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When "Captain Midnight" Hacked HBO

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The credits were rolling on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure when John MacDougall decided he'd had enough. It was just after midnight on April 27, 1986, and the engineer for Central Florida Teleport had spent the evening transmitting programming to area cable stations. Alone in the office, MacDougall used his console to maneuver the 30-foot, $500,000 Teleport uplink transmitter dish so that it was pointing at the Galaxy 1 satellite hovering in orbit. He knew one of its transponders belonged to HBO’s east coast feed, and that it was scheduled to begin airing the 1985 Sean Penn conspiracy thriller The Falcon and the Snowman.

MacDougall had a personal message to deliver to the subscription channel. Like Penn’s character in the movie, he’d be accused of threatening national security in order to do it.

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When Home Box Office debuted in 1972, the premium channel transmitted its signal unscrambled. While cable subscribers were expected to pay to have the network “unlocked,” owners of backyard-mounted satellite dishes could receive it without incurring any surcharges.

It was that kind of unfiltered access that led to the growth of a small but loyal group of dish enthusiasts in the 1970s and 1980s. It was also what led MacDougall to open MacDougall Electronics in 1983, an Ocala, Florida satellite dish installation service. Like the CB radio hobbyists before them, dish owners enjoyed patching together their own systems and exchanging tips. They also enjoyed a virtually unlimited selection of channels from the growing cable industry, as well as regional affiliates from clear across the country. If you loved television, it was like having a master key.

Nothing about the operation was illegal, and there were enough people intimidated by the prospect of erecting a mini-NASA shrine in their yards to guarantee it would never be a serious threat to cable subscriptions. But HBO was still slightly peeved that consumers were able to access their service—which cost cable users $8.95 a month—for free. Worse, restaurant and hotel chains were able to use the dishes to grab the feed and distribute it to patrons or guests without paying HBO for commercial service.

Channel executives were so bothered by the workaround that they petitioned Congress to grant them the ability to scramble their signal in 1984. They succeeded, and by January 1985, they became the first pay-TV service to require a descrambler box for viewing.

Dish users were angry: They had been sold on the premise that the hassle of installing the expensive equipment would mean not having a cable bill, let alone the need for a $500 set-top box. Customers thinking of getting into the equipment were put off or confused by the additional steps needed. They’d also be paying $12.95 for HBO every month, $4 more than cable users.

MacDougall saw his satellite business decline drastically. It was the loss of income at his shop that led to him getting a second job at Central Florida Teleport, manning the satellite uplinks for cable providers. Left alone, and slightly embittered, he decided to take a jab at HBO.

There was no great mystery in locating HBO’s transponder. Coordinates were easily found in manuals and enthusiast magazines. What MacDougall had that most irate customers didn’t was the power of Teleport’s uplink system. Aiming it at Galaxy 1, a satellite owned by Hughes Communications and used by a variety of companies, MacDougall quickly sent up a test pattern and a typed message expressing frustration at HBO’s perceived greed. He signed it “Captain Midnight” after a popular radio serial character whose name was later adopted by auditory “pirates” who would interrupt radio broadcast signals.

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Satellite operators at HBO’s facility in Long Island looked at their monitors, confused. Starting at 125 watts, they steadily and incrementally increased their own signal to try and override the screen and restore The Falcon and the Snowman; MacDougall did the same. Both were trying to drown out the other with sheer power. When the duel reached 2000 watts, HBO gave up. Any higher and they risked damage to the satellite.

MacDougall kept his message on the screen for over four minutes, long enough to cause a crisis at HBO and at Hughes, who told the other they had no idea what was going on. Satisfied he had made his point, MacDougall ended his transmission and went home.

The next day, a frantic HBO huddled with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to discuss what all parties believed was a deliberate act of sabotage. The consequences went beyond interrupting feature films: The FCC had no policies or safeguards enacted to prevent dish owners from interfering with delicate transmissions, including government communication. Mother Jones posited that an amateur hobbyist could, in theory, hijack the same satellites that alerted military forces to Soviet actions, confusing world leaders and putting us on the precipice of nuclear annihilation.

It was a little—or a lot—of fear-mongering, but neither the FCC nor HBO was going to dismiss it as a prank. (Showtime’s then-vice president dubbed it an act of “video terrorism.”) While several attention-seeking people called in to “confess” to being Captain Midnight in the days following the incident, the FCC realized that the signal likely came from an uplink facility with licensed transmitters, narrowing it to a field of 2000 locations. From there, only 580 had a large enough antenna. Of those, less than 100 used the particular kind of typeface seen in the hacked screen’s message, and even fewer used the specific equipment needed to compose it.

Central Florida Teleport was on the short list. Within a few weeks, MacDougall was getting visits from the FCC and a U.S. attorney. Captain Midnight had been cornered.

In July, MacDougall was approached as a person of interest. He confessed and pled guilty in exchange for a year’s probation and a $5000 fine. The alternative was to fight the charge (of illegally operating a satellite uplink transmitter, even though he had a radio license) in court, with a potential loss of $100,000 in fines if he lost. The plea made sense for both parties: The FCC was less interested in prosecuting MacDougall than in learning how he did it.

World War III never did break out as a result of interrupted satellite signals. The FCC placed stronger safeguards, including station identification, to better track communications. MacDougall, meanwhile, was able to fend off the giant-dish downturn and get his footing with the advent of the mini-dish industry, and his business is still in operation today.

HBO was never targeted again, though it wasn’t quite the end of hijacked transmissions. In November 1987, a Chicago station had their local news interrupted by a man in a Max Headroom mask dancing in front of the camera. Later that night, the same individual took over a PBS affiliate and mooned the audience. He was never found.

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25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life
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Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


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By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


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Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


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Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


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Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds. “I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format … He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

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Listen to What Darth Vader Sounded Like On the Star Wars Set
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The voice of Darth Vader, provided by James Earl Jones, is one of the most iconic aspects of the original Star Wars movies. But James Earl Jones wasn't the actor wearing that outfit—it was British actor David Prowse, who was cast in part because he was huge (reportedly 6'5" and a former body-building champion).

George Lucas always intended to replace Prowse's voice, but it's still a bit of a shock to hear a muffled British voice coming out of Darth Vader's helmet. Here's video showing what Darth Vader sounded like on the set before James Earl Jones re-recorded the dialogue.

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