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Photography by John Russo

Playing the Playboy

by Andrew C. Stone | Men's Book Chicago magazine | August 24, 2011

Be it 1963 or 2011, people have always been fascinated by the concept of liberation. We’re simply hard-wired to crave freedom, despite the many forces within and outside of ourselves that attempt to corral us. This fall, NBC plays to our yen for broken rules with The Playboy Club, an hour-long drama set inside Hugh Hefner’s original Chicago hotspot of the same name. Bunnies strut, wise guys loosen their ties, songbirds croon, and at the center of it all is attorney Nick Dalton, an original “Keyholder,” played by Eddie Cibrian (The Cave, Northern Lights; TV’s CSI: Miami, Chase). “That era, right out of the ’50s, was a really conservative time,” says Cibrian. “When Hefner started the magazine and the Playboy Club, it was a revolution. People wanted to break free of those constraints and try to figure out where they stood on love and feelings.”

Indeed, 116 E. Walton Street was the most popular nightclub in the world. The Playboy Club’s skimpy costumes, smoky atmosphere and throwback sets faithfully recreate the scene as a noir-ish feast for the eyes. Meanwhile, creator Chad Hodge and director Alan Taylor keep the interactions slick and the pace snappy. While Mad Men has made the ’60s cool, don’t expect any carbon copies of Don Draper here. “The only similarity is that we’re set in the same era,” says Cibrian. “This is a different world. I think of this as the place where the execs from Mad Men would come to unwind.”

Not lost on The Playboy Club is the fact that, back then in Chicago, it wasn’t about “mad men” so much as “made men”—and the city’s notorious mobsters regularly palled around with executives. Not surprisingly, Chicago’s most infamous constituents were drawn to the club’s glitz. “Chicago was corrupt at that time,” says Cibrain. “The politicians were crooked; so were some businessmen. And of course, there was the prominent mob factor. We’re going to explore all of those worlds. As an actor, I get to play a character who seems, on the surface, to have everything. He’s a successful attorney and an original Keyholder. But you come to find out he has a past with the mob and used to do things he’s not too proud of. There are so many shades of gray there, which makes it really challenging and fun.”

The mob element isn’t just a Hollywood plotline, either, says Cibrian. “The mob did try to come in and take a piece of the business, but Hefner wouldn’t let it happen,” he says. “They still wanted to be a part of it, though, because all the A-list actors and musicians would unwind there. They wanted to mingle with the celebrities.” Mobsters, and every other man with a reputation to uphold, wanted more than anything to possess a key to the club. “To actually call yourself a Keyholder was a social status you wanted to have,” says Cibrian. “Not everyone could have it, and it could be taken away at any time.”

To get in a swinging mood for scenes, Cibrian and his costars—Amber Heard, Naturi Naughton, Laura Benanti, David Krumholtz, Jenna Dewan, and Leah Renee—let costumes, hair and makeup transport them back a few decades. “It helps a lot,” he says. “When you’re all done up, you naturally fall back into that era. Meanwhile, every extra in every scene has a cigarette in their hand. There was even a consultant for the actresses, who taught them how to carry a tray and do a ‘bunny dip.’” What’s a bunny dip, you ask? Imagine a skillful maneuver that allows ladies to serve drinks and keep their revealing costumes in place.

Cibrian insists he channeled no one in particular for inspiration, though he does admit that one blue-eyed legend of the day had real swagger. “For that era, it’s all about Paul Newman,” he says. “All the girls wanted to be with him and all the guys wanted to hang out with him. He’s just a real man’s man.” At the same time, Cibrian has great respect for the man of the hour, Hugh Hefner. In late spring, Cibrian and the cast met Hef, who has supported the show enthusiastically ever since viewing the pilot. “He’s still going strong,” says Cibrian. “He’s accomplished so much. Whatever he’s eating and drinking, it’s working.”

While Cibrian hadn’t spent any time in Chicago before filming the pilot, he immediately took to the Windy City. The cast and crew were given the royal treatment at Girl and the Goat, and the locals’ Midwestern manners won over this California boy. “The people are so nice,” he says. “It’s a little cold in the winter, but that’s OK. I’m looking forward to the music festivals. I’m also a big boat guy, so I’d love to rent a boat and take it out.”

The one downside to shooting on location, says Cibrian, is being away from his two sons from his first marriage and his new wife, singer LeAnn Rimes. “That was a big, big deal for me,” he says. “It’s a difficult transition. I approached the issue with the producers, though, and they’re doing their best to give me three-day weekends. I’ll just work my ass off, get on a plane, see the family, then fly back and do it all again. It’s a sacrifice I have to make.”

It’s also one he knows he’d better get used to. The Playboy Club has the makings of a smash. Cibrian takes such predictions with a grain of salt, though. “You could be talking about the worst show ever and when it airs it’s the number-one show for 10 years,” he says. “Or it could be critically considered the best and no one watches it. I prefer to stay cautiously optimistic.”

A pragmatic perspective for sure. But from the looks of these Bunnies and bad guys, viewers are bound to get hooked.