Playboy-in-Chief Charts a New Course

PHOTO "Playboy was the magazine that tried to give sex a good name," said Hugh Hefner.

"Icon" is an overused word, but in some cases -- as with a certain, famous silhouetted bunny -- the term is heartily warranted.

And what's true for the Playboy bunny is true for the man who has been the face of Playboy enterprises for 57 years: Hugh Hefner.

Hefner, 84, hosted "Nightline" at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles recently to talk about his big plans -- and that doesn't mean retirement.

Hugh Hefner: Selling Sex
Hugh Hefner's Next Move

"I think that retirement is the first step towards the grave," Hefner said.

To the contrary, Hefner is right now on a mission to buy back all the shares of Playboy Enterprises still held by the public.

Like many in the publishing world, Playboy has fallen on hard times. The company's stock has plunged from a high in the low $30s a share in 1999 to just about $5 today. Magazine circulation peaked at more than 7 million in the early 1970s and now is at just one-and-a-half million.

Hefner seems confident that getting back total control will let him put the business back on the right path.

"The company in this particular economic climate is not being properly dealt with," Hefner said. "I mean, it's worth a good deal more than what it's being traded for.

'Recapturing My Youth'

Hefner wasn't sharing details. And he didn't comment on the fact that the company that owns Penthouse magazine is trying to buy Playboy, too. All Hefner would say was that "the greatest success of the company and the magazine was in the 1950s and '60s, when we were private. And maybe it's recapturing my youth."

So are his bygone days really what Hefner's after?

"I think that part of it, most certainly, is the fact that I just celebrated my 84th birthday and I'm thinking in terms of the future of the brand," Hefner said. "The future of the magazine, staying the course and making sure that it's going in the right direction and will be there long after I'm gone."

If these sound like the words of an old man looking forward by looking back -- well, Hefner has been looking back lately, courtesy of a documentary on his life, "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel," which is set to hit theaters this month.

Hugh Hefner: The Vintage Edge

A lot has changed since the late-'50s days of Hefner's first TV show, which began with an imaginary elevator ride taking you to the host's imaginary bachelor's pad. Inside were tuxes, cocktails and even people smoking cigarettes. It all has a vintage edge.

The most profound thing at the time was that Hefner showed blacks and whites socializing. He also booked black entertainers into the Playboy clubs, including a young Dick Gregory, who is prominent in the film.

The one-dimensional view most people have of Hefner -- that it's all about sex -- misses the point, said Brigitte Berman, the Oscar-winning documentarian who made the film.

"I saw that even though he was the playboy and [has] Playboy magazine ... there is a man who is so complex, has so many different sides -- sides that I have discovered and find are very important," said Berman. "His integrity is amazing."

Hefner was a leading liberal back when liberals were still leading. What he has always called a lifestyle magazine had an enormous impact on loosening sexual behavior. Hefner has been a campaigner for abortion rights and for freedom from censorship.

"People don't remember it," said Berman.

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