Paul Reubens, the comic actor whose loopy, childlike alter-ego Pee-wee Herman became an unlikely if almost uncategorizable film and television sensation in the 1980s, died Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 70.
His death, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was confirmed Monday by his longtime representative, Kelly Bush Novak, who said he had “privately battled cancer for years with his trademark tenacity and wit.”
“Please accept my apology for not going public with what I have faced for the last six years,” Mr. Reubens in a statement released with the announcement of his death. “I have always felt a tremendous amount of love and respect from my friends, fans and fans. I have loved you all so much and enjoyed making art for you.”
Mr. Reubens had dozens of acting credits in a career that began in the 1960s, including roles on “Murphy Brown,” “The Blacklist” and many other television series and in films such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1992), “Batman “Returns” (1992) and “Blow” (2001).
But Pee-wee, a character he created in the late 1970s as a 10-minute bit when he was a member of the Los Angeles comedy troupe the Groundlings, overshadowed everything else and transformed into a bizarre and savvy cultural phenomenon, a character aimed (at least in its TV incarnation) at children, but exploiting the sensitivities and ambiguities of adults.
After becoming disillusioned after unsuccessfully trying out for the “Saturday Night Live” cast in 1980, Mr. Reubens set about creating “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” which was billed as a “live on-stage television pilot.” It premiered in early 1981 at the Groundlings Theater in Los Angeles. A national tour followed, and HBO aired a version of it as a comedy special in 1981.
Pee-wee began appearing on late-night talk shows, esp “Late Night with David Letterman,” where the juxtaposition of the idiosyncratic Pee-wee and the laid-back, somewhat confused Mr. Letterman was comedy gold. “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”, a feature film directed by Tim Burton, was a hit in 1985.
Then, in 1986, came “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” a kid-friendly version of the world according to Pee-wee that would run on CBS for five years and create a lasting place in the memories of 1980s kids and, often, their parents.
“Pee-wee’s Playhouse” stands as one of the weirdest, most daring, most unclassifiable shows in television history. The androgynous Pee-wee and a large collection of human and non-human characters — there was, for example, Chairry, a talking armchair who gave hugs — persevered through every episode of, well, it’s hard to summarize. There was the word of the day. There were strange toys. In one episode, Pee-wee married a fruit salad.
The show arrived in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s presidential administration and returned to another button-down era, the one Mr. Reubens lived through as a child: the 1950s.
”I saw it as very Norman Rockwell,” he told The New York Times in 2016, ”but it was mine The Norman Rockwell version of the ’50s, which was more all-encompassing.”
Laurence Fishburne, S. Epatha Merkerson and other actors of color were in the cast. Gilbert Lewiswho was black, was the king of cartoons.
“Not just anyone—the king!” said Mr. Reubens. “That came out of growing up in segregated Florida. I felt really good about that.”
The show was a world away from standard educational TV for kids—its lessons, if any, were delivered through craziness rather than didactic, and its presentation was decidedly non-linear.
“I never set out to do a big educational show,” Mr. Reubens told Newsday in 1989. “We’re trying to expose kids to as much creativity as we can muster in half an hour, to be entertaining and to transmit some subliminal messages, such as nonconformity is not bad.”
The show hadn’t been around long before academics and cultural critics were analyzing its appeal with weighty articles and other commentaries, but Mr. Reubens was having none of it.
“I’ve been almost paranoid about dissecting it too much,” he said, “because the character has always been kind of an instinctual gut thing. I’m able to turn it on and it just kind of flows. I do what I will, and hope it is connected.”
The wheels of his career came off in July 1991 when he was arrested on charges of indecent exposure at an adult movie theater in Sarasota, Florida, where he had grown up. The arrest led to a small fine, but the headlines damaged his reputation.
“Pee-wee’s Playhouse” was in reruns at the time, and CBS pulled them off the air. There were no more new episodes. Mr. Reubens later said he had planned a break from show business anyway.
Anyway, he took a long break from his alter-ego, but neither Mr. Reubens or Pee-wee were done.
Mr. Reubens continued to act, receiving an Emmy Award nomination for a guest appearance on “Murphy Brown” in 1995. (His character arc on that show continued for five more episodes.) He also dealt with another scandal: In 2002, he was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of possessing child pornography stemming from images found by authorities in his collection of vintage erotica. He was sentenced to probation on a reduced charge of possession of obscene material.
“The moment I realized that my name was going to be said in the same sentence as children and sex, it’s really intense,” said Mr. Reubens to NBC in 2004. “That’s something I knew right from that moment, whatever happens after that point. , there’s something out there in the air that’s really bad.”
Then, around 2008, some producers began suggesting that he revive the Pee-wee character and a version of the 1980s stage show. He was somewhat reticent.
“There were age-related issues,” Mr. Reubens to The Times in 2010, then in his 50s. “There were career problems.”
“Every two months I would change my mind,” he told The Chicago Sun Times in 2010. “And then, finally one day, I woke up and decided, ‘This is it, I’m coming back.'”
The new version of “The Pee-wee Herman Show” opened at Club Nokia in Los Angeles in January 2010, featuring elements from the original stage show and characters from the television series. It opened on Broadway in November for a limited run.
“Mr. Reubens’s Silly Putty face is a little more putty, but it remains as stretchy as ever,” wrote Charles Isherwood in his review in The Times. “His Popsicle-stick pose retains its comic stiffness; the flailing arms express exasperation and exhilaration without loss of tone; the exuberant Pee-wee dance is still beach-ball fluid. And of course, Pee-wee’s restless imagination and childish mood swings are as extravagant as ever.”
A new film, “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday”, followed in 2016 on Netflix, produced by Mr. Reubens and Judd Apatow. Mr. Reubens told The Times in 2010, when the film was in the early talking stages, that it was no surprise that Pee-wee had held out.
“There’s never been anything from the fans other than, please do more,” he said.
Paul Rubenfeld was born on August 27, 1952 in Peekskill, NY to Milton and Judy (Rosen) Rubenfeld. His mother was a teacher, and his father had been a pilot, who according to Forwardhelped smuggle fighter planes into Israel in 1948 during its War of Independence.
The family moved to Sarasota when Paul was 9. His parents ran a lamp store there. Paul had been in school and camp theater productions when he graduated to the bigger stage: At 11, he had a key role as the young nephew in a custody battle in Herb Gardner’s play “A Thousand Clowns,” staged by the Sarasota Players.
“The 12-year-old is played with remarkable assurance and stagecraft by Paul Rubenfeld, even at just 11 years old, a true talent discovery,” wrote Ray Perkins in a review in The Tampa Bay Times.
“Young Actor Big Crowd Pleaser” read a headline in the same newspaper a few days later over a feature about him.
He appeared in several other shows with the Sarasota Players and also performed with the Asolo Theater Company (now Asolo Repertory). He spent a year at Boston University after graduating from Sarasota High School in 1970, but then went to the West Coast, studied at the California Institute of the Arts and eventually fell in with the Groundlings, working at a pizzeria and selling brushes while developing his comedic skills.
Mr. Reubens’ first film role, uncredited, was as a wedding guest in the 1968 drama “The Brotherhood,” and he had a smattering of other roles before Pee-wee took over. The first name of his enduring character, he said, was borrowed from the little harmonica brand Pee Wee. The surname, Herman, was inspired by an annoying childhood acquaintance.
He is survived by a sister, Abby Rubenfeld, and a brother, Luke Rubenfeld.
Just months ago, Mr. Reubens said he was working on a memoir and a documentary. And in an interview with The Times around that time, one of his last, he reflected on Pee-wee’s lifespan, on the tweaks made to keep the character fresh, and on how the creative landscape had changed since Pee-wee first appeared about 40 years ago.
“Today, it seems to me that it’s much harder to stand out,” he said. “You know, if you want to be weird, good luck.”
Jesus Jiménez and Melena Ryzik contributed reporting.