Paul Reubens has died at the age of 70 following a six-year battle with cancer that he chose to keep private, and while he will surely be remembered for bringing Pee-wee Herman to life, he was also far more than that enduring character.
Reubens wrote a statement about his decision prior to his death, and his representatives shared it on Instagram once he passed.
“Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years. 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,” Reubens wrote.
“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,” read the caption that was attached to Reubens’ final Instagram post, which included recent photos from photographer Art Streiber.
Before I get into the Pee-wee of it all, I want to back up my thesis statement. Paul Reubens was a great character actor. That much is apparent thanks to his roles as a skeevy drug dealer in Ted Demme‘s Blow, a gassy hero in Ben Stiller‘s comedy Mystery Men, and a vampire in that early ’90s cult favorite, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He absolutely slays in all three of these roles, especially Blow, which allowed him to show off dramatic chops that he was rarely given the chance to showcase. He could still deliver, even when he wasn’t focused on making people laugh, and his interesting face brought flavor to everything I ever saw him in.
Additionally, Reubens earned an Emmy nomination for his six-episode guest arc on Murphy Brown, appeared in multiple episodes of hit TV shows such as The Blacklist and Gotham, and more recently, co-starred in Steven Soderbergh‘s HBO series Mosaic.
Reubens was also a prolific voice actor in video games and TV shows ranging from Rugrats to Bob’s Burgers, as well as the Smurfs movies, Dr. Dolittle, Flight of the Navigator, and The Nightmare Before Christmas, in which he voiced Lock while reteaming with producer Tim Burton, who as a young filmmaker pre-Batman directed him in the hit movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
Created in 1977 when Reubens was a member of the Groundlings, Pee-wee was a childlike adult who wore a flattop and a bright red bowtie that stood out against his grey suit and lent an air of class to comebacks such as “I know you are, but what am I?” Reubens spent years developing the character, performing a stage show that ran for five sold-out months before landing a special on HBO in 1981.
Four years later, Pee-wee made his big-screen debut in Big Adventure, which was a huge hit that spawned two sequels, Big Top Pee-wee (1988) and Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016), as well as a Saturday morning TV show called Pee-wee’s Playhouse that ran on CBS from 1986 to 1990.
Pee-wee’s Playhouse had been influenced by one of my favorite shows as a kid, Captain Kangaroo, and though it was a little too out-there for my taste (I was born in 1984), it introduced several future stars, such as Natasha Lyonne, and it featured both cool music and cool, colorful sets that won Emmys for their design.
Reubens really committed to the bit, doing interviews as Pee-wee Herman — in case that rings a bell for fans of Sacha Baron Cohen — and he even hosted Saturday Night Live in character as Pee-wee, which is no small feat. Reubens also revived the character for a Broadway show in 2010 as well as a handful of other appearances on WWE Raw and in Funny or Die videos.
Variety reports that Reubens was developing two Pee-wee Herman projects before his death — a black comedy titled The Pee-wee Herman Story and a family adventure film titled Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Movie.
The elephant in the room, of course, would be Reubens’ arrest for indecent exposure at an adult movie theater in Florida in 1991. His fans stuck by him, though some questioned their loyalty when Reubens was charged in 2002 with misdemeanor possession of child porn.
That charge was dropped two years later after Reubens agreed to plead guilty to a lesser misdemeanor obscenity charge, insisting he was a collector of erotica, not a pedophile.
“One thing I want to make very, very clear,” Reubens said in an interview with NBC News in 2005, is that “I don’t want anyone for one second to think that I am titillated by images of children. It’s not me. You can say lots of things about me. And you might. The public may think I’m weird. They may think I’m crazy or anything that anyone wants to think about me. That’s all fine. As long as one of the things you’re not thinking about me is that I’m a pedophile. Because that’s not true.”
Numerous celebrities offered tributes to Reubens on the occasion of his passing, such as Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, and Lyonne.
Today, I’m grateful to Paul Reubens not just for the laughs he put on my face, but for having the courage to be weird and different. R.I.P. to a real one.
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. My family and I will miss him.
— Jimmy Kimmel (@jimmykimmel) July 31, 2023
No tweet can capture the magic, generosity, artistry, and devout silliness of Paul Reubens. Everyone I know received countless nonsensical memes from Paul on their birthday, and I mean EVERYONE. His surreal comedy and unrelenting kindness were a gift to us all. Damn, this hurts.
— Conan O'Brien (@ConanOBrien) July 31, 2023
Love you so much, Paul. One in all time. Thank you for my career & your forever friendship all these years & for teaching us what a true original is. ♥️♥️💔 #PaulReubens #PeeWeeHerman ♥️ pic.twitter.com/GMcBaEgWix
— natasha lyonne (@nlyonne) July 31, 2023