As cutbacks continue to change for the worse the print newspapers and magazines we grew up with, here’s a changing of the guard that hits close to home for me. Stephen Randall, the longtime Deputy Editor and 34-year veteran of Playboy magazine, is out. He has a title, editor-at-large, but that seems ceremonial, and for Hollywood this is significant because it ends his 25-year run as editor of The Playboy Interview. He has steered that important venue since December 1990 and Jay Leno.
I am not objective here: I have been lucky enough to write maybe two dozen of these lengthy Q&As for Randall, covering just about all of the actors and directors I wanted to have long conversations with. I’m still on the masthead as a Contributing Editor, though I haven’t done one since I sat with Ben Affleck for the magazine’s 60th anniversary issue. Co-running Deadline is too time consuming, and I’ve moved the longform interviews here. But this will come as a wallop to many. Randall had the trust of the gatekeeper publicists who expose their clients to sit-downs, hoping they’ll get a fair shake and be allowed to reveal themselves in a format that allowed for thoughtful, serious conversation. It gives me pause to wonder about the future of an iconic magazine feature in a world obsessed not by longform articles but the ADD click-bait gotcha stuff that seems so prized in the digital age.
Nobody was commenting for the record, but I’m told that The Playboy Interview will carry on — exec editor Jason Buhrmester will take it over starting with the March issue — but I’m concerned, as this move is just part of a significant overhaul of a magazine that once had more than 7 million subscribers and now has about 750,000. Playboy is going to change, maybe even — gasp! — down to eliminating the nudity that has been a staple since Hugh Hefner launched it in 1953 with nude pictures of Marilyn Monroe. The overhaul is being instituted by Rizvi Traverse, the entity that bought and later sold the Hollywood talent agency ICM, with the mandate to align Playboy’s print and digital businesses. Randall’s exit closely follows that of Jimmy Jellinek, who was Editorial Director and Chief Content Officer and left a few weeks ago.
I was probably the only guy in my college dorm who read the articles in Playboy, and The Playboy Interview seemed like a dream job for a journalist. My chance at actually doing one came when I wrote the Dish column for Daily Variety. Robert Downey Jr was being treated as a media punching bag for his drug problems, and a New York gossip column claimed he’d been spotted drinking at Skybar. That would have been a probation violation, so it was significant. I was always a fan of Downey’s work, and when I found out the reporter had mistaken the actor for someone else because Downey was away making a movie, I wrote that not only wasn’t he in a state of inebriation, Downey wasn’t even in the state of California, and I disputed the idea it should be OK to pile on a talented actor because he’d lost the handle on his personal life. Turned out Playboy badly wanted Downey right then, and though I’d never met him, the actor and his publicist Alan Nierob said fine, if this guy (me) does it. From Chicago, where he was shooting U.S. Marshals, Downey gave a spectacularly honest and unfiltered depiction of what it was like to be a prodigy actor with a raging drug problem, sparing no detail at a time he hoped he had put that life behind him. My biggest contribution was making sure the tape recorder was on, but it got me in the door. That led to wonderful encounters with everyone from Quentin Tarantino (twice) to Downey (again, long after he’d become Iron Man and put those problems in his rearview mirror), Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Harrison Ford, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Kevin Spacey, Dwayne Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, Hugh Jackman and many others, often in exotic places like Prague or Sydney. In the process, Randall taught me everything about how to conduct an interview worthy of that magazine, lessons I brought to Deadline in pieces with Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, William Friedkin, Woody Allen and others.
Even as its circulation suffered along with the newsstand sales of every magazine, Playboy under Randall continued to score the biggest names in showbiz, media, business and academia — most recently including Dick Cheney, Bill Gates, John Mayer, Oliver Stone, Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Bernie Sanders and Ai Weiwei. He also has edited pieces from the likes of Ken Kesey, Betty Friedan, Ray Bradbury, Camille Paglia, EL Doctorow, Jimmy Breslin and George Lois. Randall will finish a book he’s writing for HarperCollins, and I’m just going to hope he finds his way and that the magazine in his absence resists the temptation to render extinct something important, in the elusive chase for younger readers.