Legendary — and oft-controversial — actor Paul Reubens, most famous for his Pee-wee Herman character, has died at age 70 after a private battle with cancer.
“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,” a statement on his official Instagram account read.
While well known for that iconic role, he’s also remembered for several sex scandals, including his infamous 1991 arrest for indecent exposure at a Florida porn house, as well as allegations in a child pornography case.
According to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, in 1991, detectives went to the XXX South Trail Cinema to observe the audience for a triple bill of “Catalina Five-O,” “Tiger Shark, Nurse Nancy” and “Turn Up the Heat.”
The officers hauled in three men — including Reubens — on charges of violating Florida State Statute 800.03 (Exposure of Sexual Organs) in the dark theater.
The star allegedly offered to perform a children’s benefit for the sheriff’s office if the charges were dropped; however, a department spokesman at the time said that the deputies did not feel that they had enough probable cause to charge him with attempted bribery.
“Well, obviously I wasn’t thinking. You know?” said Reubens — whose character was featured in various iterations including “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” — in a 2004 interview with NBC News.
“I certainly wasn’t thinking to myself you’re a children’s show host. Your show is still on television. I wasn’t making those lists. I felt like they were insinuating like, well, I was sitting in, you know, a darkened movie theater, in my Pee-Wee suit … That didn’t seem like a crime to me. It didn’t seem like anyone’s business but my own.”
In the wake of his arrest, on July 29 of 1991, CBS announced that it was pulling reruns of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” and Disney-MGM Studios in Florida suspended a tape of Pee-wee’s voice from its studio tour narration.
Toys ‘R’ Us also removed Pee-wee toys from stores.
In a move that may now seem ironic, Bill Cosby was among the celebrities who defended Reubens at the time: “Whatever [Reubens has] done, this is being blown all out of proportion,” Cosby said.
Cyndi Lauper — who voiced the “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” theme song — also said that it was a “victimless occurrence.”
“It was kind of like a mortifying kind of situation, where I felt like, you know, people are laughing at me,” Reubens told NBC News. “I’m a professional comedian. I’ve never claimed to be able to take it as good as I dish it out, ever. I mean, I’m just sensitive.”
Reubens told Vanity Fair that following that arrest, while he never “contemplated anything like suicide, I see how one could.”
Then, in 2002, Reubens was charged with possessing images that were initially characterized as child porn.
On Nov. 16, 2001, police searched Reuben’s home in the Hollywood Hills. They seized boxes of materials that his spokesperson characterized as “vintage erotica.”
Blair Berk, Reubens’ lawyer, said the charges were “untrue and without merit,” and Reubens’ publicist, Kelly Bush, said the “handful of images” came from more than 10,000 vintage magazines seized from the actor’s home, some of which were three decades old.
The charges were dropped in 2004 when he pleaded guilty to a lesser obscenity charge.
At the same time, his friend Jeffrey Jones (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) was charged with possession of child pornography and a felony count of employing a minor for purposes of taking explicit photos.
The charges against the actors came from an investigation that police said began a year prior to the arrests, with accusations from a 17-year-old boy.
“The moment that I realized my name was going to be said in the same sentence as children and sex, that’s really intense,” said Reubens.
“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.”
Before his charges were dropped, Reubens’ lawyer had determined that a tape seized from another case had been included in the evidence against Reubens.
He was fined $100, receiving three years probation and agreeing to register as a sex offender.
“I am glad the prosecutors finally dismissed the child pornography charge without me or the taxpayers having to pay for a costly circus-like trial,” Reubens said in a statement.
“I am disappointed any part of my art collection was ever deemed inappropriate. Taking responsibility by calling a few images in this collection ‘obscene,’ and paying a $100 fine seemed like the sanest way to make it end.”
In 2004, he told NBC News, “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,” he continued.
“I probably have become more infamous from two misdemeanors than probably anyone I could think of.”
In announcing his passing on Monday, the Instagram post included a quote from Reubens that was to be shared with his fans 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,” it read. “I have loved you all so much and enjoyed making art for you.”