Hugh Hefner and Playboy in Film and Television

We’ve already written (from a somewhat negative perspective) on the legacy of Hugh Hefner (1926-2017). Today, we thought we’d balance the picture out some, with a look in particular at his innovative work in the field of film and television.

Hefner was a disgruntled copywriter from the men’s magazine Esquire, who left to found Playboy in 1953. The very first issue featured nude photographs of Marilyn Monroe and the cultural battle was on. When Hefner entered the scene, nudie material was considered smut: vice squads arrested photographers, publishers, editors, film-makers, writers and other creatives associated with pornography. Hefner made life difficult for puritanical types by putting out a magazine with just a very small amount of “tasteful” nudity, creating a situation where criminal arrest would look like overreach and persecution, paving the way for more adventuresome entrepreneurs in later decades who could exploit his precedent. Hefner pushed the envelope just enough that he could titillate the public, get attention and sell magazines, while also staying out of courtrooms. One exception came a decade after founding his magazine, when he was busted for some naughty pictures of Jayne Mansfield, naked, in bed with a man.

Above all, Hefner was a genius of branding, extending it far beyond the reach of his magazine. He founded a chain of Playboy Clubs, where his scantilly clad Playboy Bunnies waited on tables of oafish, drunken businessmen. His house was branded the Playboy Mansion, where he held crazy parties full of celebrities. And this became the model for his two television talk/variety shows.

The first was the syndicated program Playboy’s Penthouse (1959-61). The show was shot on a set made up to look like Hefner’s swinging apartment, with celebrity guests, surounded by countless models from his magazine and bunnies from his clubs. He comissioned Cy Coleman to write the show’s theme song! The concept was a party. The guests would engage in conversation, and then (if they were a comedian, singer or musician) perform. This iteration of Hefner’s showed featured such notable guests as Lenny Bruce, Joe E. Lewis, Jack E. Leonard, Bob Newhart, Joey Adams, Larry Storch, Sammy Davis Jr, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Josh White, Stan Kenton, Vic Damone, Anita O’Day et al.

Hefner hosted the show himself, helping to establish his famous faux-suave, pipe smoking persona. It seems to me that Hefner’s “look” influenced that of Dan Rowan of Rowan and Martin, and the show’s party atmosphere influenced that of Laugh-In. Later, Hefner was in demand as a guest on other people’s talk shows like The Tonight Show under both Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, as well as the shows of Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, and others. It all went towards building up Hefner’s cultural legitimacy.

In 1965, Bob Guccione would start a racier magazine than Hefner’s and dub it Penthouse, almost in mockery of his rival.

In 1969, Hefner launched a new version of his variety show, now called Playboy After Dark. The format of this show was very much like that of the earlier program, though after that decade of change, the atmosphere was a bit wilder. Playboy’s Penthouse had a jazz, beatnik vibe. The new show still retained some of that, but now also had more folk and rock acts like the Byrds and the Grateful Dead. Man, what a “happenin’ scene”! Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr, Anthony Newley! Actually there were scores of noteworthy guests on this iteration of the show, too many to list here.

Both of Hefner’s shows, in addition to being sexually progressive, were racially progressive for their time. The productions were completely integrated, showing blacks and whites mixing socially in a matter of fact way that was groundbreaking. (As an interesting sidelight, in 1966 assigned Alex Haley to interview American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell in prison! A stunt, but one most of us can relish). Hefner is also often credited as the guy who discovered Dick Gregory.

Broadway After Dark continued for two seasons. After that, Hefner continued to produce the occasional network TV special, in his last years bushels full of advertorial documentary programs about his models, developed as programming for his cable network The Playboy Channel, established in 1982.

Interestingly, Hefner also executive produced several documentaries about silent film actresses, such as Mary Pickford: A Life on Film (1997), Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu (1998), Clara Bow: Discovering the It Girl (1999), Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood (2000), Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies (2001), Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart (2003), The Woman with the Hungry Eyes (2006, about Theda Bara) and the posthumous Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018). There was also Rita (2003, about Rita Hayworth), Why be Good? Sexuality and Censorship in Early Cinema (2007), and The Girls in the Band (2011, about all girl swing bands). Was this body of work to atone for the sexism we criticized here?

Hefner was also a backer and supporter of the important work our friend Ron Hutchinson did with the Vitaphone Project.

Hefner also dabbled in producing narrative films by, with and for his Hollywood friends. These included Monty Python’s And Now for Something Completely Different (1971), Roman Polanski’s MacBeth (1971, interesting given that Sharon Tate had been a guest on Playboy After Dark. The scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is fictional though), The Third Girl from the Left (1973), The Crazy World of Julius Vrooder (1973), and Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack (1974).

To learn more about variety entertainment, including television variety shows like Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy After Dark, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,