Paul Reubens, the actor and comic best known for playing the character Pee-wee Herman on TV and in films for decades, has died of cancer at age 70, according to a post on his official Facebook page.
"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," the statement said about Reubens.
"Paul bravely and privately fought cancer for years with his trademark tenacity and wit," the statement continued. "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."
"Please accept my apology for not going public with what I've been facing the last six years," Reubens wrote in statement that was posted to his Instagram page simultaneously with his death announcement. "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 statement is signed "Paul Reubens."
Reubens was born on August 27, 1952, in Peekskill, New York to parents Judy Rosen and Milton Rubenfeld. As a child, Reubens grew up in Sarasota, Florida, where he spent a lot of time attending shows put on by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
After high school, he attended Boston University and decided to pursue acting. After one year in Boston, Reubens moved to California to fulfill his acting dreams and enrolled as a student at the California Institute of the Arts.
His acting career began in the mid 1970s with small roles, including guest appearances on TV's "The Gong Show" in 1976 and as part of the groundbreaking improv comedy troupe The Groundlings.
The birth of Pee-wee Herman
Reubens' trademark character, Pee-wee Herman originated during an improv stage act in 1977 with The Groundlings. The childlike character was born of an idea about a man who wanted to be a comic but who had trouble remembering punch lines. Herman's trademark, high-pitched nervous laugh was the character's catchphrase, as well as his familiar comeback, "I know you are, but what am I?"
Reubens appeared as Pee-wee in productions including "Cheech and Chong's Next Movie" in 1980, in which Herman was cast as a receptionist. Reubens also took Pee-wee on stage at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles with "The Pee-wee Herman Show," which played for five sellout months and led to HBO airing "The Pee-wee Herman Show" in 1981.
By 1984, Reubens' star was well on the rise. He sold out New York City's Carnegie Hall with his act and garnered further attention with his in-character guest appearances on talk shows including "Late Night with David Letterman," and TV shows like "Mork and Mindy," opposite Robin Williams.
Life as Pee-wee
With the success of "The Pee-wee Herman Show," Reubens was hired by Warner Bros. to write a script for a feature film about Pee-wee Herman. Reubens was inspired by the bikes that many would ride on the Warner Bros. lot and created a story about Pee-wee on the search for his stolen bicycle.
"Pee-wee's Big Adventure," which was directed by Tim Burton and co-written by Reubens, former "SNL cast member Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol, garnered mixed reviews, but remains an oft-quoted cult favorite film to this day. That was followed in 1998 by the big-screen sequel "Big Top Pee-wee."
Following "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," Reubens took Pee-wee to the small screen with the live-action Saturday morning children's comedy show "Pee-wee's Playhouse," which aired for five seasons from 1986 to 1990. The show artfully balanced surrealism and broad comedy and featured a cast of characters played by future stars including Laurence Fishburne, Natasha Lyonne, S. Epatha Merkerson, Phil Hartman and others. The show's popularity led to Reubens being awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1988.
"I'm so excited and glad, this is really the highlight and highpoint of my whole career," Reubens as Pee-wee said during the ceremony. "I just hope I don't let anybody down, that you like my new movie and that I continue to do stuff that's cool and new and interesting and fun."
Life after Pee-wee
In 1991, just as "Pee-wee's Playhouse" ended, Reubens' star darkened when he was arrested in Sarasota, Florida, for masturbating in an adult movie theater. He ultimately pleaded no contest to related charges and was sentenced to community service but the wide publicity pummeled Reubens' reputation and prompted him, and Pee-wee, to largely withdraw from the public eye for a time. Reubens did appear in a few films and TV shows as other characters, most notably in the film version of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and as a recurring character in the TV sitcom "Murphy Brown," the latter of which earned him a primetime Emmy nomination.
In 2002, Reubens again found himself facing legal troubles after Los Angeles police searched his home and discovered thousands of items, including photos, that the city attorney's office characterized as a collection of child pornography, while Reubens and his attorney described the materials as vintage collectible "kitsch." Child pornography charges against Reubens were dropped two years later in exchange for a guilty plea from Reubens to a misdemeanor obscenity charge.
Despite the controversies, Reubens continued to work, appearing in numerous television shows, including "The Blacklist," "Gotham" and "What We Do in the Shadows," and most recently appeared as Pee-wee in the 2016 Netflix film "Pee-wee's Big Holiday." Reubens was also a prolific voice actor.
Upon the news of his death, actress Natasha Lyonne, who starred in "Pee-wee's Playhouse" with Reubens, shared a sweet tribute for the actor on X.
"Love you so much, Paul," Lyonne said. "One in all time. Thank you for my career & your forever friendship all these years & for teaching us what a true original is."