July 22, 2010 — -- "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.
"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.
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.
In the meantime, sex sold. It built clubs and dressed bunnies and outraged feminists and conservative Christians alike, as the movie shows.
But in a certain way, the forces Playboy unleashed would go on to overtake the Playboy business model. Playboy lost $51 million last year in part because the Internet offers for free, content that is raunchier than what Playboy is trying to sell in the magazine and on pay TV channels.
Hefner said the proliferation of free, explicit sexual material on the Internet had affected his business.
"I think it's had a dramatic impact on Playboy, just as I think other things on the Internet have had a dramatic impact on print," he said. "On news, on newspapers, on magazines, on books. People get their information in different ways now. And we are a little poorer for it, because the way you get information affects what you learn. And one of the sad things, I think, about the younger generation, quite frankly, is they have less sense of yesterday. And if you don't know who you were, you don't really know who you are."
Hugh Hefner's Back Pages
Hefner keeps his yesterdays at the mansion in more than 2,000 scrapbooks. It's poignant to leaf through them with him, his recollections precise regardless of what page you turn to.
A club that isn't there anymore. On the next page, a girlfriend from years past. Much of what Hefner created is gone, now faded from popular memory like tuxes and cocktails and bunny clubs in big U.S. cities.
But Hefner is holding on to certain things, including control over the magazine that started it all. There's an interesting scene in the film where he talks about rejecting suggestions from younger editors that he make some big changes to the way the magazine is shaped.
Is it possible that he's wrong about those changes?
"I have very strong theories about magazine publishing," he said. "And I think that it is the most personal form of journalism. And I think that a magazine is an old friend. So what you try to create with the publication is a sense of a friend visiting with something new. So the structure of it is essentially the same. The centerfold is there in the same place, the party jokes are the same place, the interview has the same kind of iconic imagery. But theres always something fresh. So I think it is that combination that really makes the publication successful."
Another iconic image he cherishes is that of himself as the quintessential playboy. Notably, as he aged through the decades, the girlfriends never have. He says he was faithful during several years of a marriage in the 1980s and '90s, but after that he returned to the field, as documented in a globally popular reality show about a trio of girlfriends called "The Girls Next Door."
Hefner says the program's success shows he's still got game, business-wise.
"And it is more popular with women than it is with men," Hefner said. "And Playboy products, that rabbit, that trademark, is famous everywhere. Maybe other people are looking back a little bit, too. Maybe they want a little piece of the world that they missed."
So what was there then that's not here now?
"A little more style, a little more class, a little more romantic connection," Hefner said.
Does Hefner think we'll get back there?
"Some of us will."