How Paul Reubens Became Pee-wee Herman

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On Sunday night, the actor, comedian, and children’s entertainer Paul Reubens—best known for his character Pee-wee Herman—died of cancer at age 70. He had not discussed his diagnosis publicly, but he had been battling the disease for six years.

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

“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,” Reubens’ estate wrote in the caption of the post. “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.”

Reubens' rise to popularity

The character of Pee-wee Herman was born in 1978 during an improv exercise with the sketch comedy troupe the Groundlings, where Reubens, then in his mid-20s, began his career. Pee-wee’s first name came from a harmonica brand, and his last name was that of a particularly high-energy kid with whom Reubens grew up. His signature look soon became a red bowtie paired with a gray glen plaid suit, and the outfit became as inseparable from the character as Pee-wee did from Reubens.

Pee-wee first made it big in 1981 with The Pee-wee Herman show, which sold out the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles for five months before getting picked up by HBO as part of the comedy series On Location. Reubens began to do interviews only as Pee-wee, creating the impression that he was a real person. (Pee-wee, not Reubens, later got his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1989.) The live Pee-wee Herman went on to travel the country, selling out Carnegie Hall in 1984.

In 1985, Pee-wee hit the big screen with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, directed by Tim Burton. The movie recouped its $7 million budget nearly seven times over and went on to become a cult classic. From 1986 to 1991, the live-action children’s program Pee-wee’s Playhouse was a hit with both kids and parents. Reubens aimed to shape Pee-wee into a positive role model, intentionally imbuing the show with a moral compass.

Arrests and bad publicity

This facet of the show is perhaps why Reubens’ arrests in the 1990s and early 2000s came as such a surprise to some. In 1991, the actor was arrested for indecent exposure while watching a film at an adult movie theater. Reubens denied the charges in a statement, then pleaded no contest, avoiding a charge on his record. The press picked up the arrest and ran with it, leading to cultural pushback: Toys "R" Us removed Pee-wee toys, Disney suspended a video with Pee-wee from its Hollywood studio tour, and CBS canceled re-runs of Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

After a short comeback in the mid-‘90s (and a role in the 2001 drama Blow), Reubens was arrested again, this time for possessing child pornography. He pleaded not guilty, and his representative at the time said that the “alleged pornography” comprised Rob Lowe’s sex tape and “a few isolated 30- to 100-year-old kitsch collectible images.” In 2004, the charges were dropped in exchange for a guilty plea to a lesser obscenity charge.

Return to the screen and spotlight

In 2004, Reubens told NBC: “One thing I want to make very, very clear, 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.”

Five years later, the return of The Pee-wee Herman Show was announced. Due to high demand, the show was forced to move locations from the Music Box Theater in Hollywood to the much larger Club Nokia @ LA Live. It then relocated to Broadway, selling $3 million in advance tickets.

In 2016, his movie Pee-wee's Big Holiday, which he co-wrote with Paul Rust and starred in alongside Joe Manganiello, premiered on Netflix to positive reviews. Later in his career he also appeared in shows including Portlandia, What We Do in the Shadows, The Blacklist, and Gotham.

By the time of his death, Pee-wee—and Reubens—had been largely accepted back into the public fold. Outpourings of love and support appeared across social media. “Love you so much, Paul,” tweeted the actress Natasha Lyonne, who got her start on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. “One in all time. Thank you for my career & your forever friendship all these years & for teaching us what a true original is.”

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