Pee-wee Herman actor Paul Reubens dies aged 70

US actor whose film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was a cult classic died after a battle with cancer, his publicist says.

US actor Paul Reubens portraying Pee-wee Herman
'I have loved you all so much and enjoyed making art for you,' Paul Reubens said in a statement released with the announcement of his death [File: Danny Moloshok/AP Photo]

Paul Reubens, the US actor and comedian whose character Pee-wee Herman became a cultural phenomenon through films and TV shows, has died.

Reubens, 70, died on Sunday night after a six-year struggle with cancer that he did not make public, his publicist said in a statement.

“Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years,” Reubens said in a statement released with the announcement of his death on Monday.

“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 character with his too-tight gray suit, white chunky loafers and red bow tie was best known for the film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and the TV series Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

Reubens created Pee-wee when he was part of the Los Angeles improv group The Groundlings in the late 1970s.

The live Pee-wee Herman Show debuted at a theatre in Los Angeles, California in the United States in 1981 and was a success with both kids during matinees and adults at a midnight show. HBO would air the show as a special.

Reubens took Pee-wee to the big screen in 1985’s, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Paul Reubens speaks during a news conference
Reuben answers a question via satellite at the HBO panel for The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway in January 2011 [File: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters]

The film, in which Pee-wee’s cherished bike is stolen, was said to be loosely based on Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neo-realist classic, The Bicycle Thief.

The film, directed by Tim Burton and co-written by Phil Hartman of Saturday Night Live, sent Pee-wee on a nationwide escapade. The movie was a success, grossing $40m, and continued to spawn a cult following for its oddball whimsy.

A sequel followed three years later in the less well-received Big Top Pee-wee, in which Pee-wee seeks to join a circus.

Reubens’s character wouldn’t get another movie starring role until 2016’s Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, for Netflix. Judd Apatow produced Pee-wee’s big-screen revival.

His television series, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, ran for five seasons, earned 22 Emmys and attracted not only children but adults to Saturday-morning TV.

Both silly and subversive and championing nonconformity, the Pee-wee universe was a trippy place, populated by things such as a talking armchair and a friendly pterodactyl.

Host Pee-wee, who is fond of secret words and loves fruit salad so much he once married it, is prone to lines like, “I know you are, but what am I?” and “Why don’t you take a picture; it’ll last longer?”

The act was a hit because it worked on multiple levels, even though Reubens insists that wasn’t the plan.

“It’s for kids,” Reubens told The Associated Press in 2010. “People have tried to get me for years to go, ‘It wasn’t really for kids, right?’ Even the original show was for kids. I always censored myself to have it be kid-friendly.

“The whole thing has been just a gut feeling from the beginning,” Reubens told AP. “That’s all it ever is and I think always ever [will] be. Much as people want me to dissect it and explain it, I can’t. One, I don’t know, and two, I don’t want to know, and three, I feel like I’ll hex myself if I know.”

Paul Reubens portraying Pee-wee Herman
Reubens arrives for the TV Land Awards 10th Anniversary at the Lexington Avenue Armory in New York, April 14, 2012 [File: Andrew Kelly/Reuters]

Jimmy Kimmel posted on Instagram that “Paul Reubens was like no one else — a brilliant and original comedian who made kids and their parents laugh at the same time. He never forgot a birthday and shared his genuine delight for silliness with everyone he met”.

Reubens’ career was derailed in 1991 when he was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult movie theatre in Sarasota, Florida, where he grew up. He was handed a small fine but the damage to the character was incalculable.

He became the frequent butt of late-night talk show jokes and the perception of Reubens immediately changed.

“The moment that I realised my name was going to be said in the same sentence as children and sex, that’s really intense,” Reubens told NBC in 2004. “That’s something I knew from that very moment, whatever happens past that point, something’s out there in the air that is really bad.”

Reubens said he got plenty of offers to work, but told the AP that most of them wanted to take “advantage of the luridness of my situation”, and he didn’t want to do them.

“It just changed,” he said. “Everything changed.”

In 2001, Reubens was arrested again and charged with misdemeanor possession of child pornography after police seized images from his computer and photography collection, but the allegation was reduced to an obscenity charge and he was given three years’ probation.

Born Paul Rubenfeld in Peekskill, New York, Reubens, the eldest of three children, grew up primarily in Sarasota before going to Boston University and the California Institute of the Arts.

Reubens would also act as non-Pee-wee characters, including in the 1992 movies Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Batman Returns, a Tim Burton film. He also had a guest-star run on the TV series Murphy Brown.

Source: The Associated Press