Paul Reubens, the actor and comedian whose character Pee-wee Herman became a cultural phenomenon through films and TV shows, has died. He was 70.
Reubens died Sunday night after a six-year struggle with cancer that he did not make public, his publicist said in a statement.
“Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years,” Reubens said in a statement released Monday with the announcement of his death. “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.”
The character with his too-tight gray suit, white chunky loafers and red bow tie was best known for the film “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and the television series “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”
The Pee-wee character would become a cultural constant for much of the 1980s, though an indecent exposure arrest in 1991 would send him into entertainment exile for years.
Herman created Pee-wee when he was part of the Los Angeles improv group The Groundlings in the late 1970s. The live “Pee-wee Herman Show” debuted at a Los Angeles theater in 1981 and was a success with both kids during matinees and adults at a midnight show.
The show closely resembled the format the Saturday morning TV “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” would follow years later, with Herman living in a wild and wacky home with a series of stock-character visitors, including one, Captain Karl, played by the late “Saturday Night Live” star Phil Hartman. In the plot, Pee-wee secretly wishes to fly.
HBO would air the show as a special.
“Pee Wee got his wish to fly,” Steve Martin tweeted after his death. “Thanks Paul Reubens for the brilliant off the wall comedy.”
Reubens took Pee-wee to the big screen in 1985’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” The film, in which Pee-wee’s cherished bike is stolen, was said to be loosely based on Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neo-realist classic, “The Bicycle Thief.” The film, directed by Tim Burton and co-written by Phil Hartman of “Saturday Night Live,” sent Pee-wee on a nationwide escapade. The movie was a success, grossing $40 million, and continued to spawn a cult following for its oddball whimsy.
A sequel followed three years later in the less well-received “Big Top Pee-wee,” in which Pee-wee seeks to join a circus. Reubens’ character wouldn’t get another movie starring role until 2016’s Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” for Netflix. Judd Apatow produced Pee-wee’s big-screen revival.
His television series, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” ran for five seasons, earned 22 Emmys and attracted not only children but adults to Saturday-morning TV.
Both silly and subversive and championing nonconformity, the Pee-wee universe was a trippy place, populated by things like a talking armchair and a friendly pterodactyl. The host, who is fond of secret words and loves fruit salad so much he once married it, is prone to lines like, “I know you are, but what am I?” and “Why don’t you take a picture; it’ll last longer?” The act was a hit because it worked on multiple levels, even though Reubens insists that wasn’t the plan.
“It’s for kids,” Reubens told The Associated Press in 2010. “People have tried to get me for years to go, ‘It wasn’t really for kids, right?’ Even the original show was for kids. I always censored myself to have it be kid-friendly.
“The whole thing has been just a gut feeling from the beginning,” Reubens told the AP. “That’s all it ever is and I think always ever be. Much as people want me to dissect it and explain it, I can’t. One, I don’t know, and two, I don’t want to know, and three, I feel like I’ll hex myself if I know.”
Jimmy Kimmel posted on Instagram that “Paul Reubens was like no one else — a brilliant and original comedian who made kids and their parents laugh at the same time. He never forgot a birthday and shared his genuine delight for silliness with everyone he met.”
Reubens’ career was derailed when he was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult movie theater in Sarasota, Florida, where he grew up. He was handed a small fine but the damage to the character was incalculable.
He became the frequent butt of late-night talk show jokes and the perception of Reubens immediately changed.
“The moment that I realized my name was going to be said in the same sentence as children and sex, that’s really intense,” Reubens told NBC in 2004. “That’s something I knew from that very moment, whatever happens past that point, something’s out there in the air that is really bad.”
Reubens said he got plenty of offers to work, but told the AP that most of them wanted to take “advantage of the luridness of my situation”,” and he didn’t want to do them.
“It just changed,” he said. “Everything changed.”
In 2001, Reubens was arrested and charged with misdemeanor possession of child pornography after police seized images from his computer and photography collection, but the allegation was reduced to an obscenity charge and he was given three years probation.
Born Paul Rubenfield in Peekskill, New York, Reubens, the eldest of three children, grew up primarily in Sarasota before going to Boston University and the California Institute of the Arts.