Paul Reubens, best known for his role as Pee-wee Herman on Pee-wee's Playhouse, died at age 70 on July 30. According to an Instagram post shared from his account, he died after a private, years-long battle with cancer.
“Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years,” said a message from Reubens. “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.”
Representatives from his estate shared more in the Instagram caption:
"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. 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."
The post adds that Reubens wanted "any expressions of sympathy made in honor of his late parents, Judy and Milton Rubenfeld, to Stand Up to Cancer or organizations involved in Dementia or Alzheimer's care, support, and research."
Reubens started his comedy career in the 1970s as part of the Los Angeles-based improv troupe The Groundlings. There he worked closely with Phil Hartman, who eventually helped him refine his career-defining character, Pee-wee Herman. Pee-wee was born out of a 1978 improv exercise — Reubens first played the character as an inept stand-up comedian, then eventually developed the cartoonish voice, signature bowtie, and absurdist world for a stage version of The Pee-wee Herman Show.
The show was created out of spite after Reubens’ failed Saturday Night Live audition in 1980. "I was so bitter and angry, I thought, 'You better think about doing something to take this to the next level,'" Reubens said in a 2007 interview with SF Gate. "So I borrowed some money and produced this show. I went from this Saturday Night Live reject to having 60 people working for me."
For five months, Reubens performed sold-out shows at The Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles, with weekly matinees for children and midnight shows for adults. In 1981, HBO aired The Pee-wee Herman Show as a filmed special, which led to appearances on Late Night with David Letterman Show, touring productions, and eventually the 1985 feature film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and the television series Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which ran from 1986-1991. As Pee-wee gained popularity, Reubens himself faded away from the public eye.
“I thought Pee-Wee Herman worked better if one didn't know that I was an actor,” Reubens said in a 2004 interview with NBC News. “So I went out of my way to try and get the public to think that that was a real person.”
Even decades after the creation of the character, his strategy seems to have worked — Reubens and Pee-wee Herman are practically synonymous. It’s part of what made the actor’s multiple arrests more scandalous. In 1991, Reubens was charged with indecent exposure after allegedly being seen masturbating in a theater showing pornographic films. In 2002, he was charged with possession of child pornography in relation to his large collection of vintage erotica, but felony charges were dropped. Still, the charges and newfound details about Reubens' personal life cast a shadow over his child-friendly character, and for years Pee-wee Herman and Reubens stayed out of the spotlight.
Reubens did bring back Pee-wee Herman eventually, first as a 2010 Broadway show which was turned into a TV special, and then as a 2016 Netflix film, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. But his later career, especially on television, was more about showcasing his range beyond the beloved character. He was able to channel that same absurdity into guest roles on comedies like 30 Rock, Reno 911, Robot Chicken, and Portlandia. Reubens maintained his connection to children’s entertainment by voicing characters on cartoons like Chowder, Phineas and Ferb, and Pickle and Peanut. He became part of the DC universe, voicing the character of Bat-Mite in several Batman cartoons and playing Mike the Spike in Legends of Tomorrow.
In 2019, in one of his final television appearances, Reubens played himself in an episode of What We Do in the Shadows — or at least, a vampiric version of himself, a nod to his role in the 1992 feature film Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The punchline of Reubens showing up as part of the vampiric counsel counted on the fact that the actor is known for more than just one beloved character, and made for one of the season’s best moments. It’s proof that while Pee-wee Herman is undeniably an important part of pop culture history, Reubens will also be fondly remembered for just being Paul Reubens.
Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R.