Bow-tied man-child Pee-wee Herman was huge during the 1980s, the subject of two feature films as well as an Emmy-winning children’s TV series. But the public perception of both the character and the man behind him changed drastically in 1991. During a visit with his parents in Sarasota, Florida, Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure at an adult movie theater, with sheriff’s deputies claiming that they spotted him masturbating during the movie. The actor, 38 at the time, pleaded no contest and agreed to take part in a new anti-drug campaign to avoid a trial on the misdemeanor charge. Pee-wee toys were pulled from shelves across the nation, and Reubens retreated from the public eye entirely, disappearing for the remainder of the ’90s.
His attempted comeback at the turn of the century was quickly thwarted when more charges of a sexual nature were brought against him, this time relating to child pornography. Acting on a tip, officers seized thousands of items from a collection of vintage gay erotica, and while Reubens has always denied he owned any sexual images of children, the tatters of his reputation went up in flames.
It took another decade before Reubens dared return to the character, which he did successfully in 2016, starring in critically acclaimed Netflix film Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. The positive response to his comeback is scant consolation for a man who spent most of his career in hiding because of a few very bad decisions.