Pee Wee Herman Actor Paul Reubens Dead At 70

Actor and comedian Paul Reubens, better known as Pee-wee Herman, has died at the age of 70, Variety reported. He passed away on July 30, 2023, from cancer.

"Pee-wee Herman delighted generations of children and adults with his positivity, whimsy and belief in the importance of kindness," read a post from his official Facebook account. "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."

A post made to his official Instagram after his death read: "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."

Life and career

Paul Reubens was exposed to entertainment from a young age, having grown up in Sarasota, Florida among The Flying Wallendas and the Zacchini brothers. He idolized Ron Howard, and after spending time at Boston University and California Institute of the Arts he landed a gig with the Los Angeles troupe The Groundlings in the 1970s. Though the work might not have been his ultimate goal — one of his tasks was painting backstage — it paved the way for the program that would catapult him to fame, 1982's "The Pee-wee Herman Show." The stage show centered on his character Pee-wee Herman and ran for five months, with HBO taping and airing one event. It was a hit and paved the way for the 1985 movie "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and the 1986-1990 show "Pee-wee's Playhouse." 

Reubens' work was unique, as was his approach. During a 2016 Q&A session at USC's Ray Stark Family Theatre, Wayne White — one of the artists who worked on "Pee-wee's Playhouse — said that Reubens took a chance on him and gave him room to let his creative juices really thrive (per The Verge).

"We were doing our jobs for the first time. Who would have hired us in Hollywood? Nobody," said White. "Paul was cool enough, he was an artist himself, and he hired all these unknowns. That was the power of the 'Playhouse' it was an art project that happened to get on TV."

Criminal charges

In 1991, Paul Reubens' ascent was cut short when he attended a pornographic showing — "Nancy Nurse," "Tiger Shark," and "Turn Up the Heat, per the New York Daily News — and exposed himself, leading to his arrest. As reported by CBS News, he pleaded no contest to the charges. Though he maintained his innocence at the time, he later told Stone Phillips (via UPI): "It didn't seem like a crime to me ... I certainly didn't think to myself, 'What happens if I get arrested for going in here?'" Though "Pee-wee's Playhouse" had already been canceled at the time, CBS put a stop to reruns of the show following the arrest. According to a New York Daily News report, a network spokesperson said at the time, "In light of current circumstances, the five remaining episodes will not be seen."

In 2002, Reubens was charged with possessing child pornography, though his publicist told E!, "[The] claims are completely without merit. He's going to be completely vindicated at the end of the day." Per People, a representative of the actor at the time said the purported images were "extensive historical art photography collection." Later, NBC News reported that one of Reubens' lawyers determined one piece of evidence used against Reuben was a mistake — it was from another case. In 2004, the child porn charges were dropped, but the actor pled guilty to a charge of obscenity and was put on three years' probation. Per the terms of his probation, he was not allowed in the presence of minors without a guardian present, Today reported.

Post-charges and later life

Paul Reubens seemed to accept the controversy that became part of his career. He told Stone Phillips in 2004 (via NBC News): "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."

In the same interview he spoke about the nature of his character: "I always viewed Pee-Wee Herman as somebody with a really good heart, but like, you know didn't have a clue about a lot of things. Somebody who was truly naive and was trying to do the best he could do, but it didn't always come out like that."

In 2020, Reubens spoke to The Hollywood Reporter and suggested he could step away from the character of Pee-wee Herman, even hinting that he would be open to "digital scans" or his likeness used in future projects. "I think actors are going to be obsolete really quick," he said. Regardless, Reubens didn't seem to think the character was going anywhere. "People have argued I've done everything consciously or unconsciously to destroy [the character]," he said. "But it's the brand that won't die. It's still around."

In his later years, Reubens did voice acting for video games and shows and made appearances in various movies and shows. According to Variety, Reubens had two Pee-wee Herman projects in the works at the time of his death: "The Pee-wee Herman Story" and "Pee-wee's Playhouse: The Movie." His final released film was Netflix's 2016 "Pee-wee's Big Holiday," which he co-wrote and starred in.

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