Paul Reubens, who disappeared behind a tight gray suit and bright red bow tie to create and star as the awkward man-child Pee-wee Herman on stage, on a groundbreaking kids TV show and on the big screen, has died. He was 70.
His death in Los Angeles was announced Monday on his official Facebook page.
“Last night we said farewell to Paul Reubens, an iconic American actor, comedian, writer and producer whose beloved character Pee-wee Herman delighted generations of children and adults with his positivity, whimsy and belief in the importance of kindness,” a statement read. “Paul bravely and privately fought cancer for years with his trademark tenacity and wit. A gifted and prolific talent, he will forever live in the comedy pantheon and in our hearts as a treasured friend and man of remarkable character and generosity of spirit.”
Reubens created Pee-wee (named for a brand of harmonica he had when he was a kid) while with the Los Angeles comedy troupe The Groundlings in 1978, then took the character to the stage after failing to land a spot on Saturday Night Live in 1980. His performance was captured for an HBO special in 1981.
Reubens showed up in the Cheech & Chong films Next Movie (1980) and Nice Dreams (1981) and made the first of his many bizarre appearances on Late Night With David Letterman — always in character and keeping his real identity a secret — in 1982.
He starred as Pee-wee during a 22-city tour of the U.S., including a stop at Carnegie Hall in 1984, and then in Warner Bros.’ Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), directed by Tim Burton. That resulted in a sequel, Randal Kleiser’s Big Top Pee-wee (1988).
Reubens really came into his own on his CBS Saturday morning children’s program Pee-wee’s Playhouse, with 45 episodes running for five seasons from 1986-91. The eye-popping, candy-colored series raked in 22 Emmy Awards, including two that he shared in 1988 and ’91.
Fooling around in a fantastical playhouse filled with toys, gadgets and talking furniture, Pee-wee was accompanied by such characters as Captain Carl (Phil Hartman), Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne), Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart), Reba the Mail Lady (S. Epatha Merkerson), Jambi the Genie (John Paragon), Pterri the Pterodactyl, Clocky and Magic Screen. Cyndi Lauper sang the opening theme song.
His career suffered a serious setback in July 1991 when he was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult theater in Sarasota, Florida.
“People have argued I’ve done everything consciously or unconsciously to destroy [the character],” he told THR‘s Seth Abramovitch in 2020. “But it’s the brand that won’t die. It’s still around.”
He was born Paul Rubenfeld in Peekskill, New York, on Aug. 27, 1952, and raised in Sarasota, where his parents, Judy and Milton, owned a lamp store. His mother also was a teacher, and his dad was an automobile salesperson who had been a pilot during World War II for British, American and Israeli forces.
While in sixth grade, Reubens acted for the first time, portraying Nick Burns in A Thousand Clowns at The Players Theatre. At Sarasota High School, he was president of the Drama Club.
After graduation, Reubens enrolled in Boston University’s theater department and a year later moved to Los Angeles to attend the acting program at California Institute of the Arts — where his classmates included David Hasselhoff and Katey Sagal — soon to join The Groundlings.
There, he, Hartman and Paragon “would sit in my car in the parking lot and fantasize and talk about what it would be like to be working actors,” he recalled.
For Pee-wee, Reubens was inspired by childhood favorites Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo and Rocky and Bullwinkle. After being loaned a gray suit from Groundlings founder Gary Austin and finding a red bow tie in a pile of stuff backstage, it dawned on him “that he could actually become Pee-wee Herman,” he said.
“I could do something that was conceptual art, and the only person who would really know it was conceptual was me.” For his first paying Hollywood gig, he auditioned for The Dating Game in character and was cast.
Inspired by Sylvester Stallone and his experience on Rocky, Reubens demanded creative control on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and insisted Burton direct it. Made for $7 million, it grossed almost six times that.
“I’ll never forget how Paul helped me at the beginning of my career. It would not have happened without his support,” Burton wrote on Instagram.
On July 26, 1991, while visiting his parents, Reubens was arrested in the lobby of the XXX South Trail Cinema during the theater’s triple bill of Catalina Five-O Tiger Shark, Nurse Nancy and Turn Up the Heat.
With his mug shot everywhere and late-night hosts poking fun of him, Toys R Us removed Pee-wee toys from its shelves, Disney-MGM Studios suspended a video with him from its studio tour and CBS pulled five remaining episodes of his Playhouse (he said he was through with the show anyway). He left the public eye, but he wasn’t done.
“When people go, like, ‘Was your career over in ’90, ’91?’ I never viewed it like that,” he told Abramovitch. “I make the rules of when I’m coming back and when I’m not coming back, and what I do next.”
In November 1991, he pleaded no contest to the charges in Sarasota. As part of his deal, he did 75 hours of community service and created and financed antidrug public-service announcements.
Reubens played the Penguin’s father in Burton’s Batman Returns and appeared in another 1992 film, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He would also work on the big screen in Dunston Checks In (1996), Mystery Men (1999), Blow (2001) and Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime (2009).
Reubens recurred on Murphy Brown as the Andrew J. Lansing III, the nephew of Garry Marshall’s network president — he landed a non-Pee-wee Emmy nom for that — from 1995-97 and on Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic as JC Schiffer, a confidant of Sharon Stone’s character, in 2018. He also appeared on TV on Everybody Loves Raymond, Reno 911!, Pushing Daisies, 30 Rock, What We Do in the Shadows, The Blacklist and Portlandia.
He was a voice actor on projects including Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, Star Wars Rebels, Robot Chicken, Family Guy, TRON: Uprising, Smurfs, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Minecraft: Story Mode and Call of Duty.
Reubens was charged in 2002 with misdemeanor possession of obscene material improperly depicting a child under the age of 18 in sexual conduct. Those charges were eventually dropped. He would say that he was a collector of erotica and didn’t want anyone “for one second to think that I am titillated by images of children.”
In 2010, he was back as his most prized character, producing, co-writing and starring in an updated revival of The Pee-wee Herman Show in Los Angeles and then on Broadway at the Stephen Sondheim Theater.
He and Judd Apatow then produced a third Pee-wee film, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2015).
Reubens recently penned the first draft of his memoir, did the finishing touches on two more Pee-wee movie scripts and was developing projects for television, including a variety show and a Western called Fancypants, his publicists said.
Survivors include his sister, Abby, and her wife, Helia; brother Luke; and nieces Lily and Sarah. Donations in his memory can be made to Stand Up to Cancer or to organizations involved in battling dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’m been facing for the last six years,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “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.”