July 21, 2003 12:00 PM

In an 18-year career as New York City’s premiere party clown, David Friedman sculpted balloons and performed magic tricks for the kids of stars from Eddie Murphy to Bruce Springsteen. But Friedman’s family history, so repellent David kept it even from girlfriends, was horrifying: Both his father and a brother were in prison for sexually molesting boys—his father’s own students—in the family’s Long Island home. “There were many days I’d be on the phone with my father and he’d be crying, crying, crying, and I had to tell him everything was going to be okay,” says David, 42. “Then I’d put on my clown suit and go out and be funny and happy.”

It’s the anguished private man on full view in Capturing the Friedmans, an acclaimed new documentary told partly through the family’s shattering home movies. “Watching the film is upsetting to me,” says David, but worth it: He hopes it will clear his family’s name. His father, Arnold Friedman, an award-winning high school chemistry and TV-production teacher, died an apparent suicide in 1995 at age 63 while serving a 10-to 30-year sentence. David’s brother Jesse, 34, served 13 years before being paroled in 2001. “This film,” says David, “is about two people sent to prison for a crime they didn’t commit.”

That’s not what the law thought. In 1987 federal authorities raided Arnold Friedman’s house and found child pornography. Three weeks later the Nassau County police arrested him and ultimately charged him with more than 100 sex crimes. All of them were allegedly committed against young male students in an after-school computer class he taught with Jesse in the three-bedroom home he shared with wife Elaine, now 72 (they divorced in 1991, and she has remarried), and their three sons. Jesse, 18 at the time, was arrested along with his father on accusations that ranged from sodomizing boys to playing an erotic game of nude leapfrog.

Capturing the Friedmans casts doubt on a police investigation that produced no physical evidence of abuse and may have leaned too hard on the alleged victims. “They were browbeaten,” says Debbie Nathan, a New York City journalist who has written about sex-abuse hysteria and was a consultant on the film. Ron Georgalis, 27, a former student who told the police that nothing had happened in that home classroom, says police were unnervingly insistent that something had. “They told both my parents that I had been molested,” says Georgalis, now at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “I told the detectives that I hadn’t experienced anything untoward. It was confusing to have an authority figure tell you one thing and deep down in your heart believe that the opposite is true.”

Meanwhile, the collapse of the Friedmans was being captured in David’s raw home videos (some even shot at the dinner table), which now make up the documentary: Father and son protest their innocence but, doubting they can get a fair trial, decide to plead guilty. The boys (Seth, now 40, did not cooperate with the film) scream at Elaine for making no effort to defend her husband. “I knew my father and brother were going to prison,” says David, explaining why he kept the camera on during the months of hell. “I wanted to preserve their memory for me and my children.”

Jesse, who today wears an electronic bracelet on his ankle and is forbidden to enter playgrounds, views the documentary as a vindication. “The world will know that I am not a child molester,” says Jesse. Still, Capturing may not be quite the closure he wants. Even if Jesse’s father was unjustly accused of crimes in the computer class, the film reveals that Arnold admitted to Debbie Nathan that he had had sexually arousing encounters with two boys on vacation years before the scandal. Even though former student Georgalis is sure of Arnold’s innocence, he tells PEOPLE, “He would kind of give you a pat on the behind. Sometimes his hand would kind of linger.”

Then there’s Jesse himself: At his 1989 sentencing he tearfully claimed he too had been abused by his father. In a nationally televised jailhouse interview with Geraldo Rivera soon after that, he repeated both that he’d been abused by Arnold and had participated in his crimes. Yet, interviewed for the documentary, a grown-up Jesse says his father didn’t molest him—this was a “fictionalized story” to win leniency—and says it was the strategy of his attorney at the time, Peter Panaro. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Panaro, who maintains that Jesse told him his father abused him. Yet whatever Jesse’s motives may have been, “I found not a shred of evidence that he had done anything or seen anything inappropriate,” says director Andrew Jarecki, 40, who before Friedmans was better known as the cofounder of Moviefone.

Since his release, “I’ve been unable to find work,” says Jesse, now studying economics and political science at New York City’s Hunter College. His brother still hopes for a happy ending. David says a lawyer friend has agreed to take on the case, aiming to get the convictions vacated. “This film,” says David, “will be a great catalyst for that happening.”

Tom Gliatto

Eve Heyn in New York City

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