In the 1970s, hardcore adult films exploded across Times Square like a forest fire – and the pornification of theaters contributed to a palpable increase in crime levels.
What could the cops to do stop this? They could bust the theaters, but the cinema operators would typically just pay a fine and re-open the following day. For the already beleaguered forces of law and order, it was a demoralizing and losing battle.
Then, in 1976, a department of the New York Police Department (NYPD) came up with a novel idea: what if they made their own porn movie, and used it to infiltrate the shadowy alliances and organizations that were behind the theaters and distribution networks?
It was almost a case of – if can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
The result was an unprecedented undercover law enforcement operation – that was as secret as it was comical in its ineptitude – and a nationwide scandal that erupted when it was leaked to the newspapers.
In this Rialto Report, we speak to two of the main players in the saga: Robert Quinn, the NYPD cop who shot the film, and Michelle Lake, the adult film actress who performed in it. Both interviewees were happy to share their stories, but requested that we do not use real names or include personal photos of them.
New York in the 1970s was a city in crisis. It was on the verge of economic collapse and suffering from rampant crime. Forget the disco era – New York City was gritty, grimy and dangerous.
To make matters worse, the NYPD was shrinking as a result of the city’s budget woes. From July 1975 until November 1979, no new officers were hired or trained in the city. In fact, the only officers added to the force during this period were those who’d already been laid off in a large cull in 1975, only to be rehired over the next three years. This meant there was no new blood to inject a fresh view of a changing world.
It was already a tough job, but morale in the police was low and getting worse by the day.
Robert Quinn (NYPD officer):
It were a difficult time for law enforcement in midtown New York.
I’d started working in Times Square in the early 70s. Back in those days, there were separate police departments – and I was assigned to the Transit police. We patrolled the subways, especially the bigger locations in midtown: if you’ve ever seen it, you’ll know that the Times Square subway station is huge. It’s like a city in itself. It was a different world because people actually lived down there. We called them ‘mole’ people. That was their world, and they committed their own crimes against each other.
After a couple of years, I was transferred above ground to street level – and one of the first things that struck me was that the whole Times Square area had its own unique odor. It was a damp, foul smell that came from all the discarded garbage. It would just lay there for days. Nobody seemed interested in cleaning it up, so the smell lingered – and it was strong.
My beat was filled with peep shows, adult movie theaters, stores selling pipes for smoking drugs, and gangs that would roam the area robbing people. There were stabbings, shootings, people being beaten, prostitution, and guys walking around selling drugs right out there in the open. And you’d have to walk around these people to get anywhere, not to mention climb over those overdosing and lying in the street. The worst area in the whole city was the corner of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue. In that spot, you could get anything; drugs, guns, prostitution, you name it.
At times, I felt exposed because I patrolled alone. If you got into difficulties, you could go to your radio to try to get help, but there weren’t a whole lot of police officers assigned to the area. Not like today. Today they have a cop on almost every block. But in the years that I was down there, we were under-manned. I got into scrapes. I picked up injuries. There was no respect for the uniform.
I’d see tourists who’d come to the city and say, “Oh, we have to see Times Square.” And then they’d walk down the street, huddled together in fear, clutching their bags, afraid they were gonna get robbed.
I’d look at them and say, “What are you doing here!?”
They’d mumble, “Well, we just wanted to see Times Square.”
I’d reply, “Well, you saw it, now get outta here.”
I worked around the clock. You could never make plans with your family for the next day because most of the time you knew you weren’t going home. You were gonna wind up locking somebody up, and then spending the next two days in court. There was so much crime in the area, it was inevitable that you were going to make a collar.
As time went on, crime levels just got worse. There were always rumors saying, “They’re gonna clean up Times Square. It’s all going to change. Just you wait.” It seemed that whenever a new congressman or senator came in, a clean-up was promised… but it never happened.
To many people, the naked marketing of sex in Times Square was emblematic of the city’s problems – as the NYPD struggled to control the porn theaters, peep shows, and adult bookstores that dominated the Deuce.
A branch of the NYPD, the Public Morals Department, was formed to tackle the problem.
After a few years on the streets, I moved into the Public Morals Division. Public Morals was responsible for enforcing laws relating to vice, which included prostitution, narcotics, gambling – and busting porn operations. Midtown was the porno capital of the world. It was full of the grand old theaters that had become porn palaces.
Then there were the peep shows. When I started out as a cop, they still had the older peep machines, which consisted of a pair of stationary binoculars attached to a large coffin-sized box. You’d put your quarter in, look through the binoculars, and watch a 12-minute loop. The loops had the most explicit sex you could see in the city. Those machines made a lot of money – so we kept an eye on them.
Over the years, I got to know the people who worked in Times Square. The hookers, the porno store owners, the pimps, the guys who ran the theaters. I’d talk to them and ask them what they were up to. They’d laugh and do their best to ignore me, so I just warned them that I was watching them. As I got to know them, I’d notice little things that would indicate if something unusual was happening. It was like a sixth sense. I depended on this feeling to alert me to any trouble, and keep me safe.
But it was an uphill battle. If you shut a bookshop or theater down, they’d appeal to the court and just re-open the next day. It was a frustrating and often losing experience. The truth was that the people who worked in the porno stores were just pawns. We knew that if we were going to have success in busting the activity in Times Square, we needed to target the guys behind the scenes – like the mob.
We knew the mafia were involved in distribution – they supplied sex films and magazines to the stores, and they’d shake down the operators – but they were more difficult to contend with. The big problem was that they only dealt with people they knew and trusted. They had relationships with the store-owners, and they knew who was safe for the them to deal with and who wasn’t, so it was difficult for us to break into that world. Sure – we had undercover guys and informants, but they weren’t giving us much to work with.
So how were the cops supposed to tackle pornography in the center of one of America’s biggest cities if normal, old-fashioned police methods just weren’t working?
In 1976, the Public Morals Department of the NYPD came up with a new approach: What if they themselves became adult film producers and made a pornographic movie as a way to infiltrate the mob
It seemed like a crazy, risky, and plain wrong-headed idea… but they were getting desperate. So they spit balled it around and addressed the elephant in the room: how could they do it without anyone finding out?
After all, it would be bad enough if the mob learned what they were doing, but it would be arguably even worse if the general public found out that their tax dollars were being spent on making a porn film.
We always knew that if we acquired our own product – a hard core sex film or two – we could shop it around. The films would demonstrate that we were genuine, that we were serious players. We’d offer the films for sale, and see who was interested in doing business with us. Perhaps that way we could build relationships and an understanding of who was involved behind the curtain. We’d see who the main players were, understand their methods, and get information to bring charges against them.
But up to now our problem was obvious: how would we get our hands on illegal hard-core films that we could exclusively own and represent? That was difficult. So someone in Public Morals suggested we make our own sex film.
I nearly fell off my chair. Seriously?! The NYPD make a genuine porn film? It seemed a crazy idea. We kicked it around for a while, and in the end, we thought – why not?
They decided to take the chance – and the result was a secret undercover police operation to infiltrate the New York sex film business.
At the time, the most senior police officer in New York, the Police Commissioner, was Michael Codd. He was once described as having a “ramrod-straight military bearing”, and an incorruptible reputation.
Codd was an old-fashioned, serious, ex-military guy who played everything by the book. We called him ‘Chief Straight Arrow.’ We knew it was unlikely that Codd would back this idea, so we had to keep it on the down low.
For a start, how would we make it? Who would film it? How much money would it cost? Where would the money come from? And who would be involved? None of us detectives in the Public Morals Division had any clue how to make a movie, so we started to draw up an outline of how we could make it work.
We figured we had just over $2,000 that we could allocate to the film. With that limited budget, we knew we weren’t going to be making the porno version of ‘Gone With The Wind’. So we decided we’d make three loops, like the ones that were sold under the counter in adult bookstores.
One of our colleagues had a nephew who had a friend at NYU film school where he had access to camera equipment. We approached the friend and asked if was interested in shooting a sex film. Does a bear shit in the woods? He was enthusiastic, and he came onboard immediately.
We agreed we’d shoot it at a cheap airport hotel. We didn’t want to arouse any suspicion by hiring a studio for the film, and anyway, we figured that all loops were probably filmed in hotel rooms, right?
The last question was how to find actors. We had no idea where we could find any one who did this in front of the camera… I mean what kinda person does this for a living?!
Michelle Lake (adult film performer):
I grew up in a typical middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn that was full of immigrants. My parents had come to the United States from Poland – and like many of their generation were very political, especially my father and my uncle. There were always heated discussions in our household. And it wasn’t restricted to our home; my uncle took me on a march in Washington where there were a million people protesting the Vietnam War. I remember meeting Angela Davis.
My father wasn’t just political – he was political and angry, and it didn’t take much to set him off. He was a communist, believing all capitalism was bad, and if you pressed his buttons he’d explode. But he was genuine and kind too. I grew up in a household where people’s skin color didn’t matter, and he would’ve given his life for a stranger on the street. In his heart, he was a good man.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned the truth behind his explosive temper. He’d gone to fight in the Second World War in Europe, and my mother said that when he returned he was a different man. For years afterwards, he suffered from PTSD, waking up screaming in the middle of the night. In my 30s, I learned that he’d been one of the soldiers who’d been given the task of cleaning out the gas chamber ovens. That experience had destroyed him. He developed strong left-wing views, believing that the working man was being exploited, and that capitalism and rich people were inherently bad. But the simple truth was that my father was a victim. He was suffering, and he clung to politics as a way of surviving.
I didn’t know any of this as a child. All I knew was that I lived in a house with an angry, wounded man that loved me. He slept during the day and worked hard at night, driving a New York taxi to provide for us. He. He hated the job and couldn’t find peace. His emotional wounds affected my upbringing – and as a result, I suffered and didn’t get what I needed. My parents did their best but were emotionally absent.
I grew up looking for deeper answers. But rather than become political like my parents, I was driven in the opposite direction. My brother and I both became spiritual instead. In my case, I had a strong desire to express myself. I listened to Carole King and Peter, Paul and Mary, taught myself to play the guitar, and wrote poetry and dozens of songs.
I wanted to be on stage from an early age, and asked my mother if I could go to acting school. She said no. Perhaps it was a money thing, but it wasn’t the sort of activity that families in our neighborhood did. Eventually I got my chance when a television commercial for a local milk company was shot at my nursery school. The filmmakers picked me to star in it, and I just had to drink a glass of milk. I remember being quietly fascinated by the camera equipment and the filmmaking process.
I did well in school and had friends, but I was also shy and insecure. In high school, I dated a boy for three years who was on the football team. I was shocked when he asked me to go steady because I didn’t consider myself attractive. Years later when I was in my 30s, I met up for coffee with a former high school classmate. He said that many of the guys in our class had a crush on me. I was shocked. I had low self-esteem and body image issues, and never perceived that I could be attractive.
As a teenager, I had bulimia – not that there was a name for it back then. As it wasn’t identified or diagnosed, it couldn’t be treated. I suffered from it for years. I’d take off from school and hide the absences from my parents. Occasionally my mother would catch me throwing up – purging – in the bathroom. On one occasion, she dragged me to a doctor, who said that the act of sticking your finger down your throat was a sexual issue – which wasn’t particularly helpful.
I was always a searcher and as I matured, I became more keen to find answers. When I was 18 I tried primal scream therapy, a form of psychotherapy popularized by Dr. Arthur Janov where you recall past experiences and express repressed anger through spontaneous hysteria. In therapy, I met a girl named Erica Havens and we became close friends. The therapy eventually led me to move out of my parent’s home and find a place of my own.
When I graduated from high school, I went to college in New York. My bulimia was still casting a heavy shadow over life. At times, my college roommates caught me throwing up and dragged me out of the bathroom. I still thought I was too heavy – which I now realize I wasn’t, but though bulimia is about thinking you’re fat, it actually betrays much deeper problems and insecurities.
I quit college after a year and never went back. I wanted to work with dolphins. I’d fallen in love with the idea when I was 15 and wrote a biology report on animal communications. I became passionate about dolphins and when I graduated high school I wrote letters to marine biologists all over the country begging for a job. When I left college, I moved down to Miami, Florida with a girlfriend to try and get a job in one of the aquariums there. I wasn’t really interested in being a biologist or a veterinarian, I wanted to just be around dolphins.
It was more difficult than I expected to find a job opening, but I ended up meeting somebody that worked in an aquarium, and he snuck me in after hours so I could swim with newly captive dolphins. This was my dream come true. I supported myself as a waitress for a while, but eventually the prospect of working with dolphins fizzled out and I ended up returning to New York in the mid-1970s.
Back in Manhattan, I worked in bars to pay my bills. I met a boy, we started dating and then we moved in together. It turned out he was good friends with an aspiring actor named Michael Masone who’d been in my high school class.
Michael had visions of becoming a movie star in the vein of Sylvester Stallone. He’d recently started acting in porn films, figuring that this was a way into the proper film industry. I think he had a crush on me dating back to when we were teens, and one day asked if I wanted to make an adult film with him. He said it was good money and that we could work together – which would make it much easier and more comfortable for me. He said I’d only have to work with him, so I wouldn’t have to deal with anybody else.
I was 22 and inexperienced sexually. My boyfriend at the time was only the third guy that I’d slept with in my life. Emotionally, I was repressed and shut down. I was very guarded and would always hold back when I was with someone physically. However my mind had been opened by going to group therapy, and I knew that on some level I really wanted to be more liberated. When Michael asked me to make a film with him, I thought the idea might actually be good for me. So I said yes, and we made arrangements. I laugh nowadays: I still can’t believe I agreed to do it.
The first thing that struck me when I went to the adult film set was how clean it all was. That may be a strange way of describing it – but that was my spontaneous reaction. Everyone there had a matter-of-fact attitude, and no one was unsavory. That was reassuring, and it had a good effect on me. Later on, I auditioned for mainstream acting parts, because every so often an agent would invite me to audition for something that wasn’t X-rated. Those casting guys were so much more sleazy. They’d say, “There’s no nudity in this film, but lift up your shirt so I can see your breasts.” They’d expect to get away with it! On the sets of the X-rated films, everything was more respectful… and that was refreshing. Nobody was ogling me, or acting in an unpleasant way. I found a little community there. There was no harassment. In fact, most of the time the crew was just bored.
After that first experience, I appeared in one or two more films with Michael. One of the first films I worked on was Inside Jennifer Welles (1977), though I didn’t have a part on-screen. I was hired as a fluffer on set. It was for a scene where Jennifer was having sex with multiple men, and they needed someone to ensure that the men were ready to perform as she moved among them. Fortunately this wasn’t the first thing I’d ever done on a porn film, or else I might never have continued… as it was a rather freaky experience.
Quite unexpectedly, I started to become more confident – in part because of the films. This was an era when the adult industry was open to all shapes and sizes of men and women. I still thought I was a little chubby – I probably weighed about 130 pounds – but now I re-framed my self-image. The adult movies started to change my self-perception. I started to feel voluptuous and big-breasted. I liked that I’d become an object of desire, attention and focus, so I continued to appear in films for a while.
My boyfriend didn’t mind it either. I think he was into X-rated films as a spectator. On a couple of occasions, he came along with me and tried to get parts in films but physically he just couldn’t perform. He found the pressure too much. He thought he’d be fine, but in reality when he turned up and saw so many people… the cameraman, the crew, the director barking instructions… he couldn’t do it.
It was an interesting time to be part of the business. I remember a number of the larger-than-life characters on the scene. People like Jennifer Welles, Marlene Willoughby, and Sharon Mitchell. Sharon might have been the first woman with whom I ever did a scene. That was a big deal for me, because I’m not gay. I have a vivid memory of how slender and flat-chested she was, and how long her nails were.
In terms of the male performers, Bobby Astyr was a funny and engaging character, and I also remember John Leslie. I had a mad crush on Robert Kerman. It was around that time I was also obsessed with Richard Dreyfuss. I was convinced Richard Dreyfuss and I were soul mates, and I think Robert Kerman reminded me of Dreyfuss. Any time Robert and I were put together to do a scene, I’d be turned on by him. Unfortunately adult film sets weren’t conducive to sexual pleasure – especially not for women – as they were primarily set up for the male cum shots, so we never had any particularly fulfilling encounters. However I have a particular memory of being in bed with Robert one time, and being unaware and uninterested that there was also a film crew in the room. I was just interested in Robert. We had a physical connection. For some reason though, Robert and I never socialized off-set. He never asked me out. We never even went out for coffee or anything.
The actors spent a lot of time on set sitting around, waiting for their turn, passing the time talking. I remember one guy engaging me in deep philosophical discussions about Buddhism. (Rialto Report: This was Herschel Savage.) I also remember a woman who was going to law school, reading her legal text books and studying. (Rialto Report: This was Jenny Baxter).
At some stage I suggested to Erica Havens – the friend I’d met a few years earlier in therapy – that she could earn money and have fun by making adult movies too. She was attending Fordham University in New York at the time, and we were like sisters. So she entered the industry, and it was good to have an ally making films… except for the time when we were paired together to do a scene! Oh, my God! I had to strap on a dildo, and we pretended to be turned on to each other. We were girlfriends, but never had any interest in each other sexually. We began hysterically laughing. We just couldn’t do the scene. I guess they managed to film us at some point, but it was ridiculous.
A few months later, Erica and I decided to go to a theater to see one of our films. We were embarrassed, not to mention grossed out, to be actually going to a dirty porn theater so we decided we had to take a man with us. We picked Dave Ruby – a fellow actor (and court reporter). When we saw ourselves on the big screen, we collapsed in fits of laughter. We were in a scene where we were tied up and whipped. Our arms were up in the air and we were screaming. It was such bad acting, the lighting was terrible, the film made no sense… it was just awful. But it was hysterically funny too. The male patrons in the theater weren’t impressed with our reaction so they started skulking out, not knowing that two of the stars of the movie were the ones laughing.
Strange as it may seem, I even had profound spiritual experiences making adult films. On one occasion, I was shooting a scene where I was the woman between two gay men, one black and one white. The black man was beautiful – his head was shaved and he looked like a dancer – and they were really into each other. I remember being moved by the whole experience. You couldn’t categorize it as love, but we were all connected in an intimate manner. Our genders melted away, and we just became one being for a moment. I had the experience of God being there. It was a strange physical situation, where you wouldn’t think spirituality or the divine would exist, but there it was. I’ll never forget that.
For a short time, I danced at the Melody Burlesk, and got Erica involved in my act. I started stripping because I wanted to get money to take an advanced spirituality class, and Erica agreed to do it because she needed money for dental work. The format was simple – each woman was required to do a 20-minute set several times each day, and the audience would leave money on stage for the dancers.
I soon became bored so to make the time pass quicker I convinced the manager at the Melody to let Erica and I combine our sets so we could act out a scene together. Erica and I worked on story lines like an adult version of Little Red Riding Hood, and our act was a hit. Management wanted us to keep going, but when we’d saved enough money, we decided we’d had enough. I have a lingering memory of the experience: I remember looking at the men in the audience. They seemed like vulnerable, lonely children looking up at us. It was poignant. It has stayed with me ever since.
I was active on various fronts in the adult industry. I did loops, films, and photo shoots, and was even hired by a couple as a sexual surrogate. They came to my apartment and I’d make love to the wife. She was very slender, flat chested and incredibly shy. She never said a word. The guy would sit there, not jerking off or anything, but just sit and stare. I did this a few times and they paid me $150 each session.
Against this backdrop however, I was always keen to write. That was my ambition, and somehow I came into contact with Peter Wolff who was editing Cheri and High Times magazines. We became friendly, and he took me out to lunch at a bar/restaurant in the East 40s near his office. He was gruff looking, with an unruly beard and mustache, but he was kind and very sweet to me. I told him about my desire to be a writer, and he gave me work writing articles for Cheri. I became a roving sex journalist for the magazine, writing pieces on my experiences in the adult film business, such as fluffing and dancing at the Melody, and I did a couple of photo shoots for him too.
And every so often I’d get a call from someone to make another film.
Someone told us about an agent who promised to connect us with some performers (Rialto Report: This was Sandi Foxx), but she never followed through. Eventually we found a straight actor who’d done some porno films, and he hooked us up with a couple of people.
One day I got a phone call from someone I trusted. It might have been Michael Masone. It was for a sex film that was shooting in a hotel room at JFK airport. I remember that it was for a loop rather than a feature film. I accepted the job just as I had many times before, and arranged to go out to the airport.
Perhaps my suspicions should have been alerted by the fact that the shoot was taking place in a hotel room. That was a little weird. In my experience, you always shot in a little studio or in someone’s apartment. I’d never been asked to go to a hotel room.
We filmed the loops in May 1976.
When it came to the big day, we picked a couple of detectives – myself and a female colleague – who would oversee the shoot, and we took along the kid who was our cameraman.
Over time, many of the details of many of the films I made have blurred in my memory, but for some reason, I remember a number of things from this job: I remember the room, I remember that the ‘producers’ were a man and a woman, and I think I remember a cameraman.
The location itself was a shitty hotel room, nothing fancy. The man and woman were quiet types, but polite and nice. The cameraman seemed to be running around doing everything – the photography, the lighting, and whatever else was needed. The only set decoration was a vase of flowers – or maybe they were already in the room.
Also I distinctly remember that the ‘producers’ didn’t seem entirely comfortable with the process. They had a nervous formality to them, which contrasted with the relaxed energy that normally came from adult filmmakers who’d done it all before. But the fact that I’d got the job through someone I already knew meant I didn’t think much about any lingering doubts – so I just got on with it.
Making the films was a strange experience. We were used to dealing with hustlers and criminals, not directing the action on the set of a sex film! It was an uncomfortable, even embarrassing situation. The actors – we had a male and a female – were pleasant and willing to do whatever we wanted. We stood back and pretended we knew exactly what we were doing, but in reality, it was just weird. I didn’t know where to look. I spent most of the time staring out of the window.
On the one hand, I was tempted to just hurry up and finish so that we could get the hell out of there. But on the other hand, we had to make try and make something that was reasonably competent. If we came away with something terrible, we’d be laughed out of Times Square when we tried to shop it around.
The shoot itself went smoothly. I remember we did three short loops. They had dumb scenarios, like a plumber who comes into the house where the woman seduces him, or something like that. I don’t remember who the male actor was that I worked with that day, but I remember thinking that it was a particularly low budget production.
After being there for several hours, I got paid in cash, and the producers offered me the flowers too, which was sweet. I headed back into the city without another thought.
Example of a low-budget loop
It was long day – surprisingly long, considering we were just making three short films – and we finished late in the evening. We thanked the talent for their efforts and went on our way.
Our cameraman took the footage to edit at NYU, and we returned to work.
I never really thought about the shoot for the next few weeks. It was just another job. It’d been unremarkable.
A few weeks later, the kid who shot the loops dropped off the finished product and we rigged up a film projector so the other cops who were part of this strange project could see our handiwork.
The films was pretty bad to be honest. It lall ooked amateurish. But it was probably no worse than the rot that filled the peep shows. Put it this way: it was good enough.
We were ready to start work on the next phase of the plan – seeing who’d be interested in buying the loops.
That’s when the shit hit the fan: someone leaked the story of our operation to the newspapers.
From ‘Police cop out on their own porn movie’, Chicago Tribune, August 23, 1976:
The film was a well-kept secret: on Monday, the commissioner had no comment. His public affairs department said only that they didn’t want to “jeopardize any investigation or department personnel.”
Who had found out about it… and who had leaked the story to the newspapers and the TV news?! I dunno.
Maybe it was the actor or actress that we used who got suspicious. Maybe they asked too many questions, found out what we were doing, and they blabbed.
We heard a rumor that the mob knew about it all along. One story said that they were even listening at the door when we were shooting the movie, for Chrissakes…
I got a call from Peter Wolff at Cheri magazine. He asked, “Have you seen the newspapers?” He told me there was a big story revealing that some loops I’d made at JFK had been filmed by the New York Police Department. What’s more, he said that the television networks had contacted him, and they wanted to interview me for the six o’clock news.
My first thought was that I had to tell my parents before they saw me on TV. They knew nothing about the films I’d been making, or the dancing, or even the magazine shoots. This secret life I’d been leading would all be completely new to them. I called them up on the phone and said, “Sit down, I’ve got some news for you.”
I told them I was going to be on the news that night because of what I’d been doing. God bless them – they didn’t have heart attacks or hang up on me saying, “we’re disowning you.” In fact, it’s still shocking to me that they had such a liberal mindset, and weren’t utterly freaked out the way most parents would be.
With that, I went on CBS or ABC, and was interviewed by a reporter for the evening news.
The newspapers loved it: the cops had made a porno. The news coverage fucked everything up. It ruined everything.
Not just that, but it put our senior guys in a difficult position because they didn’t know the full details. We’d kept it real quiet. It caught them unawares – so at first, all they could do was deny everything and keep quiet while they looked into it internally.
It was an adventure. I was seduced by the process, the television, the media… everything. I was attracted to the lights, the camera equipment, and what it was like to be behind the scenes. I’d always liked the technical side of the X-rated industry, and this seemed a continuation of that adventure. Besides, I’d always been comfortable in front of cameras.
Then I wrote an article about it for Cheri.
Our asses were all hauled in front of the senior guys to explain what we’d been doing and what we’d been hoping to achieve. Of course it looked bad, but the worst part was the newspaper and television coverage. They all had a great time with the story, and made us look like the Keystone Cops. Of course, they got many of the details wrong.
From ‘Police cop out on their own porn movie’, Chicago Tribune, August 23, 1976:
The film, shot in a studio with professional actors, actresses, and directors, was part of an elaborate police strategy to learn how the mob controls the distribution of porno films.
“The logic,” according to one department source, “is that we can’t beat them by seizing the films or closing the shops, so we’re trying to infiltrate the businesses, see how the bosses shake down the filmmakers and work our way into the system.”
There was a big public outcry. Eventually the police department had to come out and confirm that the story was genuine.
From ‘No Popcorn In Cop Porn,’ New York News, August 31, 1976:
A spokesman confirmed for the first time that the films had been made by the department. He said that the spicy cinematography was never distributed because First Deputy Commissioner, James Taylor, ruled that the scheme would violate unwritten police rules that police should not initiate crimes.
But the admission by the NYPD only intensified the story – and the public interest. People were asking, was taxpayer’s money really used to make a porn film?! The speculation got worse after salacious details of the films came out…
From ‘It’s A Fact – The Boys in Blue Did Indeed Make a Blue Movie,’ New York magazine, September 5, 1976:
The first portrays a damsel in distress who enlists the aid of a bellboy to fix a leaking faucet. As is typical of such loops, the couple becomes involved in explicit sexual activity in short order. “With these loops, you have to get the action going so fast so the guy pumps in more quarters to watch the rest of the film,” notes our porn expert.
The second loop, also fairly standard, involves a burglar who breaks into the damsel’s room and, again in short order, forgets about any stealing. The third loop, which includes some shower scenes, centers on a honeymoon couple.”
Police Commissioner Codd was under pressure to do something straight away – which he did. He ordered the film idea to be canned.
But do you want to know the reason he gave for his decision? He said that the thing he objected to most was that a female detective had been present at the film shoot. Seriously?! You’re mad because a woman was involved?
That’s your big problem?!
From ‘Police cop out on their own porn movie’, Chicago Tribune, August 23, 1976:
Codd prohibited an effort to peddle the film because he was “morally outraged” that a female member of the force, a detective in the Organized Crime Control Bureau (OCCB), had assisted in production.
“Everything was okay until Codd found out about the policewoman,” the source said. “Then he blew a gasket.”
I guess it was a perfect story for the Daily News. It had everything – sex, crime, cops, and the constant issue of sleaze in Times Square. Every day there seemed to be a different person telling their version of the story. Except for us in the police department. We had to remain silent.
From ‘No Popcorn In Cop Porn,’ New York News, August 31, 1976:
Michelle Lake, the female lead in the blue movie, said that she was not aware she was performing for the police until she heard about it from an editor.
“I had no idea what was happening,” said the pert porno actress, who said she had received $150 for seven hours of sexual activity before the cameras in a motel near Kennedy Airport.
But the whistle was blown and, even before the department put together the $2,500 production cost, a porno agent named Sandi Foxx told the undercover operatives, “I won’t deal with you. I know you’re cops.”
The news caused an uproar in the media – and I was at the center of the story. Despite what had happened, I never thought those cops used me, or that they took advantage of me. I didn’t feel a victim. I didn’t feel aggrieved that this wasn’t a regular adult film production, or that they had been dishonest. I didn’t feel indignant in any way. I just figured that I made money, and the cops had been nice. They’d even given me flowers.
I didn’t have a lot of time to process what had happened. One moment, I was an unknown adult film performer, and the next I was on TV and in the newspapers. The truth is that I probably didn’t consider the consequences. I’d been making X-rated films, which was a subversive sub-culture frowned upon by society, and nobody sat me down and said, “Think this through. This is going to be recorded for posterity. Do you really want this to be publicized in this way?”
It was reported that the film had been confiscated and impounded – and that no one had seen it. But even that wasn’t true. Someone gave a copy to people in the press, who passed it around extensively – and wrote about it.
From ‘Nudie Blues,’ New York magazine, September 12, 1976:
(Police Commissioner Michael) Codd really should be taking bows. New Yorkers are in debt to him for blowing the whistle on his own undercover unit and preventing peep-show devotees from seeing the cops’ cinematic effort. For, take it from us folks, it ranks as the worst porno film ever made.
Take the setting: a hot-sheet motel in Queens. You wouldn’t take your spouse there. Holiday Inn-provincial décor. No mirrors. Not even a water bed.
And the casting. Three twelve-minute loops, and there are only two characters. No unexpected guests popping in. Just the one couple, one-on-one. Al Goldstein would have walked out before the second loop.
(One wonders, since the cops interviewed dozens of performers, about the selection. But then, the $50 per loop – which took a total of about twelve hours – you don’t get Paul Newman and Raquel Welch. You don’t get good lighting or cinematography either.)
After I appeared on the TV news, the scandal showed no signs of abating. Peter Wolff asked me to write an article for Cheri about the experience, and then I was invited to appear on one of the late night New York TV chat shows. To this day, I can’t remember which show it was. It was shot in Manhattan in the upper 50s, in a studio across the street from where soap operas like ‘Days of Our Lives’ and ‘As the World Turns’ were produced.
The other guest on the chat show was an author who’d written a book about Jackie Onassis, but my story dominated proceedings. When I was in makeup before the taping, I mentioned to one of the producers that my parents would be watching. He asked if they could call them. I doubted that my parents would be interested in talking to the TV producers, but I gave him their phone number.
After the interview was underway, the host suddenly announced that he had my parents on the line. He spoke to them live on air. My mom was the classic little pushy Jewish mother, and she had the host in hysterics. She was bright, witty, unafraid, and she could make anybody laugh. She could’ve been Joan Rivers.
The host asked her about my talents, and she said that I was a poet and that he should have me recite a poem. The only poem I could remember on the spot was the first poem I ever wrote when I was eight years old, called ‘Loneliness’. So I performed that. Having an X-rated actress recite a poem from her childhood was incongruous and poignant:
Loneliness is like the stars without the sky,
a bird without a nest, hello without goodbye.
The worst thing in life is to be all alone,
to have no one near to help when you moan,
how would you like to deal with no one at your side,
it’s such a horrid feeling,
you’ll wish that you had died.
But when you have someone you’ll be in such a happy tone,
I hope you or I will never have to be alone.
The host then asked my mother what she thought about her daughter making X-rated films. She said, “I don’t like it, but she’s still my daughter.”
After the show when we were leaving, somebody came running out of the studio across the street and said, “We just saw you on television, and everybody wants to meet you!” They brought me in and introduced me to the soap actors. After that, Peter Wolff took me out to a restaurant to celebrate, and the guy on the next table turned to me and said, “Hey, I recognize you from TV. How are your parents doing?!”
It was a surreal experience being recognized on the streets.
From ‘Nudie Blues,’ New York magazine, September 12, 1976:
Given the city’s sick financial condition, and insatiable appetite for smut and crime stories, the Police Department could generate badly needed income by getting into the film business.
Ultimately, of course, the Police Department would have to be revamped. Actors would have to be trained as cops or vice versa. The commissioner would have to be someone who knows something about sex and movies – perhaps Roman Polanski could replace Codd. Or even Marilyn Chambers. What this city needs is GOOD dirty movies.
I still wonder what we could’ve done if we’d been allowed to pursue this operation. It was an OK idea, and it wasn’t like we were having much luck on other fronts. But it ended up being an embarrassment.
It took a toll on our careers, and it was a long time before we could move on.
The experience was fun, but it was also a watershed in my life. I didn’t want this to be my big moment. I didn’t want to be defined as an X-rated actress. I didn’t regret it, but that wasn’t who I really was. I’d started making sex films almost by accident, but my real aspirations were to be a writer.
And so I suddenly realized that I was done. I thought, “I’m out. I’m not doing this any longer.”
I stopped contacting people from the industry. I broke up with my boyfriend and moved to another part of New York City.
Shortly after, I met a successful literary agent at a social gathering. We hit it off, and I gave him some pieces I’d written. He took me under his wing and believed in me. I’d never taken a writing class in my life, but he got me a contract to write my first romance novel when I was around 22. It changed my life.
The book did well, and was translated into eight languages. It was about a New York woman who meets and falls in love with a dolphin trainer, and they live happily ever after on a tropical island.
Ten years later, the book came true. I fell in love with a dolphin trainer, got married, and moved to Hawaii.
I’ve never really spoken about my 15 minutes of fame to anyone. But when you contacted me, I thought that, perhaps, after all these years, it’s time for me to own my past.
Michelle Lake is happily married and is a successful journalist and author. Her books have been translated and published in many countries.
Robert Quinn retired from the NYPD several years ago, and describes himself as a snow-bird, dividing his time between New York and Florida with his family.
Michael Masone continued to act, and got small parts in movies such as American Tickler (1977), C.O.D. (1981), and Delivery Boys (1985). He died in 2003.
The pornographic film shot by the NYPD languishes in the depths of the police archives, and to our knowledge, has never seen the light of day.