In Memoriam: Paul Reubens (1952 – 2023)

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Paul Reubens (Theater BFA 73), who created the beloved and iconic character of Pee-wee Herman, died on Sunday, July 30, at age 70 after a private battle with cancer.

Reubens wrote a brief statement for his fans and followers, which was posted to Instagram after his death:

“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.”

Reubens, who was raised in upstate New York and Florida, studied at Boston University before attending CalArts’ Theater school. His classmates and cohorts included actors Katey Sagal (Theater 73), David Hasselhoff (Theater 73), and photographer Michael Jang (Art BFA 73), who posted images of a young Reubens on his Instagram.

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The character of the child-like Pee-wee Herman first emerged in the late 1970s during improvisational exercises with the Los Angeles-based comedy troupe, The Groundlings. Between May and July in 1981, venerated LA rock club The Roxy took a chance on the then-unknown comedian and ran his shows—replete with human characters, such as Miss Yvonne, as well as puppets and anthropomorphic objects like Chairry—three nights a week. After success at The Roxy, Reubens took The Pee-wee Herman Show on the road to theaters across the US (The show would return to the stage in 2010, this time to Broadway for a four-week run.)

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In 1985, Reubens teamed with fellow CalArts alum and director Tim Burton (Film/Video 79) on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the character’s feature film debut. A huge commercial success, the film remains a cult favorite today. After the sequel Big Top Pee-wee, directed by Randal Kleiser, the character transitioned to television from 1986 to 1990, on CBS’ weekend morning show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. In 2016, Reubens co-wrote and starred in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, a Netflix movie that served as Reubens’ final film role.

Throughout his career, Reubens would star in both comedies and dramas, most notably appearing in CBS’ comedy series Murphy Brown (which garnered him his only non-Pee-wee Emmy nomination), the superhero comedy Mystery Men, and Ted Demme’s 2001 drama Blow, in which he played a flamboyant hair dresser turned drug dealer alongside actors Penélope Cruz and Johnny Depp.

Though Reubens leaves behind a complicated legacy, his dedication to art, acting, and character study cannot be denied. Rest in peace, Paul Reubens.

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PUBLISHED BY Christine N. Ziemba

Christine is the director of Content at CalArts, responsible for the Institute's editorial in both print and online platforms. In addition, she oversees CalArts' social media accounts. In her spare time, she writes about the Santa Clarita food scene at

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