Paul Reubens, who rose to fame playing the beloved character Pee-wee Herman, died on Sunday, social media accounts tied to the actor announced on Monday.
Reubens “bravely and privately fought cancer for years with his trademark tenacity and wit”, the account said. He was 70 years old.
“Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years,” Reubens said in a statement. “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 on 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 it, Pee-wee resides in Puppetland with a cadre of larger-than-life characters and speaks in a signature Pee-wee voice 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 said in the interview. “They would be like, ‘How does $200 for this project sound to you, Pee-wee?’”
The stage show’s wild success lead to his first full-length film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, directed by Tim Burton in his feature-film directorial debut. The film, 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 programme 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 theatre, 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 defence, but Reubens largely retreated from public life, save for a few non-Pee-wee roles throughout the rest of the ’90s.
After years of dormancy, Reubens brought Pee-wee back to the stage in 2010 with runs in Los Angeles and New York. Then, in 2016, the Judd Apatow-directed Pee-wee’s Big Holiday 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 A.V. 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. ”