By Tyler Aquilina
February 10, 2021 at 07:57 PM EST
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Larry Flynt, the longtime publisher of Hustler who fought many high-profile legal battles over pornography and free speech, has died at 78.

Flynt's brother, Jimmy Flynt, confirmed his death to The New York Times, saying the publisher died of heart failure Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles.

Credit: Dan Tuffs/Getty Images

Flynt was memorably portrayed by Woody Harrelson in the 1996 film The People vs. Larry Flynt, which dramatized his rise to success and his legal battles with anti-pornography activists. Harrelson received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance; Flynt himself appeared in the film as a judge.

"The thing about Larry is, maybe he is a hillbilly and maybe he does a job that a lot of people don't respect, but you can't have more integrity than he has," Harrelson told EW in 2006. "To this day, I'm proud to call him my friend."

Credit: Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

Born into poverty in Kentucky in 1942, Flynt ran away from home and joined the Army at the age of 15, later serving in the Navy after a brief stint as a bootlegger. After his discharge, he opened the Hustler Club, the first of several go-go clubs he would run throughout Ohio. In 1972, Flynt published the first Hustler Newsletter, essentially an advertisement for his clubs, which he rebranded as a full-fledged magazine two years later.

Modest at first, sales of Hustler took off after Flynt published nude photos of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1975. The magazine would become known for its graphic content and inflammatory features and parodies, which would embroil Flynt in numerous lawsuits throughout the 1970s and '80s. Most famously, conservative televangelist Jerry Falwell sued Flynt in 1983 over a satirical ad depicting the pastor saying he had sex with his mother in an outhouse. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled in Flynt's favor.

In 1978, Flynt was shot in an assassination attempt outside an Atlanta courthouse, which left him with paralyzed legs and persistent pain for much of his life. White supremacist Joseph Paul Franklin later confessed to shooting Flynt, claiming he was outraged by interracial photos in Hustler. He was executed in 2013, which Flynt spoke out against at the time.

Indeed, Flynt was as outspoken about politics as pornography, publicly speaking out against the death penalty and the Iraq War, and in favor of LGBTQ rights. He unsuccessfully ran for president in 1984 and governor of California in 2003. Ever the provocateur, he offered a $10 million reward for evidence that would lead to President Donald Trump's impeachment in 2017.

He also positioned himself as an advocate for free speech, arguing passionately throughout his career that pornography was protected by the First Amendment. "The question is, am I a smut peddler or a First Amendment crusader?" Flynt told EW in 1996. "I'd say a little bit of both. Some people will always perceive me as a scoundrel with no taste, a dirty old man in the back room cranking out pornography. Others are my ardent fans… All I know is that the debate is never going to go away. Not in my lifetime, anyway."

Flynt was married five times, including to Althea Leasure, whom he met as a 17-year-old go-go dancer at one of his clubs. The two were longtime partners in business as well as their personal lives. Leasure died in 1987.

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