Actors rarely face legal consequences for appearing nude on screen. Film sets are, as a rule, not public spaces, the scenes may have been filmed months or even years before being exhibited publicly, and law enforcement is more likely to target filmmakers and distributors than the actors themselves (see “Cannibal Holocaust” below). But actors performing nude on stage are more exposed, so to speak. Take the 1969 Off-Off-Broadway production of “Che!” — an absurdist political drama by the late Trinidadian writer Lennox Raphael. Depicting the final days of the life of Che Guevara, the play used nudity and simulated sex scenes to symbolize the United States’ imperial activities in Latin America. The NYPD shut it down within a week of it opening, arresting Raphael, producer Ed Wode, the five-person acting ensemble, and the play’s lighting operator on charges of obscenity, sodomy, and conspiracy.
The trial of the so-called “‘Che!’ Eight” stretched on for nearly a year. The question at hand was not whether the cast had performed nude in sexually provocative positions — they clearly had — but rather if the play itself had enough “redeeming social value” to justify the explicitness. New York Times theatre critic Clive Barnes testified for the defense, along with playwright Israel Horowitz and cartoonist Jules Feiffer. In the end, though, all eight defendants were convicted of obscenity (the sodomy and conspiracy charges were dropped). Raphael, Wode, and lead actor Larry J. Bercowitz were given 60 days in jail, while the remaining five were discharged without further penalty.