Paul Reubens, the actor famous for the signature role of Pee-wee Herman, died on July 30 after a long — and private — battle with cancer. He was 70 years old.
“Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years,” wrote Reubens in a statement posted to the actor’s official Instagram account 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.”
“Paul bravely and privately fought cancer for years with his trademark tenacity and wit,” reads a caption that appears beside the regretful statement from Reubens. “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 rose to fame in the 1980s by playing the quirky, child-like character Pee-wee in film and TV.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the hit film directed by Tim Burton and starring Reubens as the eccentric man-child looking for his stolen bicycle, achieved major box-office success in 1985, powering the actor and his signature character to fame. The film soon developed a cult following, though the sequel, Big Top Pee-wee (1988), was a financial disappointment.
From 1986 to 1991, Reubens starred as Pee-wee in the CBS Saturday-morning children’s program Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Infamously, in July 1991, during a sabbatical from the show, Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult theater in his hometown of Sarasota, Florida.
The controversy, and the media attention stemming from the arrest, left the reputation of Reubens and Pee-wee in tatters, and turned the comic-actor popular with children into a cautionary punchline.
Reubens retreated from the public eye, staying away from projects for eight years. When he re-emerged in Hollywood in the late 1990s, he made something of a heel turn, playing unsavory characters like a marijuana dealer who gets mixed up with Pablo Escobar in Blow (2001).
Three decades after Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (and the career-destroying scandal), the then 67-year-old Reubens came out with a shocking new Pee-wee script which became the 2016 Netflix original film Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.
Reubens was born Paul Rubenfeld, the son of a middle-class Jewish family in Sarasota.
In the early 1970s, he enrolled in an acting class at the California Institute of the Arts, and learned the craft alongside future stars David Hasselhoff and Katey Sagal. Reubens later moved to Echo Park and starred among a like-minded community of improv-actors at The Groundlings, the renowned Melrose Avenue sketch-comedy theater known as a proving ground for future Saturday Night Live stars.
In a 2020 interview with Seth Abramovitch of The Hollywood Reporter, Reubens refused to discuss his then three-decade-old arrest.
“That’s all going to be in my book,” he told the reporter. “Whatever I’m going to express, it’s going to be in my book. And even then, I don’t know if I’m going to express much about it.”
No book by Reubens was published before the actor’s untimely death.