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Hugh Hefner: ‘American Playboy’ Producer Reveals 7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Icon

The new 10-part Amazon Prime docu-series chronicles the Playboy founder's six decades in the spotlight.


“American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story”

Rodelio Astudillo

Hugh Hefner has amassed 2,900 personal scrapbooks over the years – which not only constitutes a Guinness World Record, but helped form much of the basis for Amazon Prime’s new docu-series “American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story.”

The 10-part series also combs through thousands of hours of footage from Hefner’s and Playboy’s archives to tell the story of the entrepreneur, starting with the launch of Playboy magazine in 1953. From there, “American Playboy” shines a particular light on Hefner’s advocacy for civil rights, gay rights, freedom of speech and sexual freedom.

READ MORE: ‘American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story’ Announced: Amazon Unveils Docuseries Chronicling The Millionaire’s Empire

Among the interviewees on “American Playboy”: Jesse Jackson, Gene Simmons and Bill Maher. The series also includes reenactments of pivotal moments in Hefner’s life.

Stephen David Entertainment (“The Men Who Built America,” “The Making of the Mob”) produced “American Playboy,” along with Playboy’s Alta Loma Entertainment production company. IndieWire asked executive producer David to recount some of the things he learned about Hefner while putting together the series; here’s his list, below.


“American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story”

Matt Klitscher

1. ‘Playboy’ Almost Wasn’t Called ‘Playboy’

Hefner planned on calling his magazine “Stag Party” until a men’s adventure magazine called “Stag” caught wind and threatened to sue him. During a brainstorming session, his friend Eldon Sellers remembered that his mother had once worked for a car company called “Playboy.” The name was a perfect fit, combining fun and class.

Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner holds a copy of the magazine and a video cassette from the Playboy Channel, an all-night cable television venture Playboy Enterprises has undertaken, during an interview at the Playboy mansion in the Holmby Hills, Los Angeles, CalifHugh Hefner Los Angeles 1982, Los Angeles, USA

Hugh Hefner in 1982

Nick Ut/AP/REX/Shutterstock

2. Hef Launched Playboy After a $5 Argument

Before he launched Playboy, Hefner was working as a copywriter at Esquire Magazine, but he was already dissatisfied with how tame Esquire had become when he started working there. Then, the Esquire brass informed Hef that they’d be moving offices to New York. Hef requested a $5 raise to cover his moving costs, but Esquire refused and Hefner quit… inspiring him to create Playboy. Within a few years, Playboy would surpass Esquire’s circulation.

3. The Iconic Marilyn Monroe Picture Was a Steal

Hefner needed to find the perfect covergirl for the first issue, but he was dissatisfied with the nude photos that were available from calendar companies. As he was searching, Hef happened to read a newspaper article about a local Chicago calendar company that owned the rights to nude photos of Marilyn Monroe that she had posed for five years earlier, before she was famous. Everyone knew these photos existed, but very few people had ever seen them. Hefner took a drive to this calendar company and was able to purchase the rights to the photos for $500. Apparently, the owner couldn’t see a way to make any additional money off the photos on his own.


“American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story”

Matt Klitscher

4. The First Playmate Wasn’t a Model

For the first year of Playboy’s existence, the Playmates of the Month were simply calendar girls that Hefner had purchased the rights to. But once Playboy decided to begin taking its own photographs, Hefner had the idea of using one of the women who worked in his office as a centerfold. Charmaine Karalus was Playboy’s subscription manager and Hefner asked her if she would pose for the July 1955 issue. Although she was initially hesitant, she eventually agreed under the condition that her real name not be used. Hefner came up with the alias Janet Pilgrim, a reference to America’s puritanical beginnings that Hefner was determined to fight. Janet became Playboy’s most popular Playmate to date, and started the trend of ‘The girl next door.’ The out-of-focus man in a tuxedo in the background of Janet’s picture is Hefner himself, the only time he’s ever been in a centerfold.

READ MORE: ‘American Playboy’ Trailer: Amazon’s Docuseries Explores Hugh Hefner’s Life and Empire — Watch

5. Hef Helped Break the TV Race Barrier

In the fall of 1959, Hefner created a television variety show called “Playboy’s Penthouse.” The concept was for Hefner to invite viewers into his ‘apartment,’ where he and an assortment of guests including comedians, actors, musicians and Playmates would all mingle and listen to music. But when Southern TV stations learned that jazz legends Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald were to be guests on the premiere episode, they threatened to drop the broadcast – because segregation laws at the time prohibited showing whites and blacks socializing together. Hefner refused to cave in to their demands and the episodes aired as planned with Nat and Ella as guests, but the Southern stations refused to air it.

6. Hef is a Guinness World Record Holder

In his iconic Playboy Mansion, Hef maintains a collection of over 2,900 scrapbooks, making him an official Guinness world record holder for his collection. Hef also holds the Guinness World Record for being the longest-running Editor-in-Chief of a magazine in history (64 years and counting).


Hugh Hefner in 1964


7. Hef Designed the Bunny Costume Himself

Hefner came up with the key final touches for the famous Bunny costume, adding the bow tie, shirt collar and cuffs himself. The design is so iconic, it’s in the Smithsonian.

“American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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