Tragic Details About Pee-Wee Herman Star Paul Reubens

As his beloved character Pee-wee Herman, Paul Reubens reached a huge viewership, returning to the role in "Pee-wee's Big Holiday" in 2016. Appearances in everything from "The Conners" to "What We Do in the Shadows" kept Reubens on our screens, but behind the scenes, the actor was dealing with a devastating diagnosis. And in his personal life, the entertainer found himself facing several serious legal battles and personal struggles.

In an interview with NBC News in 2004, Reubens opened up about his most famous character, saying, "I always viewed Pee-wee Herman as somebody with a really good heart, but like, you know didn't have a clue about a lot of things. Somebody who was truly naive and was trying to do the best he could do, but it didn't always come out like that."

Although his Pee-wee Herman character was cheerful and childlike, the tragic details of Paul Reubens' life, both in the spotlight and behind the scenes, were anything but.

He was arrested for allegedly masturbating in an adult movie theater in 1991

In July 1991, fans of Paul Reubens were shocked when the entertainer was arrested for allegedly masturbating in an adult movie theater in Sarasota, Florida, per The New York Times. Three-and-a-half months later, Reubens was in court over the affair, which brought even more attention to the embarrassing misdemeanor. In November 1991, the actor pleaded no contest to charges of indecent exposure. To avoid the case going any further, Reubens also agreed to dedicate himself to at least 75 hours of community service, in which he would make an anti-drug tape to be broadcast on TV and in schools, and he also had to pay a $50 fine and court costs of $85.75. Reubens' lawyer, Richard E. Gerstein, told The New York Times, "No experience like this has a positive impact on anyone, but this was an excellent resolution, very fair and very reasonable." 

In 2004, the Pee-wee Herman star spoke to NBC News about his career-ending arrest and denied that he'd actually been masturbating in the adult movie theater. "I maintained at the time that it didn't happen and I maintain that still," he said. As for the impact the entire thing had on the actor, Reubens told the publication, "It was kind of like a mortifying kind of situation, where I felt like you know people are laughing at me."

He was charged in a child porn probe in 2002

Less than a decade after he was arrested for allegedly masturbating in an adult movie theater, Paul Reubens found himself in trouble with the law once again. In November 2002, Reubens was arrested and charged "with misdemeanor possession of obscene material improperly depicting a child," per the Los Angeles Times. According to the publication, investigators had seized Reubens' computer and his art collection, which allegedly included some inappropriate erotic images. At the time, Reubens' attorney, Blair Berk, denied the allegations on behalf of his client, saying, "[Reubens] has never at any time knowingly possessed any artwork from his extensive vintage and antique art collection even remotely related to anything improper." 

Two years later, Reubens pleaded guilty to possessing obscene material and was sentenced to three years probation, per Reuters. The child pornography charges against him were dropped. In 2004, Reubens opened up to NBC News are the case, saying, "The moment that I realized my name was going to be said in the same sentence as children and sex, that's really intense. 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." 

He had a falling out with Phil Hartman

Paul Reubens and Phil Hartman met when they joined the Groundlings, the famous improvisational comedy theater. Hartman would go on to have an illustrious career as a cast member of "Saturday Night Live," and appearing in everything from "Seinfeld" to "The Simpsons." However, their friendship eventually turned sour, with Reubens claiming that Hartman wasn't really a fan of the Pee-wee Herman persona, despite having co-written "Pee-wee's Big Adventure." In an interview with Westword, Reubens claimed, "Phil was very frustrated by that. He thought I was ... squandering my talent." 

Reubens often spoke passionately about their friendship, telling Westword, "Phil and I collaborated for years ... We worked together on a lot of stuff ... We were going to go out and rule the world." It's clear that Reubens had a lot of love for Hartman, even if they didn't always see eye to eye. Tragically, Hartman was killed by his wife, Brynn Omdahl, in a murder-suicide in 1998.

He cared for his father before his death

Paul Reubens' father, Milton Rubenfeld, died of cancer on February 21, 2004 at the age of 84. Reubens, in fact, had spent a period of two years living in Florida and caring for his father throughout his illness, retreating from the spotlight to prioritize family. This couldn't have been an easy time for the "Mystery Men" star, but it was seemingly important for the actor to support his father.

Reubens' dad was a celebrated veteran who had served with both Britain's Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces. The actor told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, "My father didn't like to talk about his many accomplishments ... In 1948, he and a small group of Americans helped establish the state of Israel and form the Israeli Air Force. Israel honored him for his heroism and leadership and his plane was preserved and displayed outside the airport in Tel Aviv with a plaque bearing his name."

Paul Reuben's cancer diagnosis and death

Following his father's death from cancer in 2004, Paul Reubens faced his own cancer diagnosis. The "Gotham" actor decided to keep his condition a secret from his fans, something he would later apologize for. Reubens died on July 30, 2023, and a post-humous statement was released via his Instagram page. "Please accept my apology for not going public with what I've been facing the last six years," Reubens wrote. "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." Many were understandably shocked by the sudden news, and emotional tributes from celebs and fans poured in for the sometimes troubled star.

Reubens' Instagram page revealed the news of his death, writing, "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 spite of his legal battles and personal challenges, Reubens' fanbase seemingly stood in solidarity with the star until the end.