In Memoriam

Pee-wee Herman’s Creator, Paul Reubens, Dies at 70

The star of Pee-wee’s Playhouse had been battling cancer for years, his official Facebook page revealed.
Peewee Hermans Creator Paul Reubens Dies at 70
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Paul Reubens, the performer who brought beloved children’s character Pee-wee Herman to life, has died after a battle with cancer. He was 70.

“Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years,” wrote Reubens in a statement posted to Instagram after 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.”

His death was announced on Reubens’s Facebook page with the following message: “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.”

Born Paul Rubenfeld in Peekskill, New York, and raised in Sarasota, Florida, Reubens got his first acting role as a sixth grader, appearing in a production of the Tony-nominated play A Thousand Clowns. As a child, he was inspired by Ron Howard—then a young star on The Andy Griffith Show—and once sent fan mail to Walt Disney. Reubens later attended Boston University and the California Institute of the Arts for a time. But it was his fateful stint with Los Angeles comedy troupe the Groundlings that would birth his famously red-bow-tied character.

The name Pee-wee was taken from the brand of a harmonica that Reubens owned. Herman was the surname of a “crazy, high-powered” kid Reubens met growing up in Florida. And that signature voice was one he had cultivated as the “resident juvenile” at a Sarasota repertory theater company. “I just sort of flipped a switch and the character came out,” Reubens told Vanity Fair in 1999, speaking about Pee-wee Herman’s conception. “You’d think in 20 years I’d have a better story.”

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, a feature film centered on the character and directed by Tim Burton, hit theaters in 1985. The following year, Pee-wee’s Playhouse—a whimsical, often subversive children’s TV show—began playing Saturday mornings on CBS. The series aired from 1986 to 1990. Reubens also appeared in character on late-night shows and in comedy videos, rarely presenting as himself at public events.

Controversy befell Reubens’s career in 1991, after he was arrested for indecent exposure at an adult movie theater in Florida. Reubens pleaded no contest to the charge and continued to do some acting during his retreat from public life, taking on roles in films such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Batman Returns. “Jeffrey Dahmer’s story broke the same time as my story, and for a week I was leading the news, followed by Dahmer eating people, boring holes into their hands and turning them into zombies,” Reubens told Vanity Fair eight years after the incident. “It was just so bizarre.” In 2004, Reubens was sentenced to three years’ probation after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor obscenity charge.

After decades apart from his most iconic character, Reubens reprised the role for Broadway’s Pee-wee Herman Show in 2010 and cowrote and starred in the 2016 Netflix film Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday. “Pee-wee doesn’t work, to me, with age mixed into it,” Reubens told The New York Times in 2016, acknowledging the digital retouching used in postproduction of the film. “So I knew I wanted digital retouching, and that was my biggest concern from the get-go, with Judd [Apatow, a producer on the film], when it came to budgeting, because it costs a fortune. I could have had a face-lift and we would have saved 2 million dollars.”

In recent years, Reubens appeared on TV shows including Mosaic, What We Do in the Shadows, and The Conners. He was developing a darker Pee-wee movie with Uncut Gems filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie. “I’ve referred to it as the Valley of the Dolls Pee-wee movie,” he said in early 2020. “It’s about fame.” There was also buzz surrounding a potential HBO documentary on Reubens produced by the filmmaking duo.

On social media, Reubens’s estate asked that “any expressions of sympathy be made in honor of his late parents, Judy and Milton Rubenfeld, to Stand Up to Cancer or organizations involved in dementia and Alzheimer’s care, support and research.”

When asked about his legacy in 2016, Reubens told Vanity Fair, “Beauty and art and sensitivity is what I hope for and strive for, and I hope people notice.”