Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman in the 2016 movie "Pee-wee's Big Holiday."
Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman in the 2016 movie "Pee-wee's Big Holiday."

Paul Reubens, son of a founding Israeli Air Force pilot and father of Pee-wee Herman, dies at 70

This story was originally published in the Forward.

Paul Reubens, the comedian who rose to fame as his perennially childish alter ego Pee-wee Herman, has died. News of his death was posted on the official Pee-wee Herman Instagram and Facebook pages Monday, acknowledging a private battle with cancer.

Reubens was born Paul Rubenfeld on August 27, 1952. His father, Milton Rubenfeld, was an Orthodox Jew who was both a Royal Air Force and U.S. Air Force pilot in World War II. In 1948, he helped smuggle fighter planes into Israel during its War of Independence, one of five Jewish pilots to fight in the war. Reubens’ mother, Judy, was a teacher.

In the 1970s, Reubens moved to California to pursue a career in comedy and joined the Groundlings improv troupe. It was there that he developed the comedic persona that would make him famous. The initial conception of the character was as a bad stand-up comic.

I could never remember punchlines to jokes, so my character was a bad comic you would never expect to make it,” Herman told Parade magazine.

By the early 1980s, after an unsuccessful audition for “Saturday Night Live,” Reubens started performing as Herman at the Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood. As a proof of the Janus-like temperament of the character, who seemed to address children but also appeal to adults, he did both matinees and midnight shows. His act was aired on HBO in 1981, and soon Reubens was appearing in films in character and making appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman.” But his biggest adventure still lay ahead.

In 1985, Reubens’ character starred in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” which saw the gray-suited innocent travel west to recover his stolen bicycle. The film was the breakout feature for Tim Burton and started Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman’s career in film scoring. The movie’s success paved the way for a sequel, “Big Top Pee-wee,” and the TV show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” in which Reubens collaborated with his former Groundlings colleague Phil Hartman.

Shortly after “Playhouse” ended in 1991, Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure at an adult movie theater, prompting CBS to cancel reruns of the show. Reubens managed to recover from the scandal, appearing in family films like 1992’s “Matilda and 1998’s “Doctor Doolittle” as well as providing a notable turn in 1999’s “Mystery Men” as farting superhero the Spleen.

In 2002, Reubens was arrested for possession of child pornography, marking a second retreat from public life. Reubens pleaded not guilty and the charges were dropped in 2004 when Reubens agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor obscenity charge. Reubens maintained the images were part of his large collection of vintage erotica.

In the 2000s, Reubens made a number of guest appearances on sitcoms and, in 2009, debuted a new stage production, “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” which played for a limited run on Broadway. The stage show was followed by a memorable Herman appearance, with Anderson Cooper, in an “SNL” digital short, and a 2016 Netflix film, “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.” Reubens also inhabited other roles, including the character Dybbuk, named for the spirit from Jewish legend, in “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” from 2018-2019.

In 2020, asked if he’d ever seen anyone else do Pee-wee, Reubens answered, “No one else will ever play Pee-wee. That would happen over my dead b…” He trailed off, but then considered the question more fully.

“Technology exists for me to be computer generated and look completely real,” Reubens mused. “However, if I didn’t have the budget, I’ve always liked the work of Christopher Walken.”

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

PJ Grisar
PJ Grisar

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].