See Pee-wee Herman Now at 70

Paul Reubens has been playing the character he created for over 40 years.

You may not immediately recognize the name Paul Reubens, but you are undoubtedly familiar with his alter-ego, Pee-wee Herman. Created by Reubens during his days as an improv comedian in the early 1980s, the besuited eternal manchild, whose infectious innocence and over-the-top demeanor appealed to both kids and adults with an appreciation for camp, eventually spun off into a stage show, an HBO special, a 15-time Emmy-winning children's program, three big screen movies, and pop culture immortality.

Off of the screen and out of the iconic gray suit, Reubens' life hasn't always been so sunny—but though his career as an entertainer was nearly derailed by two sex scandals, his legacy endures. Keep reading to learn what happened to him after Pee-wee's Playhouse ended in 1990, and see him now, at age 70.

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His career was derailed by controversy.

Pee-wee Herman performing in 1984
Paul Natkin/WireImage

At the height of his fame as Pee-wee, Reubens' career was nearly undone by an incident in July 1991. The performer was arrested in an adult movie theater in Sarasota, Florida by an undercover policeman and charged with indecent behavior.

Almost overnight, reruns of Pee-wee's Playhouse were pulled from television—though the show had already ended production, the arrest led CBS to take it out of syndication—and toy stores removed Pee-wee dolls from the shelves. After pleading no contest to the charges, Rubens was sentenced to community service, but the damage to his reputation was done. He became a punchline on late night talk shows, and despite support from celebrities like Cyndi Lauper (who performed the Playhouse theme song) and the public, the actor and comedian retreated from the public eye, refusing to talk about his arrest in interviews.

He staged a comeback as a character actor.

Paul Reubens in 1999
Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

Throughout the '90s, Reubens kept a low profile while continuing to act in small roles in films including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Batman Returns, Matilda, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. He garnered critical acclaim for a recurring role on the hit sitcom Murphy Brown, in which he played secretary to Candice Bergen's titular journalist. Reubens appeared in six episodes and was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in 1995.

Toward the end of the decade, he appeared to emerge from under the cloud of the scandal, landing a role in the 1999 superhero spoof Mystery Men and going on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno to promote the film. In 2001, he hosted the short-lived game show You Don't Know Jack and earned praise for playing a flamboyant drug dealer in the crime drama Blow, starring Johnny Depp.

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He was arrested a second time.

Paul Reubens in 2004
Mychal Watts/WireImage for IDPR

Just as his career appeared to be recovering, Reubens was again arrested in 2002 and charged with misdemeanor possession of obscene material, which the actor insisted were simply a few mis-characterized images pulled from his large collection of vintage erotica and bodybuilding magazines. He pleaded guilty but maintained that the material was harmless.

"I wasn't really thinking to myself, wow this is my creepy, weird stuff that I shouldn't be collecting. It's not titillating," he told NBC News in 2004. "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's continued to work steadily in television.

Paul Reubens in 2016
D Dipasupil/FilmMagic

Despite his troubles with the law, Reubens kept on working, appearing throughout the 2000s in guest roles in shows including Reno 911!, 30 Rock, Pushing Daisies, The Blacklist, and Dirt.

He has also become a regular voiceover performer, voicing characters in The Smurfs films and, on television, in Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Adventure Time, Kung-Fu Panda, Star Wars Rebels, American Dad, Voltron, and others. He has also contributed his voice to video games like Minecraft and Call of Duty.

His most recent television appearances include roles on Gotham, The Conners, and What We Do in the Shadows plus stints on Celebrity Family Feud and Celebrity Wheel of Fortune.

He returned to play Pee-wee on the stage and screen.

Though Pee-wee was an icon of the '80s, Reubens has never quite left him behind. After his legal troubles were in the rearview mirror by the mid-'00s, he began discussing plans to revive the character in a third feature film, as the original series began airing in reruns on Cartoon Network and found a new audience on DVD.

Before a movie could happen, however, Pee-wee returned to when he first began: the stage. In 2009, Reubens relaunched The Pee-wee Herman Show in Los Angeles, and the next year, the production moved to Broadway for a limited run. One of the performances was recorded for posterity and aired on HBO—just as the original stage show had some three decades earlier.

In 2015, Netflix finally released that new film, Pee-wee's Big Holiday, a road movie adventure co-written by Reubens and produced by Judd Apatow. Despite the character's long absence from the screen, the film was warmly received by critics, earning a score of 80% on Rotten Tomatoes. "I tried to…be evocative of [Pee-wee's Big Adventure], be influenced by it in some way," Reubens told ScreenCrush. "But both Paul Rust, the co-writer, and I tried really hard not to copy anything and not make it seem like a retread."

Joel Cunningham
Joel Cunningham is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. Read more
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