Paul Reubens: the Man Behind “Pee-wee Herman”

Paul Reubens, aka “Pee-wee Herman,” was a man of profound contradictions. 

On one hand, he was the quirky-but-talented creator of the phenomenally successful cult classics, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Big Top Pee-wee. Also, the highly successful TV series, Pee-wee’s Playhouse. 

But on the other hand, he was the infamous celebrity caught masturbating in an adult theater in Sarasota, Florida. This was an event that tarnished his reputation and derailed his career for several years. 

Then just as that indiscretion faded from public memory, Reubens was charged with possession of child pornography. This was during a period in which he was staying close to his Sarasota home to care for his terminally ill father (who died in February 2004 of cancer). 

From the public’s point of view, Reubens was difficult to figure out; and bore watching. 

Pee-Wee Herman on his trademark bike. Photo: Warner Bros/Kobal


Paul Rubenfeld was born in Peekskill, New York, on August 27, 1952. He grew up in Sarasota, Florida. His parents, Milton Rubenfeld (a former automobile salesperson who’d flown for Britain’s Royal Air Force) and Judy Rosen (a teacher), ran a lamp store. 

Reubens had two siblings. There was Abby (born in 1953). She was a Princeton and Boston University Law School attorney and board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. There was also Luke (born in 1958), believed to be a dog trainer. 

A Budding Entertainer

As a boy, Reubens frequented the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus winter headquarters in Sarasota. The hurly-burly atmosphere is what sparked Reubens’ interest in entertainment. This heavily influenced his later endeavors. 

It is said that he was drawn to reruns of I Love Lucy at age five (because the show made people laugh). Reubens asked his father to build him a stage, where he and his siblings would act out plays—often of his creation.


Reubens attended Sarasota High School. His interest in acting got him named president of the National Thespian Society

He was later accepted into Northwestern University’s summer program for gifted high-school students (in Evanston, Illinois). Upon his return, he joined the local Asolo Repertory Theatre and Players Center for Performing Arts of Sarasota and appeared in several plays.

Photo of Paul Reubens as a senior in high school, 1970

Following high school, Reubens attended Plymouth State University (in New Hampshire). He then transferred to Boston University, after which he began auditioning for acting schools.

He was turned down by several schools (including the Juilliard School and Carnegie Mellon University). But was finally accepted at the California Institute of the Arts. 

To pay his tuition, Reubens worked in restaurant kitchens and as a Fuller Brush salesman.

A Career in Comedy

In the 1970s, Reubens began performing at local comedy clubs. Beginning in 1977, he made 14 appearances on the off-beat TV talent show, The Gong Show. Four of which were as a part of a boy–girl team he developed with Charlotte McGinnis called “The Hilarious Betty and Eddie.”

In the mid-70s, Reubens joined the Los Angeles–based improvisational sketch comedy troupe the “Groundlings.” He remained a member for six years. 

Fellow troupe members included future actors Bob McClurg, John Paragon (who later worked with Reubens on Pee-Wees Playhouse), and the well-known Phil Hartman. Hartman and Reubens became close friends, and often worked on projects together. 

In 1980, Reubens got his first major exposure with a bit part as a waiter in The Blues Brothers movie. 

The Birth of “Pee-Wee Herman”

“Pee-wee Herman” was born during a 1978 improvisation exercise with the “Groundlings.” Reubens conceived the idea of a man who desperately wanted to be a comic but was absolutely inept at delivering jokes.

He was frequently compared to other well-known characters (including Hergé’s comic strip character “Tintin” and Collodi’s “Pinocchio”). However, Reubens insisted that “Pee-wee” derived from no particular source, but rather a collection of characteristics. 

Reubens with the rest of his Groundlings improvisational sketch comedy troupe

Reubens had developed “Pee-wee’s” distinctive nasally voice several years before when he appeared in a production of the Broadway play, Life with Father. This was a role for which he adopted a cartoonish way of speaking–which later became the voice of Pee-wee.

 As to “Pee-wee’s” unique “Hipster” wardrobe, his first small gray suit had been handmade for “Groundlings” founder Gary Austin. He thought it was perfect for Reubens’ character. 

The origin of the red bow tie, Reubens claimed, occurred when “someone handed me the little kid bow tie” before a performance. It just worked.

The Pee-wee Herman Show

It soon became abundantly clear to fellow comedians that Reubens needed a bigger stage for his creativity. They encouraged him to audition for the extraordinarily popular Saturday Night Live (1980–1981 season). 

It was, however, the same day comedian Gilbert Gottfried auditioned. As Reubens told Entertainment Weekly, “hiring us both was not an option because we are the same type of performer.” To the San Francisco Chronicle, he confided, “the fix was in” because Gottfried was friends with one of the producers. 

Undaunted, Reubens borrowed enough money to produce his own show in Los Angeles, spotlighting “Pee-wee Herman.” 

He enlisted “Groundlings” John Paragon, Phil Hartman, and Lynne Marie Stewart (whom Reuben would take with him to his Playhouse). Reubens brought his show to the famed Roxy Theatre (on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, California), where The Pee-wee Herman Show ran for five sellout months. 

To reach a larger audience, Reuben shrewdly put on midnight shows for adults (with adult content). He also had weekly matinees for children. This was a move that took him mainstream in 1981 when HBO aired The Pee-wee Herman Show as part of their, “On Location” series.

Reubens’ growing popularity led to “Pee-wee” appearing in the 1980 Cheech & Chong cult film, Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie. This was a role that he reprised in 1981’s Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams (billing Reubens as “Hamburger Dude”). 

Despite “Pee-wee” being labeled “bizarre” and Reubens “the weirdest comedian around,” Reubens’ act quickly acquired a rabid fan base (some of whom attended performances in “Pee-wee” garb).  

Reubens and “Pee-wee” Sever Ties

As “Pee-wee’s” fame and popularity grew, Reubens the actor distanced himself from the spotlight. He did all public appearances and interviews “in character.” 

Reubens wanted the public to perceive “Pee-wee” as a real, autonomous individual. He even referred to his parents as “Honey and Herman Herman.”

In the early-to-mid-1980s, Reubens made several guest appearances on Late Night with David Letterman as “Pee-wee Herman.” This gave Pee-wee an even bigger following. 

Reubens then took a revamped The Pee-wee Herman Show across the country. He performed at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Caroline’s in New York City, and in 1984, in front of a standing-room-only Carnegie Hall

“Pee-wee” the Brand

In 1988, Reubens launched his “Pee-wee” brand of toys, clothing, and other collectibles. These generated more than $25 million in the first year. 

The following year, “Pee-wee” (not Paul Reubens) was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (“Pee-wee” was a star; Reubens, not so much.)

Attending the 1988 Academy Awards in character. Photo by Alan Light

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure

The success of The Pee-wee Herman Show prompted Warner Bros. to sign Reubens to write a script for a “Pee-wee Herman” feature film. 

Reubens at first considered a reworking of Pollyanna. This was a film based on the 1913 novel by American author Eleanor H. Porter. It was considered a children’s classic.

But halfway through the script, he noticed that everyone at Warner Bros. rode a bicycle around the lot. This inspired him to rethink the project. 

When Reubens and the producers of what would become Pee-wee’s Big Adventure saw Tim Burton’s work on Vincent (1982) and Frankenweenie (1984), they approached Burton to direct Reubens’ film. He wanted to make it a story of “Pee-wee Herman’s” cross-country adventure in search of his stolen bicycle. 

Far exceeding expectations, the film went on to gross $40,940,662 domestically. This was almost six times its $7 million investment. Though the film received mixed reviews, it developed a cult following that endures to this day. 

Pee-wee’s Playhouse

After the phenomenal success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, CBS signed Reubens to act, produce, and direct a live-action children’s program tentatively called, Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

They cast Laurence Fishburne (at that time best known for Apocalypse Now), and multi-award-winner S. Epatha Merkerson. Reubens also chose Cyndi Lauper to sing the opening credits of the show (under the pseudonym Ellen Shaw).  

Playhouse was designed to be an educational yet entertaining, “artistic” show for children. It was influenced by the shows Reubens watched as a kid (Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo, The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show). But it quickly drew an audience with kids and adults alike. 

Pee-wee’s Playhouse aired from September 13, 1986, until November 10, 1990—to unprecedented success. Reubens agreed to do two more seasons after the third. However, he was ready to phase out “Pee-wee” after the third to pursue other creative ideas. 

The show completed five seasons, garnering 22 Emmy Awards. 

Pee-Wee in Demand

During the five-season run of Playhouse, Reubens reprised the character of “Pee-wee Herman” in cameo appearances in the film Back to the Beach and the children’s TV show Sesame Street. 

He 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 Disney World and Disneyland Paris. 

In 1988, he worked with Paramount Pictures on a sequel to Big Adventure titled Big Top Pee-wee (which ultimately was far less successful than the first).   

The Indiscretion Heard Around the World

In July of 1991, Reubens was caught masturbating during an X-rated film at XXX South Trail Cinema in Sarasota, Florida, during a random police sweep. (This was an adult theater where masturbating during films was commonplace—and essentially expected.) 

A detective who’d observed the famous entertainer pleasuring himself, detained him and three other patrons as they exited the theater. 

This was not Reubens’ first run-in with Sarasota Police. He was arrested in 1971 for loitering and in 1983 for marijuana possession. But once this sexually-oriented arrest was picked up by the media, Reubens (and “Pee-wee”) became the subject of ridicule and suspicion. 

Disney-MGM Studios immediately suspended a video from its studio tour showing “Pee-wee” explaining how voice-overs are made. Toys “R” Us removed Pee-wee-brand toys from their shelves.

Suddenly, the empire Reubens had worked decades to build began to crumble. A man so closely associated with children–now associated with lewd, sexual behavior–made most people uncomfortable. 

Recurring Roles, Cameos, Guest-Appearances

By the mid-1990s, Reubens (with help from industry friends) managed to rebuild his public image. He separated himself from his alter-ego, “Pee-wee Herman.”

From that point on, Reubens was careful to emphasize his own acting abilities—apart from the character with whom he’d become so intimately identified.  

Between 1995 and 1997, Reubens played a recurring role in the highly popular TV series Murphy Brown. This earned him his first and only non- “Pee-wee” Emmy nomination, for “Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.” 

In 1999, he made the rounds on TV talk shows promoting his new non- “Pee-wee” film, Mystery Men

This was a superhero comedy featuring an all-star cast including Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Eddie Izzard, Greg Kinnear, William H. Macy, Geoffrey Rush, and Tom Waits. 

That same year he also starred in Country-singer-turned-actor Dwight Yoakam’s Western South of Heaven, West of Hell, He portrayed a rapist and killer (a role that impressed many). 

In 2001, Reubens played a flamboyant hairdresser-turned-drug-dealer in Ted Demme’s box-office hit, Blow, starring Johnny Depp and Penélope Cruz. Praised by critics for his stellar performance, scripts for potential film projects began pouring in. But then Reubens’ personal life once again intruded on his professional. 

The Second Red Flag

On Nov. 16, 2001, while Reubens was away filming the video for Elton John’s “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore,” police officers raided his home. They confiscated dozens of photographs the city attorney’s office characterized as “child pornography.”

Reubens’ attorney, Blair Berk, immediately stated that the charges were “untrue and without merit.” Reubens’ publicist, Kelly Bush, clarified that the “handful of images” the police confiscated came from more than 10,000 vintage magazines . . . some of which were three decades old.

In 2004, Reubens told NBC News, “I don’t want anyone for one second to think that I am titillated by images of children . . . You can say lots of things about me . . . The public may think I’m weird . . . 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.” 

Later that year, authorities dropped the charges after Reubens agreed to plead guilty to a lesser obscenity charge.

In the Wake of Infamy

Ironically, between 2004 and 2009, Reubens was more in demand than at any time in his career. 

In 2006, he was given two small roles on the popular Comedy Central series Reno 911! He appeared in the second music video for the Raconteurs’ song, “Steady, As She Goes.” He was the guest of honor at the San Francisco Comedy Festival (Sketchfest).

He also signed with NBC to make a new pilot for a sitcom called Area 57 (a show which ultimately was not picked up). Reubens also appeared on the hit NBC series 30 Rock and made three guest appearances on FX’s Dirt.

In 2007, Reubens was cast in David Arquette’s directorial debut film, The Tripper. He appeared as “Pee-wee Herman” at Spike TV’s “Guys Choice Awards,” and had small parts in a series of Cartoon Network projects including Chowder, Tom Goes to the Mayor, and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! 

That same year, TV Guide named Pee-wee’s Playhouse one of the top 10 TV cult classics of all time.

In 2008, Reubens appeared in the Pushing Daisies series’ 7th and 9th episodes. He did a Public Service Announcement for Unscrew America (a website aimed at persuading people to exchange standard light bulbs for more energy-efficient CFLs and LEDs). He then appeared in Todd Solondz’s comedy-drama film, Life During Wartime.

Then in 2009, Reubens voiced “Bat-Mite” in the Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode, “Legends of the Dark Mite.” 

Final Years

From 2010 to the end of his life, Reubens stayed constantly busy. He was writing film scripts, doing voice-overs, making cameos, and special appearances–both as himself and as “Pee-wee Herman.” 

Playhouse and Reubens’ cult-classic films were being re-released, re-mastered, picked up for syndication, and released on home video. But it was “Pee-wee”—not Reubens—whom a new generation of fans identified with. 

It was only during the final years of his life that people began recognizing him on the street. 

Paul Reubens later in his career. Photo: BOBBY BANK/GC IMAGES

The End of an Amazing Career

In 2017, Paul Reubens was diagnosed with the early stages of cancer. He chose to keep his illness private. Having good days and bad, he spent the bad ones in seclusion.

On July 30, 2023, Paul Reubens (Rubenfeld) died from cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 70.  

In an Instagram message posted just hours before his death, Reubens told his fans: “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.” 

On Sunday, August 27, on what would have been his 71st birthday, Reubens’ memorial was held at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. 

Among the 350 friends in attendance were Conan O’Brien, Alfred “Weird Al” Yankovic, Phil Rosenthal, David Arquette, Maya Rudolph, Jimmy Kimmel, John Waters, Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson, Lily Tomlin, Jason Alexander, Fred Armisen, Aaron Paul, Jennifer Coolidge, Kevin Pollack, Andy Richter, Beverly D’Angelo, Penelope Ann Miller, Cheri Oteri, Camryn Manheim, Laraine Newman, Jack White, J.J. Abrams, and The B-52’s—via pre-recorded video.

Reuben is said to have completed over 100 pages of his memoirs by the time of his death.

References, “Paul Reubens’ Bio,” Paul Reubens’ Bio: Arrests, Wife, Family & Gay Rumors (, “Everything About Luke And Abby Rubenfeld – Paul Rubenfeld’s Siblings,”, (Vanity Fair) “Return from Planet Pee-wee,”, (Time) “The Prince of Prepuberty Grows Up BIG TOP PEE-WEE,” The Prince of Prepuberty Grows Up BIG TOP PEE-WEE – TIME (, (Time) “Pee-wee’s Small Adventure,” Pee-wee’s Small Adventure — Page 1 (, “Paul Reubens “Pee-wee Herman” Arrest Story; When and Why was He Arrested?”, Paul Reubens “Pee-wee Herman” Arrest Story; When and Why was He Arrested? (, “Paul Reubens’ Friends, Famous Fans and Loved Ones Celebrate His Life on What Would Have Been His Birthday,” Paul Reubens’ Friends, Famous Fans and Loved Ones Celebrate His Life on What Would Have Been His Birthday (, “Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman fame often overshadowed by sex scandals,” Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman fame often overshadowed by sex scandals (

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