Skip to content

Paul Reubens, Pee-wee Herman Actor, Dies at 70

Beloved actor/comedian passed away after a private six-year cancer battle
Pee-wee Herman
(Photo by Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images)

Paul Reubens, the actor and comedian best known for his role as Pee-wee Herman, has died at the age of 70 after a private six-year cancer battle. The news was announced on his verified Instagram page.

“Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years,” Reubens wrote. “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.”

Born on Aug. 27, 1952 in Peekskill, N.Y., as Paul Rubenfeld, Reubens began his career in the 1970s as a member of the Los Angeles comedy group the Groundlings. Following appearances in films like Up in Smoke and The Blues Brothers, he created The Pee-wee Herman Show in 1980, which was based on a childlike adult character he had been developing for years. The stage show first appeared at the Groundlings theater before moving to the Roxy on Sunset after it became a word-of-mouth hit. After being picked up by HBO as a comedy special. Reubens began appearing publicly and conducting interviews in character, while keeping his real identity a secret.

In 1985, Reubens teamed with director Tim Burton to take Pee-wee to the big screen with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The film was a critical and commercial success, grossing more than $40 million in North America. The film, which chronicled Pee-wee’s quest to find his stolen bicycle, has become a cult classic. It spawned a sequel, 1988’s Big Top Pee-wee, and most notably, a Saturday morning children’s television show called Pee-wee’s Playhouse which ran from 1986-1991 and won 22 Emmys.

The show introduced to the world off-the-wall characters such as Chairy, Pteri the Pterodactyl, Captain Carl, and Miss Yvonne, and featured appearances from future acting stars Phil Hartman and Natasha Lyonne, as well as Laurence Fishburne, who played the jheri-curled Cowboy Curtis.

In July 1991, Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure at an adult movie theater in Sarasota, Fla. After being widely ridiculed, he appeared as Pee-wee at the MTV Video Music Awards that September, opening up his segment by asking the crowd: “Heard any good jokes lately?” That November, he pled no contest to the charges.

A year later, Reubens retired Pee-wee and focused on acting in films as varied as Blow, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mystery Men, and Batman Returns. On TV, he earned an Emmy nomination for a recurring role on Murphy Brown and also appeared on 30 Rock, The Blacklist, Pushing Daisies and Reno 911!

In 2002, the actor/comedian was charged in Los Angeles with misdemeanor possession of obscene material improperly depicting a child under the age of 18 in sexual conduct. The charges were dropped in 2004 in exchange for his pleading guilty to a misdemeanor obscenity charge. Reubens told NBC‘s Stone Phillips a year later that he collected “vintage erotica, films, and muscle magazines” and he considers them art, not pornography.

Reubens revived the Pee-wee Herman character in 2010 to bring The Pee-wee Herman Show to Broadway. He made a few other appearances in character, culminating in the 2016 Netflix film Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.

Most recently, Reubens appeared in The Conners and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. On the music front, he starred as a race car driver in TV on the Radio’s 2014 video ‘Happy Idiot.”