By Signal Staff
Paul Reubens, an alumnus of California Institute of the Arts in Valencia who became best known for portraying the character Pee-wee Herman, died Sunday at age 70 after a previously undisclosed six-year bout with cancer.
Reubens’ publicist, Kelly Bush Novak, released a statement on social media confirming his death, and including a message from Reubens: “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.”
The actor attended CalArts in the early 1970s and would go on to create the quirky man-child character Pee-wee Herman, starring in multiple movies and television shows, including “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” which ran from 1986 to 1990. The children’s show also became a hit with adults.
While the Pee-wee portrayals were not his only acting roles, he is most remembered for the cultural phenomenon that the character became in the 1980s. In 1985 he hosted “Saturday Night Live” entirely in character as Pee-wee Herman — a first for the show.
“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,” read a statement posted to Reubens’ Instagram account. “Paul bravely and privately fought cancer for years with his trademark tenacity and wit. 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.”
In 1991 and 2001, the actor also made news off-screen for a pair of arrests that threatened to derail his career, the first being an arrest for indecent exposure in an adult movie house in Florida. He pleaded no contest and was required to perform community service.
The Associated Press reported of the second arrest: “In 2001, Reubens was arrested 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.”
Reubens later issued a statement saying the images were part of a large collection of vintage images he had acquired, and he told NBC in 2004: “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.”
Reubens brought his larger-than-life personality to his role as the chair of an all-school alumni reunion at CalArts, attended by about 1,000 people in 2000, including other famous alumni of the arts university. He turned the reunion into a “homecoming” event featuring a ferris wheel, fireworks and carnival rides.
“Of course, CalArts never had a homecoming, or a football team,” Reubens told The Signal at the time. “That’s the joke. The event was a full-scale spoof on the homecoming tradition.”
The 2000 story in The Signal added: “But behind all the fun and games lies a deep loyalty that extends past the parking lot and straight into the hearts and minds of CalArts’ artistic graduates. ‘I think that [Cal Arts] is a very serious training ground for artists of all mediums,’ Reubens said. ‘What makes it unique is that it is interdisciplinary. When we all come back to this place, it really is remarkable.’”
Reubens’ death drew reactions from multiple celebrities on social media.
“We loved you right back, Paul,” actor Mark Hamill of “Star Wars” fame wrote in a tweet, “and can’t thank you enough for the lifetime of laughter!”
Talk show host and comedian Conan O’Brien tweeted: “No tweet can capture the magic, generosity, artistry, and devout silliness of Paul Reubens. Everyone I know received countless nonsensical memes from Paul on their birthday, and I mean EVERYONE. His surreal comedy and unrelenting kindness were a gift to us all. Damn, this hurts.”