What's Come Out About Paul Reubens Since His Death

Many actors are closely identified with an iconic role. Few try to inhabit those roles as thoroughly as Paul Reubens inhabited Pee-wee Herman. From the time he created the character in the 1970s to his infamous arrest in the mid-80s, Reubens was more likely to appear in public as Pee-wee than himself. It was his policy, made clear by management, that he would only do sit-down interviews with Washington Post columnists or late-night programs like "Late Night with David Letterman" if he could do them as Pee-wee. He could be relatively serious while keeping in character, but when journalists tried to get past the character, he would sulk and refuse to drop his impish persona. "The choice that I've made really is that I just don't like to do it really," he told the Post in 1985. "It's just sort of the way I am about it."

"There's something fragile and non-lasting about the image he projects," a designer for "Pee-wee's Playhouse" once told Entertainment Weekly. And the Pee-wee mask didn't last forever; by the 90s, Reubens had grown tired of the character, and his adult-theater scandal made him inclined to go reclusive. When he began speaking to the press again, it was as himself, a more mellow and earnest personality he wasn't protecting so strenuously as before, as he admitted to Time. But Reubens still valued privacy, and he kept some things to himself right up until his death on July 30, 2023.

He kept his battle with cancer secret

One card that Paul Reubens kept close to the chest was the state of his health at the end of his life. His cause of death, first reported by The Blast, was acute hypoxic respiratory failure, a lack of oxygen in the blood caused by a compromised respiratory system. The likely culprits for Reubens' condition were the two forms of cancer he was battling: acute myelogenous leukemia and metastatic lung cancer.

Per the National Cancer Institute, acute myelogenous leukemia is a form of blood cancer wherein an excessive amount of abnormal blood cells develop in the bone marrow. It is the most common form of acute leukemia found in adults and the risk of developing it can rise with smoking — a habit of Reubens' though he was always careful to avoid being photographed with a cigarette — radiation exposure, and chemotherapy. Unlike other cancers, it has no staging system. Without swift treatment, usually through chemotherapy or other drugs, the cancer can worsen quickly.

Reubens battled leukemia for six years, with the lung cancer developing later on according to People. His last public message, released on his official Instagram after his death, was in part an apology for not going public with his health woes. "I have always felt a huge amount of love and respect from my friends, fans, and supporters," he wrote. "I have loved you all so much and enjoyed making art for you." 

Tributes poured in from his peers

Following news of his death, tributes to Paul Reubens filled social media. Many came from his peers in the entertainment industry, who shared a side of Reubens that wasn't in public view. "Everyone I know received countless nonsensical memes from Paul on their birthday, and I mean EVERYONE," Conan O'Brien wrote on X (formerly Twitter). Judging by other tributes, he wasn't exaggerating. Jack White, Questlove, Jimmy Kimmel, and Laraine Newman were just a few of those who spoke of receiving birthday gifts, calls, or texts from Reubens every year.

David Hasselhoff revealed on X that he and Reubens had been roommates at the California Institute of the Arts and said that Reubens stayed in touch with everyone from their class. Natasha Lyonne remembered him as a warm friend and Tim Burton, whose directorial career in Hollywood was launched by Reubens' "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," shared a tribute on Instagram that said, "I'll never forget how Paul helped me at the beginning of my career. It would not have happened without his support. He was a great artist. I'll miss him."

He had 2 projects in the works when he died

Despite his failing health in the last years of his life, Paul Reubens remained an active performer. IMDb lists 11 acting credits to his name between 2018 and 2023, mostly voiceover or television work. And he will have one more posthumous role in Jessica Yu's comedy "Quiz Lady." The Los Angeles Times reported after the film's Toronto International Film Festival premiere that Reubens pops up in a cameo as himself, filmed in June 2022.

Reubens was also working with HBO on a documentary about himself when he died. The two-part film, directed by Matt Wolf and produced by the Safdie brothers, was announced in 2021 (via Deadline) and had the actor's full cooperation. "I've been working with HBO since they were called Home Box Office," he said after the initial announcement. "I'm honored and excited to continue my long history there. I love HBO, but I'm not going to marry them." Anonymous sources told TMZ that Reubens provided the filmmakers with up to 40 hours worth of new interviews and that he was also working on a personal memoir on his better days during treatment. A first draft was reportedly completed before he died.