Paul Reubens, better known to the world as the endearingly child-like oddball Pee-wee Herman, has died at age 70. In an Instagram post that went up after his death, Reubens revealed that he’s been privately battling cancer for the past half-decade.
“Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years,” the actor wrote in the post. “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.”
Reubens first rose to prominence as a member of the famed LA improv troupe the Groundlings in the early ’70s. His castmates included future Saturday Night Live star Phil Hartman, with whom he remained a close friend and collaborator.
It was with Hartman that Reubens began developing the character of Pee-wee Herman for Groundlings shows. In a 2014 interview with Vanity Fair, he acknowledged that he knew early he was onto something with the character—who is known for his grey suit, red bow tie, and appearance that suggests a man-child from a more simpler time stuck in a world he'd happily warped into his own:
I probably had eight or 10 pretty solid characters and maybe four or five of those were very popular and featured in the show. But when I [debuted Pee-wee Herman onstage], that got a completely different reaction. This was a reaction that made me think, Wow, this means something. And very quickly, I decided, “Yeah I am going to keep doing this.” Also, I came out of art school and, at the time, Cal Arts was all about visual- and performing-arts performance, and conceptual art was very big. I kind of viewed Pee-wee Herman as partially conceptual and partially performance because nobody knew it wasn’t a real character at that time. The very first thing I did outside of the Groundlings was put on my Pee-wee suit and answer a cattle call ad for The Dating Game.
By the early ’80s Pee-wee Herman had become a live sensation in Los Angeles, with Reubens creating a stage show around the character at the city’s clubs. The popularity of those shows served as a springboard to multiple appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, the HBO special The Pee-wee Herman Show, and tours across North America.
While Reubens would credit his Letterman appearances for making him a household name in North America, it was 1986’s Tim Burton-helmed film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that turned him into a global superstar.
Hands up, if, to this day, you still quote any, or all, of these lines on the regular:
- “You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner, a rebel.”
- “I’m trying to use the phone!!”
- “Nobody hipped me to that dude.”
- “There’s no basement at the Alamo.”
- “I meant to do that.”
- “I pity the poor fool who don’t eat my cereal!”
Reubens also showed us the easiest way to prove you’re in Texas when you’re on the phone.
Following the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and its follow-up Big Top Pee-wee, Reubens ended up on television with his hit series Pee-wee’s Playhouse. A show that riotously baked adults could enjoy every much as kids, the series paved the way for unapologetically warped cartoons like The Regular Show, Uncle Grandpa, and Clarence.
He also began appearing as a bit-part actor in movies like Blow and Batman Returns, credited in those films as Paul Reubens.
After almost two decades away from the character, Reubens resurfaced in 2010 with the smash hit The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway. He was supposed to play the NorthWest Comedy Fest in Vancouver in 2014, but ended up pulling out at the last moment.
In an interview for that cancelled appearance, he told the Straight that his decision to put the grey suit back on was an organic one.
“I got a phone call to go somewhere and instead of saying no I said yes,” he said. “I mean, I spent a long time where, when someone would ask me, I would say no, and then one day I just decided, ‘That sounds good, yeah.’ So there wasn’t a lot of thought involved.”
Reubens also admitted in that interview that he was eternally grateful for the character—not only for the success it brought him, but for the way that Pee-wee Herman inspired others.
“What’s really incredible for me is all the people that say, ‘I’m an artist because of you,’” he said. “That’s enormously gratifying to me. I set out to show people it’s cool to be original and creative and nonconformist. I took that very seriously in my, you know, self-appointed job to teach young people things. And to hear people go, ‘You affected me in a great way’—that’s really fun. That’s exciting and I love every minute of that. But I don’t really take it any further.”
Here’s what his legions of admirers are saying about Reubens today.