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.

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 (not exactly the movie-lover gift idea one might expect, either).

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.

This article was originally published in 2017 and has been updated.