Paul Reubens, the actor and comedian whose character Pee-wee Herman — an overgrown toddler with a tight grey suit and an iconic laugh — became a 1980s pop cultural sensation, died at the age of 70.
Reubens, whose character delighted viewers in the films “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” died Sunday night following a six-year battle with cancer that he kept hidden, according to his publicist.
“Please accept my apologies for not going public with what I’ve been going through for the last six years,” Reubens said in a statement issued Monday along with his death announcement. “I’ve always received a lot of love and respect from my friends, fans, and supporters.” I adored you all and had a great time creating art for you.”
Pee-wee with his white bulky loafers and red bow tie, created for the stage, would become a cultural constant in both adult and children’s entertainment for most of the 1980s, though an indecent exposure arrest in 1991 would put the figure into entertainment exile for years.
The staccato giggle that punctuated every utterance, catch phrases like ‘I know you are, but what am I’, and a tabletop dance to the Champs’ song ‘Tequila’ in a biker bar in ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ were frequently reproduced by fans, much to the delight of some and much to the chagrin of others.
In the late 1970s, Reubens was a member of the Los Angeles improv group The Groundlings, where he invented Pee-wee. The live “Pee-wee Herman Show” premiered in a Los Angeles theatre in 1981 and was a hit with both youngsters and adults at matinees.
The format was similar to that of the Saturday morning TV show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” years later, with Herman living in a wild and zany household with a series of stock-character visitors, including one, Captain Karl, performed by late “Saturday Night Live” star Phil Hartman.
HBO would screen the show as a special.
Reubens brought Pee-wee to the big screen in 1985 with “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” which takes the character on a statewide adventure. The film, which depicts the theft of Pee-wee’s prized bicycle, was believed to be partially inspired on Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neo-realist masterpiece “The Bicycle Thief.” The film was a blockbuster, grossing $40 million and spawning a cult following for its eccentric whimsy. It was directed by Tim Burton and co-written by Hartman.
Three years later, in the less well-received “Big Top Pee-wee,” Pee-wee attempts to join a circus. Reubens’ character would not appear in another film until 2016’s “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” for Netflix. Judd Apatow produced Pee-wee’s big-screen comeback.
His television show, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” ran for five seasons, won 22 Emmys, and drew not just children but also adults to Saturday morning television.
“Paul Reubens was like no one else — a brilliant and original comedian who made kids and their parents laugh at the same time,” Jimmy Kimmel said on Instagram. He never missed a birthday and shared his genuine joy in fun with everyone he met.”
The Pee-wee universe was a hallucinogenic place, populated by objects like a talking armchair and a friendly pterodactyl. It was both amusing and subversive, celebrating nonconformity.
Guillermo del Toro, who directed the film, tweeted on Monday that Reubens was “one of the patron saints of all misfitted, weird, maladjusted, wonderful, miraculous oddities.”
Even though Reubens claims that wasn’t the intention, the performance was a hit because it worked on numerous levels.
“It’s for kids,” Reubens explained to The Associated Press in 2010. “For years, people have attempted to convince me that ‘it wasn’t really for kids, right?’ Even the original show catered to children. I was always censoring myself to make it kid-friendly.
“The whole thing has just been a gut feeling from the beginning,” Reubens told the Associated Press. “That’s all it’s ever been, and I believe it always will be.” I can’t deconstruct and explain it as much as others want me to. One, I don’t know, two, I don’t want to know, and three, I’m afraid I’ll curse myself if I find out.”
Reubens’ career was ruined when he was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult movie theatre in his hometown of Sarasota, Florida. He received a tiny fine, but the cost was incalculable. He became the target of late-night talk show jokes, and Reubens’ image altered overnight.
“It was really intense when I realised my name was going to be mentioned in the same sentence as children and sex,” Reubens told NBC in 2004. “I knew from that moment on that whatever happens after that point, something really bad is out there in the air.”
Reubens said he received numerous job offers, but most of them wanted to take “advantage of the luridness of my situation,” and he refused.
“It just changed,” he explained. “Everything has changed.”
He did, however, take advantage of one opportunity to make fun of his tarnished reputation. Just a few weeks after his imprisonment, he opened the MTV Video Music Awards by stepping on stage alone and stating, “Heard any good jokes lately?” (Herman’s MTV appearances boosted Pee-wee’s prominence in the early 1980s.)
After authorities acquired photographs from his computer and camera collection in 2001, Reubens was arrested and charged with misdemeanour possession of child pornography, but the charge was reduced to obscenity and he was sentenced to three years probation.
Born Paul Rubenfeld in Peekskill, New York, in 1952, he grew up in Sarasota, Florida, where his parents had a lamp store and he put on comedy events for neighbourhood kids.
He wanted to study acting after high school. He attended Boston University for a year before being rejected by the Juilliard School and Carnegie-Mellon University. As a result, he enrolled at California Institute of the Arts. This would lead to appearances at local comedy clubs and theatres, as well as membership in the Groundlings.
“Paul’s contributions to comedy and entertainment have left a lasting impact on the world,” the Groundlings stated in a statement.
Following his imprisonment in 1991, he spent the next decade mostly portraying non-Pee-wee characters, including roles in Tim Burton’s 1992 film “Batman Returns,” the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” film, and a guest-star stint on the TV show “Murphy Brown.”
He was also in the 1999 comedy “Mystery Men” and Johnny Depp’s 2001 drug-dealer drama “Blow.”
Reubens, who never lost his childlike appearance even in his 60s, gradually reintroduced Pee-wee, eventually doing a Broadway rendition of “The Pee-wee Herman Show” in 2010, and the Netflix film in 2016.
Reubens was well-liked by his fellow comedians, and Pee-wee’s fans were widespread.
“His surreal comedy and unrelenting kindness were a gift to us all,” Conan O’Brien said in a tweet. “Damn, this hurts.”