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New film tells Barry Crimmins’s story of survival

A documentary about Barry Crimmins, “Call Me Lucky,’’  premieres Tuesday at the Sundance Film Festival.
Heather Ainsworth/Associated Press for The Boston Globe
A documentary about Barry Crimmins, “Call Me Lucky,’’ premieres Tuesday at the Sundance Film Festival.

The onstage persona Barry Crimmins brandished from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, when he loomed large on and behind Boston-area stages as a performer and producer of comedy shows, was fearless, even fierce.

Crimmins galvanized — and sometimes antagonized — audiences by turning a verbal blowtorch on American foreign and domestic policy, on the elected officials who crafted those policies, and on all manner of hypocrisy, cant, and contradiction.

But what his audiences didn’t know was that behind that ultra-confident façade Crimmins was waging an inward struggle with a terrible trauma. He had been repeatedly raped as a very young child by a man connected to his teenage babysitter.

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His efforts to come to terms with the psychological impact of those attacks — and his crusade in the mid-1990s against online child pornography, which culminated in a confrontation with corporate titan America Online Inc., at a Senate hearing — form the spine of “Call Me Lucky,’’ a new documentary.

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Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, a well-known comedian and longtime friend of Crimmins, the film is slated to premiere Tuesday at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Parts of “Call Me Lucky’’ were filmed in the Boston area.

For one scene, Crimmins, now 61 and living in upstate New York, returned with Goldthwait and the film crew to the basement of his onetime home in North Syracuse, N.Y., where the rapes took place. “It was like being hit by a sonic boom,’’ said Crimmins. “It really knocked me back, almost physically knocked me back.’’ But, Crimmins said with his trademark mordant humor: “When the PTSD kind of kicks in, I think, great, I know how to operate in a state of shock. I’ve had plenty of practice.’’

The documentary — born as the result of a suggestion to Goldthwait by the late Robin Williams — also covers Crimmins’s wide-ranging career as a standup comic, activist, political satirist, and onetime writer and correspondent for Air America, a liberal talk-radio network. Crimmins helped accelerate the careers of performers like Paula Poundstone, Denis Leary, Steven Wright, and Lenny Clarke by booking them when he was producing comedy shows at the Ding Ho restaurant in Cambridge and at Stitches in Boston.

“Barry was supportive of comedians, but you had to kind of earn it,’’ recalled Goldthwait, who was among those who got a career boost from Crimmins. “He had to know that you were sincere about being one, and that you had something to say.’’

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That was never a problem for Crimmins, who found, honed, and amplified his voice in standup. “Comedy gave me my life for the first time,’’ he said.

Crimmins went public about the rapes in 1992, which he says occurred when he was about 4 years old. His assailant was “someone with custodial control” of’ his teenage babysitter, according to Crimmins. “My parents would leave, and a while later this guy would show up,’’ he said, adding that he was raped “on a number of occasions over several weeks.’’

Crimmins lived with the secret of what had happened to him for many years. He did not tell his parents. “Among other things, I was in traumatic stress,’’ he said.

Later, he said, “When I started thinking everything was my fault, I became very close to the vest. I didn’t tell them, I didn’t think about telling anybody anything.’’ He suppressed memories of the rapes for a long time, but then the images and the sensation of “being smothered’’ started to return. “When it would come back to me, I would have a hard time breathing,’’ he said. Eventually, at age 38, Crimmins entered therapy and began to deal directly with what had happened to him.

One day in late 1994, by then living in Ohio, Crimmins logged on to an AOL chat room for survivors of abuse. One of the participants told him there was child pornography on other chat rooms. The horrifying images Crimmins saw there led him to go undercover. Over a period of months, he gathered evidence on the pedophiles who were using the site to trade images of children being sexually abused.

Crimmins repeatedly alerted AOL, but he chafed at what he said were months of pro-forma responses from the company. (It was later reported that AOL was conducting its own investigation.) So he alerted the FBI. Two agents showed up at his home, and Crimmins gave them nearly two dozen floppy disks that contained images of children being sexually abused, along with the names and addresses of the senders.

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When the door closed behind the agents, Crimmins broke down, finally able to release his emotions but still haunted by the images of victimization and sexual brutalization he had witnessed. “You look into that kid’s eyes, and you can just about see the humanity going out of him,’’ he said somberly.

‘When I started thinking everything was my fault, I became very close to the vest. I didn’t tell them, I didn’t think about telling anybody anything.’ Barry Crimmins talking about his memories of being sexually abused as a child.

But his efforts didn’t end there. Two months later, on July 24, 1995, Crimmins testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was considering legislation to crack down on the use of computer networks to transmit pornography. From his opening sentence, the comedian used his knack for the memorable sound bite to turn up the heat as high as he could.

“There is a major crime wave taking place on America’s computers,’’ Crimmins told lawmakers. “The proliferation of child pornography trafficking has created an anonymous pedophile superstore.’’ He blasted AOL as “unresponsive and arrogant,’’ adding bitingly: “If AOL just put a percentage of the effort it makes to spin-doctor away its culpability for these problems into solving them, inexpensive and effective solutions could be found.’’

AOL attorney William Burrington told the committee that the company had hired numerous “cybercops’’ to expel child pornographers from chat rooms. “We don’t want their business,’’ Burrington said.

A month after Crimmins gave his testimony, the FBI made more than a dozen arrests and searched 120 homes across the county, culminating a two-year investigation (called “Innocent Images’’) into the use of AOL to facilitate sex with children and to disseminate child pornography. Among those arrested were several people who had been tracked by Crimmins; the evidence he had gathered had become part of the “Innocent Images’’ investigation. By September 1997, the FBI investigation had resulted in more than 120 indictments and nearly 150 convictions.

Crimmins is heartened to think he played a role in sparing children from being attacked and exploited. “There’s kids who would have been harmed who weren’t harmed,’’ he said. “That bus never hit them. They’re just living their lives.’’

Goldthwait has known Crimmins since he was 16, and his admiration for his film’s subject is palpable. He believes that the abuse Crimmins suffered in childhood “formed who he is as a man, somebody who has no tolerance for bullies. He is extremely consumed with justice and what is right.’’ Initially, he wanted to tell Crimmins’s story as a scripted narrative,’ but Goldthwait’s close friend, Robin Williams, suggested that he make a documentary instead.

Then, in what Crimmins calls “one of his last quiet acts of kindness,’’ Williams, who committed suicide last August, wrote the first check for the project, enabling Goldthwait to shoot some footage and line up other financing.

Crimmins will see “Call Me Lucky” for the first time on Tuesday, with the rest of the Sundance audience. He knows that certain parts of the film might be tough for him to watch, but he’s more focused on the possibility that it could foster a wider discussion of child sexual abuse that could help other victims begin to heal.

“It’s an example of the power of breaking silence, and the need for it,’’ Crimmins said. “If I hadn’t finally dealt with the abuse, I’m not convinced I’d be alive today.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.