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Jewish actor Paul Reubens, known for his role as Pee-wee Herman, dies at 70

LOS ANGELES, California (AP) — Paul Reubens, the actor and comedian whose character Pee-wee Herman became a cultural phenomenon through films and TV shows, has died.

Reubens died Sunday night after a six-year struggle with cancer that he did not make public, his publicist said in a statement.

“Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years,” Reubens said in a statement released with the announcement of his death. “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.”

The character with his too-tight gray suit, white chunky loafers and red bow tie was best known for the film “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and the TV series “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”

Herman created Pee-wee when he was part of the Los Angeles improv group, The Groundlings, in the late 1970s. The live “Pee-wee Herman Show” debuted at a Los Angeles theater in 1981 and was a success with both kids during matinees and adults at a midnight show. HBO would air the show as a special.

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Reubens took Pee-wee to the big screen in 1985’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” The film, in which Pee-wee’s cherished bike is stolen, was said to be loosely based on Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neo-realist classic, “The Bicycle Thief.” The film, directed by Tim Burton and co-written by Phil Hartman of “Saturday Night Live,” sent Pee-wee on a nationwide escapade. The movie was a success, grossing $40 million, and continued to spawn a cult following for its oddball whimsy.

Paul Reubens, in character as Pee-wee Herman, poses on stage after a performance of ‘The Pee-wee Herman Show’ on Broadway in New York, October 29, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes, File)

A sequel followed three years later in the less well-received “Big Top Pee-wee,” in which Pee-wee seeks to join a circus. Reubens’ character would not get another movie starring role until 2016’s “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” for Netflix. Judd Apatow produced Pee-wee’s big-screen revival.

His television series, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” ran for five seasons, earned 22 Emmys and attracted not only children but adults to Saturday-morning TV.

Both silly and subversive and championing nonconformity, the Pee-wee universe was a trippy place, populated by things such as a talking armchair and a friendly pterodactyl. The host, who is fond of secret words and loves fruit salad so much he once married it, is prone to lines like, “I know you are, but what am I?” and “Why don’t you take a picture; it’ll last longer?” The act was a hit because it worked on multiple levels, even though Reubens insists that had not been the plan.

“It’s for kids,” Reubens told The Associated Press in 2010. “People have tried to get me for years to go, ‘It wasn’t really for kids, right?’ Even the original show was for kids. I always censored myself to have it be kid-friendly.

“The whole thing has been just a gut feeling from the beginning,” Reubens told the AP. “That’s all it ever is and I think always ever be. Much as people want me to dissect it and explain it, I can’t. One, I don’t know, and two, I don’t want to know, and three, I feel like I’ll hex myself if I know.”

Actor Paul Reubens participates in AOL’s BUILD Speaker Series to discuss his new film, ‘Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,’ at AOL Studios on March 25, 2016, in New York. (Andy Kropa/Invision/AP/File)

Reubens was born to Jewish parents, Judy and Milton Rubenfeld, in 1952. His father fought in World War II as a pilot for the Royal Air Force and the US Army, and later was one of the five founding pilots of the Israel Air Force during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.