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It's Hugh Hefner, to the Rescue

The Playboy publisher has been active in saving films, especially ones he enjoyed in his youth.

July 25, 2002|SORINA DIACONESCU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When he was a small boy growing up in Chicago in the '30s, Hugh Hefner loved two things above all: horror and mystery movies.

"King Kong" and Sherlock Holmes fascinated him. His favorite actor was Boris Karloff, who portrayed Dr. Frankenstein's mangled creation--a monstrous protagonist with a sad slit for a mouth--in a series of 1930s pictures. Such was young Hefner's ardor for all things of mystery and horror that he began pouring it in a penny newspaper he circulated among the neighborhood kids.

"Movies were my escape into the dreams and fantasies of what might be," the 76-year-old founder of Playboy magazine said recently. His own life has unfolded more like a luminous old Hollywood musical than a shadowy thriller, but the debonair-about-town and entrepreneur extraordinaire still has a soft spot for the B-grade favorites of his childhood.

Which explains why, for the past couple of decades, Hefner has funneled funds into the restoration of cinematic relics from Hollywood's golden era.

Thanks to his money gifts, the original nitrate negatives of six Sherlock Holmes films, and a dozen other hard-boiled detective movies and American musicals from the 1920s and the 1930s, have been plucked out of studio vaults. The films are hardly forgotten masterpieces; rather, Saturday matinee movies that might be lost otherwise. To Hefner, they are a beloved link to times past.

"In this latter part of my life, this connection has become increasingly important, because it's a time of reflection, a time of looking back, a time of giving back," he said during an interview at his Holmby Hills manse.

Leaning forward from the edge of a raspberry and khaki couch in his study, Hefner reminisced about his infatuation with films as a child. "In the movies you found love," he said. "It was a fantasy form of love, it was a romantic love, but it was ... my dream."

His face was lined, but youthful insouciance still glowed in his eyes. He wore a sangria-red silk robe with casual aplomb. Around him, several mahogany-trimmed bookcases were lined with decades' worth of yearly editions of the Motion Picture Guide, suggesting the hunger for cinematic detail of a movie aficionado.

The talk turned again to his bond with the movies he rescued, among them three Dr. Fu Manchu pictures. "When I got a library card in eighth grade, the first book that I ever took out of the library was 'The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu,' " Hefner said. Ever since, he has been partial to the cinematic adventures of the fearsome Chinese surgeon.

The campy Asian character first carried out his vengeful mission against the Western aggressors who killed his family during the Boxer Rebellion, in a series of turn-of-the-century pulp novels by British writer Sax Rohmer. He later migrated to the screen, where Manchu was played by Warner Oland in three talking films released by Paramount Pictures between 1929 and 1931: "Daughter of the Dragon" "The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu," and "The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu."

Until he reached his teens, Hefner was not allowed to watch horror movies, so perhaps it's not a surprise he was fascinated by those. "And the horror movies in the 1930s, of course, were not slasher films," he said. "They were these classic things--'King Kong,' which is still one of my all-time favorite films, and 'Frankenstein,' and 'Dracula.' "

Since 1987, when Hefner first began collaborating on film restoration projects with the UCLA Archive, he has helped rescue 19 and has contributed just shy of $900,000, said Tim Kittleson, the archive's director.

Hefner has often remarked that movies are the medium that best captures the quintessential vitality of the American spirit. "The dreams," he said raising his voice with theatrical intensity, "what we think of as the American Dream, are really definitions that have particularly come out of those wonderful films from the '30s and '40s. Films by Capra and by John Ford [have] defined the stereotypical American character, the best of who we aspire to be, our sense of personal freedom. And it is the part of America that the rest of the world loves."

In the past Hefner has also financed "a couple of very good documentaries," as he put it, about the original "It" screen siren, Clara Bow, and Frances Marion, one of the earliest female screenwriters.

"To me it's not a business, so the preservation of films is primarily a raising of consciousness among the general public of the need to save movies," Hefner said. But there are brand-new projects waiting in the wings too.

As of late, the man who produced Roman Polanski's "Macbeth" in the '70s and was the first to unleash upon American audiences the zany, Dadaist antics of Britain's legendary comedy troupe Monty Python has fresh plans for cinematic action.

Not long ago he founded Alta Loma Productions, a company dedicated to non-Playboy film and television projects. Stan Lee approached him with an idea for a cartoon feature starring him and the Playboy bunnies as superheroines. "Kind of campy, you know: bunnies by day, crime fighters by night," Hefner said with a big grin.

A film biography of his life is also in the works, with producing duo Ron Howard and Brian Grazer attached to the project. The story is pure cinematic gold: The suave tycoon who cuts a good figure with women excels at business to the chagrin and admiration of fellow men. The trailblazer who mellows out into a gentleman of considerable stature and--ahem--a certain age, and turns to philanthropy. Except--who could ever rise up to the task of portraying Hef on screen?

"In the olden days it would have been Jimmy Stewart," suggested the man himself. "Today? I'm not sure."

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