Paul Reubens, Best Known As Pee-wee Herman, Dead At 70

Posted July 31, 2023 by with 12 comments

Paul Reubens, the actor best known for his iconic Pee-wee Herman character since the 1980’s, has died at the age of 70 following a six-year private battle with cancer. The actor’s family posted the below message on Instagram today:

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. 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.

Pee-wee Herman exploded into popular culture in 1985 with the Tim Burton-directed Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and it was then that “I know you are but what am I?” entered the lexicon of every single American elementary school child (myself definitely included):

Part whimsical and part absurd, but the main thing I remember was how sweet Pee-wee Herman and his intentions always were, both in the movie and then the Saturday morning TV show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It was unknown at the time, but Cyndi Lauper sang the show’s opening theme:

Via Variety:

Reubens began his career in the 1970s after joining the Los Angeles live comedy troupe the Groundlings as an improvisational comedian and stage actor. In 1980, he launched “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” a stage production centered on a fictional character he had been developing for years. As Pee-wee became a cult figure, Reubens’ show ran for five sold-out months, and he landed a special at HBO. Reubens also committed to the character in his interviews and public appearances.

In 1985, he teamed with Tim Burton on “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” the character’s feature film debut, which was a critical and commercial success. Reubens returned three years later for a follow-up film, “Big Top Pee-wee,” helmed by Randal Kleiser. The character transitioned to television from 1986 to 1990, on CBS’ weekend morning show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”

Influenced by vintage kids’ shows like “Captain Kangaroo,” the artistically groundbreaking “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” won several Emmys and featured colorful postmodernist set design and music from New Wave icons like Mark Mothersbaugh, Cyndi Lauper and the Residents, along with guest stars including Laurence Fishburne, Natasha Lyonne and Jimmy Smits.

Reubens’ career suffered a brief setback in 1991 during that now infamous arrest for exposing himself in a Florida porn theater, which now seems crazy, given that, uhh, isn’t jerking off exactly what you’re supposed to do in a porn theater? He had a comeback, of course, later that year when he opened the 1991 VMAs:

A round-up of celebrity reactions to Reubens’ death is here.

The family’s message via Instagram:

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A post shared by Pee-wee Herman (@peeweeherman)

And an interview with Conan O’Brien in 2006:

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