Sixty years ago, Hugh Hefner created one of the most recognizable brands in history. Now the story behind his empire will be told in an unprecedented way. The iconic Playboy publisher, who first rose to fame with what he thought would be a one-off men’s magazine in 1953, is the subject of Amazon’s provocative new docu-series American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story. But this isn’t just a bunny tale.
The glossy, 10-part series spans six decades and features interviews with Hefner and his children, Christie and Cooper, as well as celebrity friends, telling the story of the magazine magnate’s early years and digging deep into Playboy’s history from its 1953 inception to the present day. Matt Whelan (Go Girl, Narcos) portrays Hefner in reenactment scenes.
With producers having a veritable gold mine of archives to pore over — they were given full access to more than 2,500 of Hefner’s personal scrapbooks as well as 17,000 hours of interviews from the Playboy archives — more than a year was spent on research alone. And it’s no surprise that Hefner was heavily involved in the process of documenting his life, because he has been documenting his life for, well, his whole life.
“He’s been scrapbooking since he was in high school,” American Playboy executive producer Stephen David tells Yahoo TV. “He holds the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most scrapbooks, but he’s been tracking his life since he was in high school. At the mansion, he basically has what would equal a presidential library.”
“When you talk about a scrapbook, each one of those scrapbooks is hundreds of pages, really thick,” David continues. “And within those scrapbooks, there are pictures and articles and things he’s written down and things on napkins. So it was a lot of research. Even now, there’s an area in that room where he sits, and I believe it’s every Saturday morning he still is sitting down and putting together scrapbooks.”
The research process was ongoing throughout production of American Playboy, with a hands-on Hef going through every scene to help producers nail the nitty-gritty details of his colorful life story.
“Hef was involved in the entire process,” David says. “From the outline, he went through every script and gave notes; he went through every single cut and gave notes. Because we were telling the story from his point of view, which is fairly difficult in the first place, and he’s the only one that actually lived this life.”
David says nothing was off-limits; Hefner was an open book about both the good and not-so-good things that have happened in his life.
“He is not a person that’s hiding things,” David says. “He’s very open about his life. He does want you to tell the truth, even if the truth is bad. For instance, we didn’t know about… he was addicted to Dexedrine for a long time. We really didn’t know about that, and there’s a part about that in the show. And it went on for years, and that’s how we found out all of those details, it was him personally telling us.”
Even more daunting than the research was finding an actor to play Hefner in the series’ many reenactment scenes.
“It was pretty difficult, actually,” David reveals. “We looked all over the world to find somebody. Hefner, especially when he was younger, he kind of had a unique look. So finding somebody who had the look but also felt like him legitimately and also had the same voice was pretty difficult.”
Producers hit the jackpot with Matt Whelan, a New Zealand actor with the dark good looks of a young, pre-smoking-jacketed Hef. Whelan tells us he tried not to think about the fact that he was portraying one of the most famous men in the world.
“In a way, it was intimidating, but I never really stopped to think about that; I didn’t want to freak myself out about it,” Whelan admits. “But it was a really fun experience to step into those shoes for five and a half weeks and to explore his life and try and portray him as well as I could. And of course, there was so much research material, there was so much to watch on him. I had a great time poring through all the videos online and trying to get down some of those mannerisms and the speech pattern and just kind of the essence of who he was.”
Whelan says the most challenging part of the role was to not “overly play a character” and to just do Hef justice. “I wanted to portray him as closely as possible as to people would recognize him,” the actor explains. “But that kind of fine line of not overdoing it… I didn’t want him to become like a caricature or anything.”
The fast-paced shoot included a full day at the Playboy Mansion, where Whelan also had the opportunity to meet the man he was portraying.
“We shot one day at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, which was an amazing experience,” Whelan says. “Swimming in the pool, shooting a scene in the Grotto, shooting inside in the Great Hall and out front by the fountain. It was incredible. And halfway through the day, they mentioned that he was keen to meet me. And so I went upstairs and I hung out with him for a little while, him and Cooper, and, yeah, we had a good chat. And he was a gentleman, and he had a great sense of humor; he was really on to it and charming. It was quite an amazing experience after playing this man for five and a half weeks and after learning about his incredible life, like all facets of it. Finally getting to actually meet the man himself was pretty surreal.”
While most people already know at least some of the Playboy empire founder’s backstory, even producers were surprised by Hefner’s humble start in the magazine world. The original idea, for a magazine called Stag Party, came during a powwow at Hef’s kitchen table a year after the young father quit his job as a copywriter at Esquire.
“It started at his kitchen table with him having an idea,” David says. “He had no money. He was scraping together money, and he was really just trying to put together one issue of a magazine just to try to live out a dream of putting together a magazine. It’s like for a normal person, it’s like starting something out of your garage.”
Hefner was so unsure of Playboy’s chances for success that he didn’t even put a date on the first issue. But with the era’s biggest star Marilyn Monroe on the cover, the magazine quickly sold out and a bona fide business was born.
Watch an exclusive sneak peek from American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story:
Still, not everything came easy for the publishing icon. American Playboy viewers may be surprised to learn of Hefner’s history as a social-justice advocate and passionate defender of civil rights.
“I really believe that’s something people at this point don’t really know about him,” David says. “He really was at the forefront of all of those issues. And I think he was dealing with those issues himself from the beginning of the magazine with freedom of the press, freedom of speech, but he was always pushing for freedom, is what we find. And his feeling was, this is America and people should be free to do what they want no matter who they are. You see that as a story throughout, and he helped with breaking those barriers by what he did with his TV show, who he interviewed in the magazine, who he published in articles, and excerpts of books he published in the magazine.”
Whelan admits that while he knew about the Playboy brand, he had no idea about the struggles Hefner went through from the conception of the magazine to what it is today.
“It’s incredible that it’s still to this day as successful as it is and that it’s the most recognizable brand in the world,” the actor says. “So many things in his life, just the struggles he went through, the amount of times he was called to the courts just to keep his life’s work alive.”
Whether you’re a Playboy fan or not, there’s no denying that they don’t make ’em like Hugh Hefner anymore — and probably never will again.
“I think this is the only person that we will ever see like this in the world,” David says. “Because whether you agree with him or not — and as were making the show it’s not like we’re saying he’s right or he’s wrong; we’re telling the story — I think that this is one person you could point to that’s sort of ground zero of the sexual revolution. I don’t know if anyone will ever exist like him again.”
American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story premieres April 7 on Amazon. The first episode will be available free on Playboy.com April 7 through April 13.