To many, Paul Reubens inhabited the childlike, innocent world of his bowtied alter-ego Pee-wee Herman. But privately, Reubens lived with a decades-long smoking addiction that he worked hard to keep hidden from his young fans.
A Smoke-Filled Introduction to Paul Reubens
Reubens smoked cigarettes regularly for over 20 years. By his own admission, he was consuming up to two packs per day during the height of his fame as Pee-wee in the 1980s.
"I‘ve been a heavy smoker all my adult life," Reubens told Playboy magazine in 1991 after kicking his two pack a day habit.
Reubens first picked up smoking as a teenager in the 1960s. As an aspiring comedian and actor in the 1970s LA scene, he was surrounded by plenty of smoking influences.
"Everyone I knew smoked heavily in those days – I smoked, my girlfriend smoked, my friends all smoked around me," Reubens revealed. "I didn‘t even think much about it."
But how did this heavy smoker reconcile his habit with his increasingly high-profile status as a children‘s television icon?
Protecting Pee-wee‘s Image
When Pee-wee‘s Playhouse premiered in 1986, Reubens made a deliberate choice to hide his smoking from his youngest fans.
"I always portrayed this innocent character, and I didn‘t want to appear as a smoker in front of children," he later explained.
He went to elaborate lengths to keep his smoking private, even when dressed as Pee-wee during public appearances. Reubens employed security personnel to make sure kids didn‘t catch a glimpse of him with a cigarette.
"My guards knew that if any children were around, they were to subtly take the cigarette out of my hand," Reubens said.
Colleague Lynne Marie Stewart, who frequently collaborated with Reubens, recalls how seriously he took this policy:
"Paul made it very clear – he would not sign autographs or take pictures with kids if he had a cigarette. He didn‘t want them to see this vice."
Growing Pressure to Quit
During the 1980s, public awareness campaigns around the dangers of smoking were on the rise. Did Reubens feel pressure to kick his habit and set a better example as a children‘s icon?
In one interview, he admitted feeling increasing societal disapproval of his smoking:
"In the 80s, suddenly everybody was pointing out my smoking. I could feel the negative judgment of it from others in my industry."
Yet through it all, Reubens remained a committed smoker for over twenty years.
The Turning Point – 1991 Arrest
Reubens‘ secret smoking life came crashing down in 1991 when he was infamously arrested in Florida for indecent exposure.
This scandal was a wake-up call. Reubens realized he needed to get his life on a healthier path. He credits the arrest as the motivation he needed to finally quit cigarettes.
"That was my rock bottom. The next day, I threw my cigarettes in the trash. I knew I had to make some changes," Reubens later said.
Living with the Damage
Though he kicked the habit in 1991, Reubens was saddled with the long-term effects of being a smoker for twenty-plus years.
In the 2000s, he started having respiratory issues and frequent pneumonia. Then in 2015, at age 63, Reubens was diagnosed with lung cancer.
"I had smoked heavily for so long. It finally caught up to me," he reflected.
Reubens overcame lung cancer after chemotherapy and surgery. But the smoking-related damage to his lungs remained.
In 2023, a second bout of cancer proved too much for Reubens‘ body to overcome. He passed away at age 71 with his cause of death listed as acute hypoxic respiratory failure – a direct consequence of his decades of cigarette use.
Reflecting on a Pop Culture Legacy
The loss of Paul Reubens is a tragedy – his talent, humor, and creativity brought joy to so many over his long career. His creation Pee-wee Herman remains one of the most indelible pop culture figures of the 1980s.
Yet Reubens‘ long struggle with smoking addiction also shows the sinister grip nicotine can have on even the most creative, inspired minds.
As a society, we must do more to prevent smoking and vaping addictions from taking root, especially among young people looking to emulate their favorite public figures.
Paul Reubens left behind a proud legacy of entertainment – but also a sobering lesson on the impacts of smoking.