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When Roddy McDowall Was Busted by the FBI for Pirating Films

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In a report dated July 22, 1975, the Federal Bureau of Investigation recorded the details behind one of the biggest raids of a pirated movie collection in the agency’s history. The previous December, agents had descended on an opulent home in North Hollywood and seized more than 160 film canisters and more than 1000 video cassettes from the garage, all unlawfully copied for use in private screenings. The Bureau estimated the collection to be worth more than $5 million.

After boxes of films were hauled out of the home and into FBI vehicles, the owner of the collection was interviewed. Rather than face serious charges, he agreed to inform investigators about how he acquired his library and who else he knew that might be in possession of similar goods.

The film Giant, starring James Dean, had been given to him by actor Rock Hudson; Arthur P. Jacobs, producer of the long-running Planet of the Apes film series, was another source. Other names were redacted in the FBI’s official document released to the public.

The source of this one-man analog pirate operation was Roddy McDowall, a former child star who gained notoriety for his portrayal of Cornelius and Caesar in the Apes franchise. And while his criminal record would remain clean, his willingness to out other celebrity movie collectors would come at considerable personal cost.

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Although the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has fought its biggest battles against copyright infringement in the age of broadband file-sharing, film piracy was a problem long before anyone was wired for internet access. In the 1920s, exhibitors tried to get away with cutting studios out of their share by screening films past the agreed-upon distribution windows; projectionists would sometimes make duplicate prints from originals, selling them for a profit. By the 1960s, consumer-use camcorders were being surreptitiously brought into theaters to point directly at the screen, a practice that endured for decades.

Fed up with the theft of their content, which may have cost them an estimated billion dollars in revenue annually, the studio-backed MPAA began a vigorous fight against infringement in the early 1970s. Bootleg sellers were cornered and litigated: if the government could prove they profited from the sale of a bootleg film—which could carry a price tag in the hundreds of dollars—fines and jail time were put on the table.

It’s possible the MPAA and the FBI didn’t stop to consider that some sizable collections would be found inside the industry’s own inner circle. But actors, producers, and studio personnel had something that conventional pirates had a difficult time accessing: original, high-quality prints of major studio films. Some would be loaned to talent for private screenings and then returned; others could be purchased outright, although never for duplication purposes.

In a written statement handed over to the FBI, McDowall said he had been collecting prints since the 1960s, when the actor had the money and means to begin acquiring personal copies of both his favorite films and those he had personally appeared in. The object, he explained, was to study the performances of other actors and to guard against the possibility that some might wind up being lost to neglect or age. The latter was not an unfounded fear: studios had been notoriously negligent in film preservation in the early part of the century.

McDowall eventually ended up with some 337 different films, many of which he transferred to cassette for easier storage and in the belief they might be better preserved that way. (Since his collection predates the mid-1970s introductions of VHS and Betamax, it’s possible he used Sony’s U-Matic magnetic tape technology, an expensive early format that never caught on with the general public.)

When McDowall grew tired of a certain film, he would sell it to a fellow collector, generally for whatever price he recalled paying for it in the first place. Three unnamed films, he wrote, once cost him a total of $705. He specifically recalled wanting to own Escape from the Planet of the Apes so that he could have a copy of his character’s death scene: 20th Century Fox offered to sell him prints of the Apes series along with How Green Was My Valley. Unhappy with the quality, he declined.

Instead, the FBI raid found films like My Friend Flicka, Lassie Come Home, and hundreds of others. Rather than face criminal penalties, McDowall told authorities that singer Mel Torme, actor Dick Martin, and Rock Hudson were known to be collectors. He also had business dealings with Ray Atherton, a high-profile bootlegger the government had been targeting for some time. His disclosure of those contacts probably saved McDowall from being the first celebrity movie pirate to be charged with a crime.


For the MPAA, the resulting seizure of McDowall’s collection—the FBI never named its tipster, or what led them to McDowall—was significant. In their game of criminal investigation, a well-known party acted like a warning flare to other pirates. Media coverage of McDowall’s incident forced bootleggers to burrow further underground, driving up the prices for films.

The FBI didn’t pursue Hudson or any of the other parties McDowall named; the big fish was Atherton, who was charged but had his conviction overturned in 1977. Roughly 20 other dealers were indicted, with several convicted of conspiracy; the court proceedings were sometimes livened by the appearance of celebrities like Gene Hackman, who testified on behalf of the government to drive home the economic impact of pirated films.

Only a few short years later, the Supreme Court would rule that videotaping movies and television using home cassette recorders was not copyright infringement—so long as it was used for noncommercial purposes. The decision angered the MPAA, which saw the home video industry as a major threat to box office receipts. Later, they'd profit handsomely from sales of videocassettes.

It was too late for McDowall. While he escaped any criminal trouble, his reputation in the industry reportedly took a hit because of his willingness to point his finger at his fellow collectors. According to a friend, McDowall was considered a “rat” and was so crestfallen by the incident that he stopped screening films in his home, his garage empty of the films he had spent well over a decade compiling. They remained the property of the FBI.

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Sam Adams
Sam Adams's New $200 Beer Might Be Illegal in Your State
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Sam Adams

If you don’t have a high tolerance, Sam Adams’s latest beer could be more of a conversation piece than anything you want to imbibe. That is, if you can even get ahold of the $200 brew at all. The 2017 release of Utopias, the beer maker's biennial barrel-aged specialty, has a staggering 28 percent alcohol-by-volume (ABV) content—making it illegal in some places in the U.S.

According to Thrillist, Utopias’s unusually high ABV makes it unwelcome in 12 states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, both North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, and Washington. While a typical beer is between 4 and 7 percent ABV, your average distilled spirit can be 40 percent ABV (also known as 80 proof) or more. So what's the big deal with a 28 percent ABV drink? It turns out, those states have laws limiting the strength of beer, many of them holdovers from the end of Prohibition. Sorry, Alabama beer obsessives.

Assuming you’re legally able to buy a bottle of Utopias, what can you expect? Sam Adams says it has flavors reminiscent of "dark fruit, subtle sweetness, and a deep rich malty smoothness," but the beer won’t be bubbly, according to Fortune, since at that level, the alcohol devours any CO2. You should think of it more as a fine liquor or cognac than a craft beer. And you should pour it accordingly, Sam Adams recommends, in 1-ounce servings.

The 2017 Utopias run will be limited to 13,000 bottles. The brew goes on sale for $200 in early December.

[h/t Thrillist]

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New York City Will Now Allow You to Dance Without a License
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In New York City, there’s a tricky law on the books that requires any business serving food or drinks to acquire what’s known as a Cabaret License in order to allow customers to dance. The mandate stems from a 1926 policy introduced by then-mayor Jimmy Walker to help curb what some residents believed to be “altogether too much running wild” in the Jazz Age clubs of the era. (It's also possible that the law was meant to prevent interracial coupling.) City officials have regularly enforced the law during the proceeding century, with some clubs even cutting off music—or switching to country—when inspectors arrived unannounced.

Now, it appears the outdated restriction has come to an end. According to The New York Times, Brooklyn councilman Rafael Espinal has introduced a bill expected to pass Tuesday that will forever end any and all comparisons to the 1984 Kevin Bacon film Footloose. The repeal comes on the heels of concerns that the prohibition pushes people into attending "underground" dance clubs that exceed (or ignore) fire department capacity limits.

While Espinal is convinced he has the necessary votes to move forward, several proprietors have attempted to challenge the law over the years. In 2014, bar owner and attorney Andrew Muchmore filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court claiming that the restriction was outdated and obtaining the license was a laborious process. To approve an application, the city’s Department of Consumer affairs has to verify a venue has security cameras and owners have to attend regular board conferences. The cost of the license can range from $300 to $1000, depending on the area’s capacity and, for some unfathomable reason, whether it’s an even or odd year.

Espinal's efforts and anticipated success getting rid of the Cabaret Law will cap 91 years of illicit dancing within the city limits. Just don't get too cozy with your partner: thanks to another antiquated regulation, you can still be fined $25 for flirting.


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