The new Amazon series American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story begins with a court case. In 1963, Hugh Hefner, the founder and editor of Playboy, based in Chicago at the time, was charged with violating the city’s obscenity laws. Hefner, 37, had been running the men’s magazine for 10 years. A re-creation of the actual events depicts a local judge taking Hefner to task for publishing nude photos and ends with Hefner’s defense lawyer posing a question: “Mr. Hefner, why did you start Playboy?”
This question courses throughout American Playboy, premiering on April 7. The 10-episode docuseries explores how Playboy, and Hefner himself, walked the line between sexual exploitation and liberation in the 1950s and ’60s. A mix of reenactments, first-person voiceovers, personal archives, and interviews with the women who surrounded Hefner, American Playboy presents an intimate portrait of the industry icon—as a father, philanderer, boss, and advocate for social change.
“The show goes deep into character in a way that it feels like you’re watching a drama,” says Stephen David, one of the executive producers. “You look at [Playboy] today and you’re like, ‘Oh, he was exploiting women.’ But that wasn’t what was going on in his mind. It was actually about freedom.”
American Playboy is not a doe-eyed tribute to Hefner’s legacy. Through archival interviews, Hefner—who was involved in the creation of the series—discusses everything from his sexual relationship with his secretary in Playboy’s office to the magazine’s role as a cultural platform for 1960s civil rights leaders.
Instead of taking sides, the series offers a robust picture of a complicated figure. “I never felt that it was my job to say whether he was right or wrong,” David says. “It’s to tell the story.”