Nobody took more notes than Hef.
From the time Hugh Hefner launched Playboy magazine in the early 1950s through the social unrest and the sexual revolution of the 1960s, through the disco 1970s and beyond, Hef was the world’s foremost scrapbooker.
“My father took notes and kept film and video footage of everything,” Hef’s son Cooper told me on a recent visit to the Chicago.
Cooper Hefner, 25, is the chief creative officer of Playboy. (Cooper’s mother, Kimberly Conrad, was the 1989 Playmate of the Year.) He talks about his father in reverent tones and speaks at great length about his commitment to the causes his father fought for over the decades, from racial equality to gay rights to freedom of speech.
Also, nudity. The nudity is coming back. Last year Playboy stopped featuring naked women in its pages. Cooper Hefner terms that decision a “mistake.” The March/April 2017 issue brings back the nudity.
Hefner’s comment about his father keeping records of “everything” is only a slight overstatement. Hef’s personal archives number more than 17,000 hours of video footage and more than 2,600 scrapbooks — material all made available to the makers of “American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story,” an Amazon docu-series premiering April 7th.
(I can attest to Hefner’s obsessive attention to record-keeping. In the late 1990s I attended an event for Hefner, and he told me he enjoyed a Sun-Times piece I had written a few about years earlier about Playboy — and inquired whether he could get a printed copy of said article for his scrapbooks.)
I’ve seen three episodes of the 10-part miniseries, and it makes for fascinating viewing — though the choice to have an actor portray a younger Hefner in numerous dramatic re-creations veers toward the cheesy side at times.
A New Zealand actor named Matt Whelan, who bears a passing resemblance to Hefner, clamps down on his pipe while perusing photos of Playmate candidates; hops into bed with various girlfriends and casual flings; stands trial on obscenity charges, and speaks directly to us.
“I’m Hugh Hefner,” says the actor who is not Hugh Hefner. “You may think you know all about me … the magazine, the parties, the women. But you don’t know the half of it.”
Whelan’s actually not half-bad (he does a fine job of capturing Hefner’s nearly flat, Chicago-tinged speaking style), but the re-enactments aren’t as compelling as the photos and footage of the real Hefner and the life he lived in the second half of the 20th century. If you’ve got all that archival material at your disposal, do you really need to jazz it up with dramatic re-creations?
“American Playboy” features plenty of nudity and frank discussion of the goings-on at the Playboy Mansions, first in Chicago and then in California, but in the episodes I viewed, there was at least as much focus on Hefner’s role as a social justice crusader and his willingness to give a voice to Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Lenny Bruce, Muhammad Ali and scores of other figures from the worlds of politics, sports and entertainment.
Nor does the series shy away from controversies and setbacks, from the bribery scandal tied to the building of the New York City Playboy Club to Hefner’s arrest on obscenity charges to a federal drug probe in the 1970s.
Still, the overall tone is that of an authorized biography. Hugh Hefner always wanted to be remembered as more than just the founder of arguably the most famous men’s magazine of the 20th century, and “American Playboy” clearly advocates for his place in history as a difference maker.
All 10 episodes of “American Playboy” become available Friday to Amazon Prime members. Others may watch the first episode free through April 13 at playboy.com/americanplayboy and, for Amazon customers, at amazon.com/americanplayboy.