I'M NOT QUITE ready to declare Hugh Hefner the new Betty White, but for an 85-year-old guy who spends most of the day in his PJs, he's having an interesting year:
* In January, the Playboy founder took his struggling company private, decades after giving up financial control of the empire that now includes a nearly 60-year-old magazine, Playboy TV and other adult entertainment properties and a licensing division responsible for seeing that Playboy gets paid every time its iconic bunny logo gets slapped on another T-shirt or tchotchke.
* In May, NBC announced that its fall lineup would include "The Playboy Club," a drama set in the 1960s inside the Chicago nightclub that launched a worldwide chain - one Hefner's now attempting to revive, with new Playboy clubs having recently opened in Las Vegas and London. Hefner narrates the first episode and will be represented in the series, which premieres Sept. 19, by an actor shown only from the back.
* In July, Hefner's sex life - or what might or might not remain of it - made headlines everywhere from TMZ.com to the Times of India, after his six-decades-younger bride-to-be, Crystal Harris, who'd jilted him a few days before their much-hyped wedding, told Howard Stern's radio listeners that sex between her and Hef lasted "like two seconds," happened only once and that she'd never seen the Playboy mogul naked.
Later, she'd apologize, saying Stern had rattled her, and the former couple's brief war of words on Twitter grabbed still more headlines.
* Hefner, for whom E!'s "reality" show "The Girls Next Door" has acted like Viagra on his public image, also helped Lifetime turn its planned program on his wedding into "Hef's Runaway Bride," a July 19 special in which he got to appear both wistful and philosophical inside the mansion while Harris - whose interview about what went wrong appears to have been conducted on the grounds of the same house she'd so recently fled - came off as the heavy.
Which, if you think about it too long, is only going to make your head hurt.
Ten days after that bit of theater aired, I found myself strolling the Playboy Mansion grounds in Los Angeles' Holmby Hills - talk about words I never expected to write - trying to figure out why so many have been intrigued for so long by a place that looks like a cross between a children's zoo and the setting for a slightly upscale miniature golf course.
Sure, the peacocks were lovely, the monkeys a curiosity. But a room packed with arcade games looked as if it might have been transported from a summer camp, and a different sort of game room nearby - with a padded floor, conveniently placed boxes of tissues and a surprising number of electrical outlets - seemed, well, retro-creepy.
Ducking inside the infamous grotto, I tried not to touch anything, or breathe too deeply, reminded by other visitors that the hot tub had been implicated in a suspected outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in February.
The man of the mansion was represented only by a life-size cardboard cutout at the party, hosted by Playboy TV for visiting TV critics. But then Tuesday's said to be Hefner's game night (we're apparently talking Uno, not strip poker) and how could professional couch potatoes hope to compete with card-playing Playmates?
One person who was present in the flesh: self-proclaimed supermodel and "reality" show regular Janice Dickinson, buttonholing reporters to talk up her participation in Playboy TV's "Celebrity Sex Tales," a gig she said she took because her 17-year-old daughter has her eyes on Harvard.
"It's a bunch of women talking to me about my fabulous life," with the particularly fabulous bits re-created in animation, said Dickinson, who'll be dishing about a past that includes actors Sylvester Stallone, Jack Nicholson and Liam Neeson. "It's really interesting, for the average woman to hear about, the racy stuff that I've done in my past, when I was single, and the men were single."
The fifty-something Dickinson said she hadn't been to Hef's house since her early days as a model, but thinks she understands the continuing appeal of Playboy.
"Girls hopping around with ears and breasts hanging out, with their little cotton tails," she said.
"Young girls flirting with old men. You know, when the Playboy Club first opened back in the ['60s], it was a big sensation. Hugh Hefner has done everything to revolutionize sex, you know, sex for housewives . . . I have this huge, leather-bound book cover that has every Playmate and the cover of every centerfold, I bought that for my son when he was 18, I figured that'd be a nice coffee table book. It represents sex."
But does Playboy still represent sex?
Online pornography long ago made the magazine's nude pictorials seem curiously quaint, to the point where most of the people still buying it probably are reading it for the articles. In 1972, its circulation peaked at 7.1 million. Last October, it was reported to be 1.5 million.
As for Hefner, whose airbrushed Playmates promise a fantasy of pore-free perfection, in embracing "reality" TV, he's not only made it evident that being one of his "girlfriends" is at least as much a real job as being Donald Trump's "apprentice," he's also helped pull back the curtain on just what's involved in producing their cookie-cutter look, from waxing to hair extensions.
Do guys even want to know what it takes to assemble a Playmate? Maybe not.
"When E! put 'Girls Next Door' on the channel, I think they were expecting that would be a guy show. But it ended up not being so much. I think 70 percent of their viewing audience was women," said Playboy TV marketing exec Gary Rosenson during a press conference in January where he talked about his own channel's efforts to attract more women. (Why? Maybe because these days, it takes two incomes to pay the cable bill.)
Those efforts include "TV for 2" shows aimed at couples, including "Brooklyn Kinda Love," a "reality" show from the producers of HBO's "Taxicab Confessions" that followed four New York couples right into their bedrooms.
Pores and all.
That's not the kind of thing, of course, that we'll be seeing on "The Playboy Club," which NBC entertainment president Robert Greenblatt likes to describe as "an energized soap opera."
Greenblatt, who used to run Showtime, may resist comparisons to AMC's "Mad Men," but acknowledged that he probably wouldn't have been attracted to a show set in a contemporary Playboy Club.
"I think it's interesting to go back to the beginning," he said.
Greenblatt's take on our pop culture's continued fascination with Hefner:
"I just think he's a maverick and he has, you know, done so many extraordinary things - landing that magazine when he did, going through all those First Amendment issues, fighting for diversity in his companies and at the same time creating fantasy worlds. He's an interesting confluence of things that seem to be in opposition. But he's brought them together . . .
"I think the magazine's probably the least interesting aspect of the whole empire, because it's been around so long. But the reality show on E!, and he's actually bringing Playboy clubs back . . . I don't know, he just keeps on having another life, I guess."
And not surprisingly, it's a life feminist Gloria Steinem still can't appreciate.
"If I had made him up, they would hang me from the highest tree," she said of Hefner during a recent HBO press conference on a documentary, "Gloria: In Her Own Words," that included the iconic feminist's 1960s stint as an undercover Playboy Club bunny and the subsequent magazine piece in which she exposed some of the indignities suffered by the cotton-tailed waitresses.
Asked why she thought people would still be watching Hefner's antics on television, she replied:
"People watch train wrecks, too."