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Playboy founder Hugh Hefner's first true love was movies

'Everything I learned about love I learned from the movies,' he says.

January 04, 2009|Geoff Boucher

"You've caught me with my pants on," Hugh Hefner said with a sad smirk. There are days (or entire decades) when Hefner greets the midday sun in silk pajamas and a robe, but on this particular December afternoon, well, the playboy just wasn't in the mood.

Hefner had arrived back at his 29-room Holmby Hills mansion after attending the funeral of Bettie Page, the pin-up queen, and he was still wearing his mourner's jacket as he sat and slowly sipped from a bottle of Diet Pepsi in the hush of a downstairs library. Hefner considered Page a friend and fellow pioneer of sorts on the old frontier of American sex culture. Now, like so many others in Hefner's long journey, she is gone.

"We knew it was coming and there comes a point in the illness. . . ." His voice trailed off and then, adjusting his gold bunny cuff links, he smiled. "We're not really talking about Bettie Page here today."

No, but the legacy of desire -- as well as the desire for legacy -- are core concerns for Hefner these days. He has arguably never been more famous, but the glossy centerfold citadel of his empire, Playboy magazine, has struggled, and Hefner, 82, seems most at ease talking about the past and his consuming passion -- no, not that one. According to Hef, Hollywood was actually his first true obsession.

"Everything I learned about love, I learned from the movies," Hefner said. "The reality is because I was not shown affection, I escaped into an alternate universe, and it came right out of the movies. Love for me is defined almost exclusively in terms of romantic love as defined by the films of my childhood."

There's a strong chance that Hefner finally will see a version of himself as a child up on the screen; a long-elusive biographical film is ramping up and, according to Hefner, production could be underway in the next few months. Brian Grazer is the producer, Robert Downey Jr. is keenly interested in the starring role and Brett Ratner has been lined up to direct. Hefner, a devotee of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges, seemed uncertain about the "Rush Hour" auteur.

"It's going to be a very curious change of pace for him . . . but I believe in Brian," Hefner said. "The one thing I would want the film to be is something other than a light comedy, to have something to say and express something about the change in social sexual values. You know, Brian made a comment that I was the only man who had made love to over a thousand women and they all still liked him. And I do take some pride, in fact, that I remain friends with the majority of former wives and girlfriends. I am a romantic."

Perhaps, but this is the graceless age of Internet porn and Hefner's magazine has been receding. It celebrated its 55th anniversary in 2008 but, in an unfortunate coincidence, gave pink slips to 55 employees in October. If the glossy print life is stepping down, Hefner's lifelong fascination for film is moving up among his priorities. The biopic will be co-produced by Playboy's Alta Loma Entertainment, his production company, which is redoubling its efforts in Hollywood. The company was started in the '70s, and after years of making soft-core porn, was a limited partner in August's "The House Bunny," a racy but PG-13 farce that starred Anna Faris and Colin Hanks.

Alta Loma is following that up with the R-rated "Miss March," a comedy about a guy who wakes up from a coma to find his girlfriend as one of Hefner's playmates. It hits 2,000 theaters in March with Fox distributing. There's also talk of a live-action version of Little Annie Fanny, the air-headed and bubble-breasted Playboy comic-strip character created for Playboy in 1962 by Mad magazine alums Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder.

If it all sounds sophomoric, well . . . Hef, like his magazine, has a penchant for flipping between cartoon lewdness and lofty parlor-room pursuits.

Last month, a limo whisked him over to USC where, for the 13th year, he gave a lecture to a cinema censorship class that he seeded with a $100,000 donation. In 1995 he also gave $1.5 million to endow USC's Hugh M. Hefner Chair for the Study of American Film (held by film historian Richard B. Jewell). He has made major donations to UCLA as well -- $1 million in 2006 to the school's Film & Television Archive, establishing the Hugh M. Hefner American Film program. And according to Dick Rosenzweig, Hefner's longtime lieutenant who runs Alta Loma along with Jason Burns, the mogul has quietly funded a number of documentary productions and film preservation efforts. Hefner, who has a "Maltese Falcon" statuette and a bust of Boris Karloff in his bedroom, said all of it is a valentine to his youth.

"It's my way of trying to pass along some little part of it," he said. "Movies will never have the same impact that they did when I was a kid. I was fortunate to have been born in 1926 and to have grown up during the Great Depression and war years, to have lived through almost the perfect time frame. For me the boy really is the father of the man."

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