After years of dormancy (and another misdemeanor charge concerning his vintage erotica collection in 2002), Reubens brought the Pee-wee character back to the stage in 2010 with runs in Los Angeles and New York. Six years later, “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” directed by John Lee and produced by Judd Apatow, premiered on Netflix to largely positive reviews.

For Reubens, Pee-wee’s years of absence mattered little to the film’s story.

“I sort of feel like, who cares where Pee-wee’s been?” Reubens told The AV Club upon the film’s premiere. “The thing that I loved about ― that I still like about Pee-wee Herman ― is that you look at Pee-wee Herman, you know who Pee-wee Herman is. You don’t need a lot of backstory. It didn’t require a lot originally, and I don’t feel like that much has changed, really.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the director of “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.” It was John Lee, not Judd Apatow.

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