He secretly battled cancer for years.
Actor Paul Reubens, best known for creating the iconic character of Pee-Wee Herman, died on July 30, 2023, at the age of 70. His death shocked many as he kept his six-year battle with cancer a secret.
Pee-Wee Herman ranks among television and film history's most popular and imaginative children’s characters. In a world where many of Hollywood’s ideas are recycled, the Pee-Wee character was unlike any that came before or after.
He had the signature look of a red bow tie, drainpipe pants and a flat-top hairdo. He was part man, part child, and he lived a life of pure whimsy and kindness. But, occasionally, when driven to anger, he could become maniacal, like a kid throwing a tantrum. As we learned in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” never mess with Pee-Wee’s bike.
Entertainment Weekly perfectly summed up the character’s uniqueness and wide appeal.
“...he was more than a kid-show host, or a pop-culture oddity, or a tongue-in-cheek, time-warped fusion of Pinky Lee and the bratty kid next door. He was all of these at once. Anarchic, creative, obnoxious, and liberating, Pee-wee appealed to all sorts: to kids and to parents; to mainstream stars like David Letterman, and to maverick artists like Batman director Tim Burton and Playhouse designer Gary Panter. Pee-wee struck a chord with any perplexed soul who has ever echoed his famous cry, ‘I know you are, but what am I?’”
Reubens left a final note to fans that was shared on Instagram.
“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.”
The Pee-Wee Herman character began as the star of a show for adults that played at midnight at the Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles in 1981 and later became an HBO special. In the character's first full-length theatrical film, 1985's “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” directed by Tim Burton, Reubens played a kid-friendly version of the character. The surprise hit film would lead to a sequel, “Big Top Pee-Wee” (1988), and a critically acclaimed children’s TV show, “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” which ran from 1986 to 1990.
“Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” earned 22 Emmy awards during that run, with Reubens being nominated for 14.
After an incident at a Sarasota, Florida, adult theater on Friday, July 26, 1991, Reuben’s image as a children’s TV host was tarnished, and CBS pulled all reruns of “Pee-Wee's Playhouse.” However, public opinion was decidedly pro-Reubens, with surveys showing that 9 out of 10 Americans supported him in the scandal.
Reubens reappeared as Pee-Wee at the MTV Movie Awards later that year, where he bravely poked fun at the controversy.
The scandal led Reubens to reinvent himself as a character actor, and he had scene-stealing roles in “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Blow, “ Batman Returns,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “30 Rock.”
He revived the Pee-Wee character for a successful Broadway run in 2010 and a final film, “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday,” for Netflix in 2016. “Big Holiday” was a success with critics and fans, earning an 80% rating on “Rotten Tomatoes.”
Before his death, Reubens was putting the finishing touches on two new Pee-Wee scripts.
“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,” his reps wrote on Instagram. “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.”