When Oscar-awarding winning director Brigitte Berman and her late husband, Victor Solnicki, were touring university campuses to promote their documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, one recurring reaction stood out.
"One thing that was always commented on and everyone wanted to know more about were those TV shows," Berman says over the phone from her home city of Toronto. "It really struck us that this was one of the biggest things people were interested in."
Younger Canadians in particular might not know that Playboy produced two short-lived, but groundbreaking TV shows in the late '50s and early '70s.
The first was called Playboy's Penthouse, and it ran two seasons from 1959 to 1960. The second was Playboy After Dark, which ran from '69 to '71.
Both were similar in format, with Hefner as host at an intimate party featuring a range of celebrities. But the noteworthy element of the program was that it featured black and white people onscreen together—a taboo at the time that got the shows banned in the Southern U.S.
"I was struck by the fact that very few people knew about what Victor and I used to call 'the other side of Hugh Hefner,' which, in many ways is the bigger side," Berman says. "The reason he did those television shows (was because) he wanted people to speak out in those times. These people were not allowed to be on the air—black people and white people—mixed. He's always been one to break down taboos and that's what I liked so much about him. He stuck his neck out and did so many things."
On top of defying rules around race at the time, Hefner also encouraged his celebrity guests—who included everyone from Sammy Davis Jr. to Fleetwood Mac and James Brown—to speak their mind on the social issues of the day.
In her latest film, Hugh Hefner's After Dark: Speaking Out in America, Berman focuses heavily on that angle.
"People who have seen (the film) are quite amazed at how relevant some of those discussions are to what's happening in the world today," Berman says.
She and her husband first became friends with Hefner after he reached out to the couple as a fan of Berman's film, Bix: 'Ain't None of Them Play like Him Yet, about the American jazz cornetist, pianist and composer Leon Bismark "Bix" Beiderbecke.
Hefner had liked the idea of Berman's latest film, but passed away in 2017 before he could see the finished product. "The last time I saw him was when I was at the mansion doing some research," she says. "I was telling him how well it was going. He had a big smile on his face and said, 'I can't wait to see it.' That was the last time I saw him."
It wasn't the only loss Berman had to endure while making the film. Solnicki passed away before its completion as well. It was a challenge to carry on with the production afterwards, she says.
"It was incredibly difficult. It took me a while to be able to pick up the pieces again. (Victor) was very political and he wanted (the film) to be very political. I'm not the most political person, but I had to keep that political line going very strongly—I had to do that for him," she says.
The other way she decided to honour her late husband was by giving the film its Canadian premiere at the Whistler Film Festival.
"We had gone to Whistler with the Hefner film nine years ago," Berman says. "My husband really loved the festival, so I knew he would applaud going back to have the Canadian premiere in Whistler. That's part of why I did that."
Hugh Hefner's After Dark: Speaking Out in America screens at the Whistler Film Festival on Friday, Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m. and again on Sunday, Dec. 2 at 11 a.m.
Berman will be in attendance for a Q&A session on Nov. 30.
For tickets or more information visit whistlerfilmfestival.com.