Paul Reubens

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Paul Reubens
Reubens in 2016
Paul Rubenfeld

(1952-08-27)August 27, 1952
DiedJuly 30, 2023(2023-07-30) (aged 70)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
  • Actor
  • comedian
  • writer
  • producer
Years active1977–2023
RelativesAbby Rubenfeld (sister)

Paul Reubens (/ˈrbənz/;  Rubenfeld; August 27, 1952 – July 30, 2023) was an American actor and comedian, widely known for creating and portraying the character Pee-wee Herman.

Reubens joined the Los Angeles troupe the Groundlings in the 1970s, and started his career as an improvisational comedian and stage actor. It was with the Groundlings that Reubens developed the Pee-wee character. After a failed audition for Saturday Night Live, Reubens debuted a stage show starring Pee-wee, The Pee-wee Herman Show, in 1981. Pee-wee became an instant cult figure and, for the next decade, Reubens was completely committed to his character, doing all of his public appearances and interviews as Pee-wee. He produced and wrote a feature film, Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985), directed by Tim Burton, which was a financial and critical success. Its sequel, Big Top Pee-wee (1988), was less successful. Between 1986 and 1990, Reubens starred as Pee-wee in the CBS Saturday-morning children's program Pee-wee's Playhouse.[1]

Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult theater in Sarasota, Florida in 1991. The arrest set off a chain reaction of national media attention,[1][2] though he received support from people in the entertainment industry. The arrest postponed Reubens's involvement in major projects until 1999, when he appeared in several big-budget projects including Mystery Men (1999) and Blow (2001). Reubens subsequently started giving interviews as himself rather than as Pee-wee.

Reubens acted in numerous shows such as Murphy Brown, 30 Rock, Portlandia, and The Blacklist. He revived The Pee-wee Herman Show, which he performed in Los Angeles and on Broadway, in 2010. He co-wrote and starred in the Netflix original film Pee-wee's Big Holiday, reprising his role as Pee-wee Herman, in 2016.[3]

Reubens's Pee-wee character maintained an enduring popularity with both children and adults. Playhouse garnered 15 Emmy Awards during its initial run, and was aired again on late-night television in the 2000s, during which TV Guide dubbed it among the top ten cult classic television programs. Reubens died in July 2023 from cancer.[1]

Early life and education

Reubens as a high school senior, 1970

Reubens was born Paul Rubenfeld in Peekskill, New York, on August 27, 1952,[4][5] and grew up in a Jewish family in Sarasota, Florida, where his parents, Judy (Rosen) and Milton Rubenfeld, owned a lamp store. His mother was a teacher. His father was an automobile salesperson who had flown for Britain's Royal Air Force and for the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, and later became one of the founding pilots of the Israeli Air Force during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. An Orthodox Jew, he was one of five Jewish pilots to fly against Arab forces in smuggled fighter planes.[6][7]

Reubens's two younger siblings are Luke (born 1958), who is a dog trainer,[8] and Abby (born 1953),[9] who is an attorney and a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.[10][11][12]

Reubens spent much of his childhood in Oneonta, New York. As a child, he frequented the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, whose winter headquarters were in Sarasota. The circus atmosphere sparked Reubens's interest in entertainment, and influenced his later work.[13][14] He also loved to watch reruns of I Love Lucy, which made him want to make people laugh.[15] At age five, Reubens asked his father to build him a stage, where he and his siblings would act out plays.[16]

Reubens attended Sarasota High School, where he was named president of the National Thespian Society. He was accepted into Northwestern University's summer program for gifted high-school students, joined the local Asolo Theater, Players of Sarasota Theater, and appeared in several plays.[8]

After high school graduation, he attended Plymouth State University for one semester,[17] before attending Boston University, after which he began auditioning for acting schools. He was turned down by several schools, including the Juilliard School and twice by Carnegie Mellon University, before being accepted to the California Institute of the Arts. Reubens moved to California, where he worked in restaurant kitchens and as a Fuller Brush salesman.[8]


1977–1979: Comedy beginnings

In the 1970s, Reubens began performing at local comedy clubs and, starting in 1977, made 14 guest appearances on The Gong Show, four of which as part of a boy–girl act he had developed with Charlotte McGinnis, called The Hilarious Betty and Eddie.[8][18] He soon joined the Los Angeles–based improvisational comedy team the Groundlings. He remained a troupe member for six years, working with Bob McClurg, John Paragon, Susan Barnes, and Phil Hartman. Hartman and Reubens became friends, and often wrote and worked on material together.[19] In 1980, Reubens had a small part as a waiter in The Blues Brothers.

The character of "Pee-wee Herman" originated during a 1978 improvisation exercise with the Groundlings, where Reubens came up with the idea of a man who wanted to be a comic but was so inept at telling jokes that it was obvious to the audience that he would never make it.[20] Fellow Groundling Phil Hartman afterwards helped Reubens develop the character while another Groundling, John Paragon, helped write the show.[21][22] Despite being compared to other famous characters, such as Hergé's Tintin and Collodi's Pinocchio,[23][24] Reubens said that there was no specific source for "Pee-wee" other than a collection of ideas. Pee-wee's voice originated in 1970 when Reubens appeared in a production of Life with Father, where he was cast as one of the most obnoxious characters in the play. For this role, Reubens adopted a cartoon-like way of speaking, whose voice became Pee-wee's.[25][26]

Pee-wee's first name came from a one-inch Pee Wee brand harmonica Reubens had as a child, and the surname Herman was the last name of an energetic boy Reubens knew from his youth.[13][26] The first small gray suit Pee-wee always wore had been handmade for Groundlings Director and Founder Gary Austin, who passed it on to Reubens. The origin of the red tie is less clear, as Reubens claimed that "someone" handed him the "little kid bow tie" before a performance.[27][28]

1981–1984: The Pee-wee Herman Show

Reubens exploring Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles (1984)

Reubens auditioned for the Saturday Night Live 1980–1981 season on the same day as comedian Gilbert Gottfried. Reubens told Entertainment Weekly hiring both was not an option because they were "the same type of performer", and knew immediately Gottfried would get the job.[28] He also told the San Francisco Chronicle he believed that "the fix was in" because Gottfried was friends with one of the producers. Reubens was so angry and bitter that he decided he would borrow money and start his own show in Los Angeles using the character he had been developing during the last few years, "Pee-wee Herman".[29]

With the help of other Groundlings like John Paragon, Phil Hartman, and Lynne Marie Stewart, Pee-wee acquired a small group of followers and Reubens took his show to the Roxy Theatre where The Pee-wee Herman Show ran for five sellout months, doing midnight shows for adults and weekly matinees for children, moving into the mainstream when HBO aired The Pee-wee Herman Show in 1981 as part of their series On Location.[30] Reubens also appeared as Pee-wee in the 1980 film Cheech & Chong's Next Movie.[8] He again appeared in 1981's Cheech & Chong's Nice Dreams;[31] the end credits of the film billed him as "Hamburger Dude". Reubens's act had mainly positive reactions and quickly acquired a group of fans, despite being described as "bizarre",[32] and Reubens being described as "the weirdest comedian around".[33] Pee-wee was both "corny" and "hip", "retrograde" and "avant-garde".[34]

When Pee-wee's fame started growing, Reubens started to move away from the spotlight, keeping his name under wraps and making all his public appearance and interviews in character while billing Pee-wee as playing himself; Reubens was trying to "get the public to think that that was a real person".[20][30] Later on he would even prefer his parents be known only as Honey Herman and Herman Herman.[25] In the early and mid-1980s, Reubens made several guest appearances on Late Night with David Letterman as Pee-wee Herman which gave Pee-wee an even bigger following.[32] During the mid-1980s, Reubens traveled the United States with a whole new The Pee-wee Herman Show, playing at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Caroline's in New York City and, in 1984, in front of a full Carnegie Hall.[19]

1985: Pee-wee's Big Adventure

Reubens as Pee-wee Herman at the 1988 Academy Awards

The success of The Pee-wee Herman Show prompted Warner Bros. to hire Reubens to write a script for a full-length Pee-wee Herman film. Reubens's original idea was to do a remake of Pollyanna, which Reubens claimed was his favorite film. Halfway through writing the script, Reubens noticed everyone at Warner Bros. had a bike with them, which inspired Reubens to start on a new script with Phil Hartman.[35] When Reubens and the producers of Pee-wee's Big Adventure saw Tim Burton's work on Vincent (1982) and Frankenweenie (1984), they chose Burton to be the film's director.[36] The film tells the story of Pee-wee Herman embarking on nationwide adventure in search of his stolen bicycle. The film went on to gross $40,940,662 domestically, recouping almost six times its $7 million budget.[37] At the time of release in 1985, the film received mixed reviews, but Pee-wee's Big Adventure developed into a cult film.[38]

1986–1991: Pee-wee's Playhouse

After seeing the success of Pee-wee's Big Adventure, the CBS network approached Reubens with an ill-received cartoon series proposal.[24] In 1986, CBS agreed to sign Reubens to act, produce, and direct his live-action children's program, Pee-wee's Playhouse, with a budget of $325,000 per episode, the same price as a prime-time sitcom,[30] and no creative interference from CBS; although CBS did request a few minor changes throughout the years.[15] After casting actors like Laurence Fishburne and S. Epatha Merkerson, production began in New York City.[28] The opening credits of the show were sung by Cyndi Lauper (under the pseudonym Ellen Shaw). Playhouse was designed as an educational yet entertaining and artistic show for children and, despite being greatly influenced by 1950s shows Reubens watched as a child like The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, The Mickey Mouse Club, Captain Kangaroo, and Howdy Doody, it quickly acquired a dual audience of kids and grownups.[23][26][27] Reubens, always trying to make Pee-wee a positive role model, created a consciously moral show, one that would teach children the ethics of reciprocity.[27] Reubens believed that children liked the Playhouse because it was fast-paced, colorful and "never talked down to them"; while parents liked the Playhouse because it reminded them of the past.[27]

In 1986, Reubens (billed as Paul Mall) was the voice of the ship's computer in Flight of the Navigator. In 1987, Reubens provided the voice for the pilot droid RX-24 a.k.a. Captain "Rex" in Star Tours, a Star Wars-themed motion simulator attraction at Disneyland and Disney-MGM Studios at Walt Disney World, and Disneyland Paris.[8] He also reprised the role of Pee-wee Herman in cameo appearances in the film Back to the Beach and TV show Sesame Street, the latter of which made a cameo in Playhouse.[39]

Right after the success of Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Reubens began working with Paramount Pictures on a sequel entitled Big Top Pee-wee. Reubens and George McGrath's script was directed by Grease director Randal Kleiser. The film was not as successful as its predecessor, receiving mild reviews and doing just over one third as well in the box office,[40][41] earning only $15 million.[42]

Reubens giving an interview in character with Valeria Golino at the 1988 Academy Awards

Reubens attended the 1988 Academy Awards with Big Top Pee-wee co-star Valeria Golino, which stirred rumors that the two were dating.[43][44] The following year Reubens exchanged vows with Doris Duke's adopted daughter, Chandi Heffner, at a mock wedding over which Imelda Marcos presided, in Shangri-La, Doris Duke's mansion in Honolulu, Hawaii.[13]

Pee-wee's Playhouse aired from September 13, 1986, until November 10, 1990. Reubens had originally agreed to do two more seasons after the third, and when CBS asked Reubens about the possibility of a sixth season he declined, wanting to take a sabbatical.[28] Reubens had been suffering from burnout from playing Pee-wee full-time and had been warning that Pee-wee was temporary and that he had other ideas he would like to work on.[8] The parties agreed to end the show after five seasons, which included 45 episodes and a Christmas Special.[45] Playhouse garnered 22 Emmy Awards.[46]

1992–2002: Public retreat and comeback

After his 1991 arrest, Reubens kept a low profile, dedicating himself to writing and collecting a variety of things, "everything from fake food, to lamps",[30] although he did do some dubbing and took small parts in films such as 1992's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Tim Burton's Batman Returns (Reubens portrayed the Penguin's father) and 1996's Matilda and Dunston Checks In. In 1993, he voiced the character Lock in another one of Burton's productions, The Nightmare Before Christmas.[47] Pee-wee's Playhouse had already ended by the time Reubens was arrested. He cited an overworked crew and a decline in the show's quality in his decision against making a sixth season. The show's popularity and quantity of episodes had allowed for rerun broadcasts, but CBS canceled the reruns on July 29, 1991.[48][49][50][51]

Reubens dated actress Debi Mazar in 1993 after he started attending film premieres with her.[52] Reubens credited Mazar with ending his depression from his arrest.[53] According to Mazar, the relationship was never consummated.[54]

During the mid-1990s, Reubens played a recurring role on the TV series Murphy Brown. The role earned him positive reviews and his only non-Pee-wee Emmy nomination, for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series. He appeared six times on the show between 1995 and 1997. Afterward, Reubens began working on an NBC pilot entitled Meet the Muckles, a show that would be based on You Can't Take It with You. The project got stuck in development hell and was later dropped when Reubens's ideas grew too elaborate and expensive, although Philip Rosenthal blamed NBC's negative response on Reubens being on a "blacklist".[13]

By 1999, Reubens had given several interviews as himself and made public appearances while promoting the film Mystery Men, the first being on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno that year.[55] He also starred in Dwight Yoakam's Western South of Heaven, West of Hell, portraying a rapist and killer. In 2001, Reubens had his first extended television role since Playhouse, as the host of the short-lived ABC game show You Don't Know Jack, based on the video game series of the same name. It was cancelled after six episodes due to low ratings.[56]

Reubens played a flamboyant hairdresser turned drug dealer in Ted Demme's 2001 drama Blow, which starred Penélope Cruz and Johnny Depp. His performance was praised and he began receiving scripts for potential film projects.[57][58]

2004–2008: Cameos and guest appearances

Reubens made cameos and guest appearances in numerous projects. He played Rick of the citizen's patrol on the popular Comedy Central series Reno 911!, which gained him a small role in the 2007 film Reno 911!: Miami.[59] In 2006, he appeared in the second music video of the Raconteurs' song "Steady, As She Goes". The video has the band engaging in a comical soapbox car race, with Reubens playing the bad guy who sabotages the race.[60]

In 2007, Reubens attended his own tribute at the SF Sketchfest, where he talked about his career with Ben Fong-Torres.[16] He also signed with NBC to make a pilot on a show called Area 57, a sitcom about a passive-aggressive alien,[59] but it was not picked up for the 2007–2008 season.[61] Reubens did, however, appear on the hit NBC series 30 Rock as an inbred Austrian prince, a character Tina Fey created for him.[62] He also made three guest appearances on FX's series Dirt playing a washed-up, alcoholic reporter named Chuck Lafoon. This time he was recommended for the role by Dirt star and close friend Courteney Cox. Cox's husband, David Arquette, then cast Reubens for his directorial debut, the 2007 film The Tripper.[63]

In June 2007, Reubens appeared as Pee-wee Herman at the Spike TV's Guys Choice Awards for the first time since 1992.[64]

Reubens also had small parts dubbing or making cameos in a series of Cartoon Network projects such as the 2006 television film Re-Animated, the animated cartoon series Chowder, Tom Goes to the Mayor, and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!.

In 2008, Reubens was slated to appear as homeopathic antidepressant salesman Alfredo Aldarisio in the third episode of Pushing Daisies, but the role was recast with Raúl Esparza.[65][66] Reubens instead appeared in the role of Oscar Vibenius in the series' 7th and 9th episodes.

Also, during 2008, Reubens did a PSA for Unscrew America, a website that aims to get people to change regular light bulbs for more energy-efficient ones in the form of CFLs and LED.[67] He also appeared in Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime.[68][69]

In 2009, Reubens voiced Bat-Mite in the Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode "Legends of the Dark Mite".[70]

2009–2023: Revival and later work

In January 2009, Reubens hinted that negotiations were under way for his stage show to come back,[71] and in August the return of The Pee-wee Herman Show was announced.[72] Reubens said he felt Pee-wee calling, "I just got up one day and felt like I'm gonna come back, that was it."[73] The show is also a way to "introduce Pee-wee to the new generation that didn't know about it", preparing the way for Reubens's main project, the Playhouse film.[74] Before this comeback, Reubens's present age and shape had been pointed out as a possible issue, since Pee-wee's slim figure and clean skin have been one of his trademarks. But after appearing for the first time since 1992 as Pee-wee at Spike TV's 2007 Guys Choice Awards, Reubens had remained optimistic and had jokingly said he's no longer nervous about being young Pee-wee again thanks to digital retouching.[28]

John Lee, Judd Apatow, Reubens and Ted Sarandos at the premiere of Pee-wee's Big Holiday in 2016

The show was originally scheduled to begin November 8 and continue until the 29th at the Music Box Theatre in Hollywood. Due to high demand, the show moved to Club Nokia at LA Live and was scheduled to run between January 12 and February 7, 2010.[75] To promote the show, Reubens once again gave interviews in character, appearing as a guest on The Jay Leno Show, The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien (as well as O'Brien's subsequent Legally Prohibited Tour), and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, among others. A Twitter account, a Facebook account, and a new website were made for Pee-wee after the show changed venues.[76]

On November 11, 2010, the show relocated to New York City for a limited run at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, selling over $3 million in advance tickets.[77] An extra performance was taped for the HBO network on January 6, 2011, and debuted March 19.[78]

From 2012 to 2013, Reubens contributed his voice talents to the animated series Tron: Uprising as Pavel.[79] In 2014, Reubens appeared in TV on the Radio's music video for "Happy Idiot".[80]

In February 2015, Netflix acquired the rights to produce a new Pee-wee film entitled Pee-wee's Big Holiday with Reubens and Judd Apatow producing the film, John Lee directing, and Reubens and Paul Rust writing the screenplay. The film released on March 18, 2016, on Netflix to positive reception.[81][82][83]

Reubens went on to reprise his role as pilot droid Rex in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, a Star Wars-themed land that opened at Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in 2019. Reubens previously portrayed the character in the original Star Tours attraction in 1987 and Star Wars Rebels in 2014. In Galaxy's Edge, the former Star Tours pilot droid RX-24 – "Rex" – has been reprogrammed into DJ R-3X, the house DJ of a bar and restaurant called Oga's Cantina.[84][85]

During the release of the Telltale Games series Minecraft Story Mode Seasons 1 and 2, Reubens garnered new appreciation from Minecraft fans for his outstanding performance as the eccentric antihero Ivor, being one of his own favorite voice acting roles.[86]

Undeveloped scripts

When Reubens started giving interviews again after his 2002 arrest, he talked about the two scripts he had written for future Pee-wee Herman films.

Reubens once called his first script The Pee-wee Herman Story,[13] describing it as a black comedy. He also referred to the script as "dark Pee-wee" or "adult Pee-wee",[15] with the plot involving Pee-wee becoming famous as a singer after making a hit single and moving to Hollywood, where "he does everything wrong and becomes a big jerk".[87] Reubens further explained the film has many "Valley of the Dolls moments".[58] Reubens thought this script would be the first one to start production, but in 2006 Reubens announced he was to start filming his second script in 2007.[15]

The second film, a family-friendly adventure, is called Pee-wee's Playhouse: The Movie by Reubens,[29][88] and follows Pee-wee and his Playhouse friends on a road-trip adventure, meaning that they would leave the house for the first time and go out into "Puppetland". All of the original characters of the show, live-action and puppets are included in Reubens's script. The story happens in a fantasy land that would be reminiscent of H.R. Pufnstuf and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.[87] In January 2009, Reubens told Gary Panter that the rejected first script of Pee-wee's Big Adventure (which they co-wrote) could have a film deal very soon and that it would be "90 minutes of incredible beauty".[71] In December 2009, while in character, Reubens said this film is "already done, the script is already fully written; It's ready to shoot." Most of the film will take place in Puppetland and claymation might be used.[89]

Although he did not reveal much about the scripts, he said that one of the two films opens in prison.[58] He also said that using CGI for "updating" the puppets' looks could be an option, but it all depended on the budget the films would have.[15] Reubens once mentioned the possibility of doing one of the two as an animated film along the lines of The Polar Express (2004), which uses performance capture technology, incorporating the movements of live actors into animated characters.[90]

Reubens approached Pee-wee's Big Adventure director Tim Burton with one of the scripts and talked to Johnny Depp about the possibility of having him portray Pee-wee, but Burton was too busy, and Depp said he would have to think about it.[87]

In January 2010, Reubens reprised his role as Pee-wee and reused the set of Pee-wee's Playhouse (albeit slightly modified) for a short sketch on Funny or Die. In the sketch, Pee-wee comes home and shows off a brand-new iPad given to him by Steve Jobs. This leads to a long argument between him and his puppet friends, who point out all of the iPad's disadvantages – even Conky himself points out its flaws by stating that "it looks like a giant iPhone". In the end, Pee-wee uses the iPad as a serving tray to hold glasses of milk and lemonade during a party being held at the Playhouse hours later.[91] All the voices of the puppet characters are dubbed in by different actors than the TV series, except for Globey whose voice is still done by George McGrath.[citation needed]

Legal issues

1991 arrest

In July 1991, Reubens was arrested in Sarasota, Florida, for indecent exposure while watching a film at a porno theater.[92] During an unexpected police inspection, a detective detained Reubens, along with three others, as he was preparing to leave. When detectives examined his driver's license, Reubens told them "I'm Pee-wee Herman" and offered to perform a children's benefit for the sheriff's office "to take care of this".[93] The next day, after a local reporter recognized Reubens's name, Reubens's attorney extended the same offer to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in exchange for withholding the story.[93] In 1971, Reubens had been arrested in the same county for loitering and prowling near an adult theater, though charges had been dropped. His second arrest occurred in 1983 when Reubens was placed on two years of probation for possession of marijuana, although adjudication was withheld.[48] On the night of the arrest, Reubens traveled to Nashville, where his sister and lawyer lived, and then to New Jersey, where he stayed for the following months at his friend Doris Duke's estate.[13]

The 1991 arrest was widely covered and Reubens became the subject of late-night talk show ridicule.[94] Disney-MGM Studios suspended a video from its studio tour that had shown Pee-wee explaining how voiceover tracks are produced. Toys "R" Us removed Pee-wee toys from its stores.[92]

Reubens released a statement denying the charges.[95] On November 7, 1991, he pleaded no contest. The plea avoided a charge on Reubens's record but obligated him to 75 hours of community service. As part of his service, he created, produced, and financed two antidrug public service announcements.[96]

Despite the negative publicity, many artists who knew Reubens, such as Cyndi Lauper, Annette Funicello, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Valeria Golino, voiced support.[39][92] Others who knew Reubens, such as Pee-wee's Playhouse production designer Gary Panter, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Big Top Pee-wee director Randal Kleiser, also spoke in support.[28][39] Reubens's fans organized support rallies after CBS canceled the reruns, picketing in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.[92][97] The television news magazine A Current Affair received "tens of thousands" of responses to a Pee-wee telephone survey in which callers supported Reubens by a nine-to-one ratio.[92]

Although Reubens did not offer interviews or appear on talk shows after his arrest,[49][95] he did appear in character as Pee-wee Herman at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards on September 5,[98] asking the audience, "Heard any good jokes lately?" He received a standing ovation. Reubens appeared as Pee-wee only once in 1992, when he participated in a Grand Ole Opry tribute to Minnie Pearl.[24][28]

2002–2004: Subsequent charges

In November 2002, while filming David LaChapelle's video for Elton John's "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore", Reubens learned that police were at his home with a search warrant. Police were acting on a tip from a witness in the pornography case against actor Jeffrey Jones,[99] finding among over 70,000 items of kitsch memorabilia, two grainy videotapes, and dozens of photographs that the city attorney's office characterized as a collection of "child pornography."[2] Kelly Bush, Reubens's personal representative at the time, said the description of the items was inaccurate and stated the objects were "Rob Lowe's sex videotape", and a few 30- to 100-year-old kitsch collectible images."[100]

Reubens turned himself in to the Hollywood division of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and was charged with misdemeanor possession of obscene material improperly depicting a child under the age of 18 in sexual conduct.[101] The district attorney looked at Reubens's collection and computer and found no grounds for bringing any felony charges against him, while the city attorney, Rocky Delgadillo, formally charged Reubens on the last day allowed by statute.[102] Reubens was represented by Hollywood criminal defense lawyer Blair Berk.[103]

One thing I want to make very, very clear, I don't want anyone for one second to think that I am titillated by images of children. It's not me. You can say lots of things about me. And you might. The public may think I'm weird. They may think I'm crazy or anything that anyone wants to think about me. That's all fine. As long as one of the things you're not thinking about me is that I'm a pedophile. Because that's not true.

Paul Reubens on the charges[30]

In December, he pleaded not guilty through Berk.[104] In March 2004, child pornography charges were dropped in exchange for Reubens's guilty plea to a lesser misdemeanor obscenity charge. For the next three years, he was required to register his address with the sheriff's office, and he could not be in the company of minors without the permission of their parent or legal guardian.[30]

Reubens later stated that he was a collector of erotica, including films, muscle magazines, and a sizable collection of mostly homosexual vintage erotica,[2] such as photographic studies of teen nudes.[30] Reubens said that what the city attorney's office viewed as pornography he considered to be innocent art, and whether the memorabilia were pornographic images ”depends on what one sees in those images.” Reubens described the nude images as people "one hundred percent not" performing sexual acts.[30]

Being an avid collector, Reubens often purchased bulk lots, and one of his vintage magazine dealers declared that "there's no way" he could have known the content of each page in the publications he bought, and he recalled Reubens asking for "physique magazines, vintage [1960s] material, but not things featuring kids".[2]

During this ongoing legal issue, Reubens spent two years in Sarasota, Florida, caring for his terminally ill father, who died in February 2004 of cancer.[6][63]

Reception and legacy

Reubens in 2019

Reubens had not always thought of his character as one for children prior to the mid-1980s, when he became more selective of what should and should not be associated with Pee-wee.[27] He was a heavy smoker and hired security to make sure that children never saw him with a cigarette while in costume.[105] He refused to endorse candy bars and other unhealthy food; he said in 1999 that he had proposed "Ralston Purina Pee-wee Chow cereal", but the sugar-free product was not released due to a negative reaction in a blind taste test.[13]

Pee-wee was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame by 1989,[13] and successfully built a Pee-wee franchise, with toys, clothes, and other items generating more than $25 million at its peak in 1988.[92] Reubens also published a book as Pee-wee in 1989 called Travels with Pee-Wee.[106] CBS aired reruns of Playhouse until July 1991, when Reubens was arrested, pulling from their schedule the last two remaining reruns.[107] Fox Family Channel briefly aired reruns of the Playhouse in 1998.[28] In early July 2006, Cartoon Network began running a teaser promo during its Adult Swim lineup. A later press release and many other promos confirmed that the show's 45 original episodes would air nightly from Monday to Thursday starting on that date.[108] Playhouse attracted 1.5 million viewers nightly. In 2007, TV Guide named Playhouse one of the top 10 TV cult classics of all time.[27] Several children's television personas cite Pee-wee Herman as an inspiration, including Steve Burns of Blue's Clues[109] and Stephen Hillenburg of SpongeBob SquarePants.[110] In November 2004, all 45 episodes of the Playhouse, plus six episodes that had never before been released on home video, were released on DVD split between two box set collections. On July 3, 2013, Shout! Factory announced that they had acquired the rights to the entire series from Reubens, which was released on Blu-ray on October 21, 2014. In addition, the entire series was digitally remastered from the original 35mm film elements and original audio tracks.[111][112][113][114]

Pee-wee's tight-fitting Glen plaid suits seemed ridiculous during the 1980s, but since the late 1990s have made him a "style icon",[115] with fashion houses and designers like Christopher Bailey, Ennio Capasa, Miuccia Prada,[116] Viktor & Rolf,[117] and Thom Browne creating tightly cut suits with high armholes and short trousers that have been compared to Pee-wee's.[118]

Reubens discussed plans for a museum, which would contain many of the Playhouse sets and props he owned.[107]


Reubens died on July 30, 2023, at the age of 70, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The immediate cause of death was acute hypoxic respiratory failure.[119][120] At the time of his death he was diagnosed with both myelogenous leukemia and metastatic lung cancer.[119] He had been diagnosed six years earlier, but had not revealed his diagnosis to the public.[1]

Following his death, a statement written by Reubens was released:

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.[1]

Reubens was cremated, and his remains will be interred at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.[119]



Year Title Role Notes
1980 Pray TV[121] Jack Chudnowski
Midnight Madness[122] Pinball City Proprietor
The Blues Brothers[122] Chez Paul waiter
Cheech and Chong's Next Movie[121] Pee-wee Herman/Desk Clerk
1981 Nice Dreams[31] Howie Hamburger Dude
Dream On![122]
1982 Pandemonium[121] Johnson
1984 Meatballs Part II[121] Albert / Hara Krishna
1985 Pee-wee's Big Adventure[121] Pee-wee Herman Also writer
1986 Flight of the Navigator[121] Trimaxion/Max Voice; credited as Paul Mall
1987 Back to the Beach[121] Pee-wee Herman
1988 Big Top Pee-wee[121] Also writer and producer
Nominated — Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards for Favorite Movie Actor[citation needed]
1992 Batman Returns[122] Tucker Cobblepot
Buffy the Vampire Slayer[121] Amilyn
1993 The Nightmare Before Christmas[121] Lock Voice
1996 Dunston Checks In[121] Buck LaFarge
Matilda[121] FBI Agent Bob
1997 Buddy[121] Professor Spatz
Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas[121] Fife Voice, direct-to-video
1998 Dr. Dolittle[122] Raccoon Voice
1999 Mystery Men[121] The Spleen
2000 South of Heaven, West of Hell[121] Arvid Henry
2001 Blow[121] Derek Foreal
2004 Teacher's Pet[121] Dennis Voice
2006 The Tripper[121] Frank Baker
2007 Reno 911!: Miami[122] Sir Terrence Benedino
2009 Life During Wartime[121] Andy
2011 The Smurfs[121] Jokey Smurf Voice
2013 The Smurfs 2[122]
Tom and Jerry's Giant Adventure[121] Screwy Squirrel Voice, direct-to-video
Scooby-Doo! Mecha Mutt Menace[122] Irv
2015 Accidental Love[121] Edwin
2016 Pee-wee's Big Holiday[121] Pee-wee Herman Also writer and producer
2023 Quiz Lady[123] Himself Posthumous release (Final film role)


Year Title Role Notes
1979 Working Stiffs[124] Heimlich 2 episodes
1980–1981 The Flintstone Comedy Show Freaky Frankenstone Voice, 18 episodes (The Frankenstones segment)
1980 Steve Martin: Comedy Is Not Pretty[125] Various roles Television special
Steve Martin: All Commercials[126]
1981 Mork & Mindy[121] Dickie Nimitz Episode: "Long Before We Met"
The Pee-wee Herman Show[121] Pee-wee Herman Television special
1982 Madame's Place[121] Himself Season: 1 Episode: 34
1984 Faerie Tale Theatre[121] Pinocchio Season: 3 Episode: 3 "Pinocchio"
Cheeseball Presents[127] Pee-wee Herman TV movie
1985 Saturday Night Live[121] Pee-wee Herman (host) Episode: "Pee-wee Herman/Queen Ida & The Bon Temps Zydeco Band"
1986–1990 Pee-wee's Playhouse[121] Pee-wee Herman 45 episodes; also creator, writer, director, executive producer and set decorator
Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction/Set Direction/Scenic Design (1988)
Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Graphics and Title Design (1991)
Nominated – Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in Children's Programming (1987–1988, 1990–1991)
Nominated – Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Series (1987, 1990–1991)
Nominated – Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing For A Children's Series (1987–1988)
Nominated – Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing For A Children's Series (1988, 1990–1991)
Nominated – Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction/Set Decoration/Scenic Design (1989–1991)[128]
1987 227[121] Episode: "Toyland"
1988 Sesame Street[121] Episode: "Put Down the Duckie"
Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special[122] Television special; also writer, director and executive producer
1995–1997 Murphy Brown[121] Andrew J. Lansing III 6 episodes
Nominated – Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series (1995)[128]
2000 Everybody Loves Raymond[121] Russell Episode: "Hackidu"
2001 You Don't Know Jack[121] Troy Stevens 6 episodes
Ally McBeal[121] Louis Episode: "Cloudy Skies, Chance of Parade"
2002 Rugrats[121] Hermie the Elf Voice, episode: "Babies in Toyland"
The Groovenians[122] Jet Voice; pilot
2005 Tripping the Rift[121] God / Devil Voice, episode: "Chode's Near Death-Experience"
2006 Campus Ladies[129] Drama instructor Episode: "Drama Class"
Reno 911![121] Rick Episode: "Rick's On It"
Re-Animated[122] Golly Gopher Voice, television film
2007 Area 57[130] Alien Pilot
30 Rock[121] Gerhardt Hapsburg Episode: "Black Tie"
Dirt[121] Chuck Lafoon 3 episodes
Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job![122] The Moon Episode: "Cats"
Pushing Daisies[121] Oscar Vibenius 2 episodes
2007–2009 Chowder[131] Reuben Voice, 3 episodes
2009–2011 Batman: The Brave and the Bold[122] Bat-Mite Voice, 4 episodes
2010 Adventure Time[121] Gnome Ruler Voice, episode: "Power Animal"
WWE Raw[122] Pee-wee Herman 1 episode; special guest
2011 The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway[122] Pee-wee Herman Television special
Nominated – Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Special[128]
2012–2013 Tron: Uprising[121] Pavel Voice, 17 episodes
2012–2015 Robot Chicken[132] The Riddler / Sunbather Voice, 3 episodes
2013 Comedy Bang! Bang![121] Pee-wee Herman Episode: "Pee Wee Herman Wears a Halloween Costume"
2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles[122] Martin Milton/Sir Malachi Voice, episode: "Mazes and Mutants"
Sanjay and Craig[121] Benji Warlin Voice, episode: "Googas"
Star Wars Rebels[133] RX-24 Voice, episode: "Droids in Distress"
Lego DC Comics: Batman Be-Leaguered[122] Bat-Mite[134] Voice, television film
Phineas and Ferb[135] Professor Parenthesis Voice, episode: "The O.W.C.A. Files"
2014 & 2016 American Dad![121] Wyatt Borden Voice, episode: "Blagsnarst, a Love Story"
2014–2015 The Blacklist[121] Mr. Vargas 5 episodes
2015 Portlandia[121] Weirdos' Lawyer Episode: "Dead Pets"
2015–2016 Pickle and Peanut[121] Couch Dracula Voice, 2 episodes
2015–2017 Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero[121] The Milk Man/The Butterman Voice, 3 episodes
2016–2017 Gotham[121] Elijah Van Dahl 3 episodes
2017–2018 Voltron: Legendary Defender[122] Unliu Swap Shop Owner Voice, 3 episodes
2018 Mosaic[121] JC Schiffer 7 episodes
2018–2019 Legends of Tomorrow[122] Dybbuk Voice, 5 episodes
2019 Tigtone Cryptomb Voice, episode: "Tigtone and the Cemetery of the Dead"
What We Do in the Shadows[136] Paul Episode: "The Trial"
The Conners[137] Sandy Bitensky Episode: "Lanford, Toilet of Sin"
2021 The Tom and Jerry Show Pontius Pig Voice, episode: "Sock It to Me"
2023 Bob's Burgers Pat Voice, episode: "Amelia" (Final role; dedicated in memory)

Video games

Year Title Voice role
2004 The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie's Revenge Lock[138]
2015 Minecraft: Story Mode Ivor[139]
2016 Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare Willard Wyler[140]
2017 Minecraft: Story Mode - Season 2 Ivor[141]


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