Roman Polanski Flees the United States to Avoid Rape Trial

Roman Polanski, the director of the hit films Rosemary’s Baby and The Pianist, among others, became a central figure in real-life Hollywood drama. First, his pregnant wife, actor Sharon Tate, was murdered by followers of cult figure Charles Manson. Several years later, Polanski was charged with raping a thirteen-year-old girl. After pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, he fled to France before he could be tried in court, fearing a long prison sentence.

Summary of Event

Roman Polanski, director of films such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Macbeth (1971), Chinatown (1974), and The Pianist (2002), was notorious for his interest in young women and older girls. His first wife, Barbara Lass, was eighteen years old when they met, and his second wife, actor Sharon Tate, was still a teenager when she met Polanski. He was more than thirty years older than his third wife, Emmanuelle Seigner. None of this mattered to most people in the permissive cultures of Hollywood and filmmaking. What did matter was Polanski’s flight from the United States to avoid trial and likely imprisonment for statutory rape on February 1, 1978. [kw]Polanski Flees the United States to Avoid Rape Trial, Roman (Feb. 1, 1978)
Gailey, Samantha
Polanski, Roman
Rape;and Roman Polanski[Polanski]
Gailey, Samantha
Polanski, Roman
Rape;and Roman Polanski[Polanski]
[g]Europe;Feb. 1, 1978: Roman Polanski Flees the United States to Avoid Rape Trial[01720]
[g]United States;Feb. 1, 1978: Roman Polanski Flees the United States to Avoid Rape Trial[01720]
[g]France;Feb. 1, 1978: Roman Polanski Flees the United States to Avoid Rape Trial[01720]
[c]Drugs;Feb. 1, 1978: Roman Polanski Flees the United States to Avoid Rape Trial[01720]
[c]Families and children;Feb. 1, 1978: Roman Polanski Flees the United States to Avoid Rape Trial[01720]
[c]Hollywood;Feb. 1, 1978: Roman Polanski Flees the United States to Avoid Rape Trial[01720]
[c]Law and the courts;Feb. 1, 1978: Roman Polanski Flees the United States to Avoid Rape Trial[01720]
[c]Public morals;Feb. 1, 1978: Roman Polanski Flees the United States to Avoid Rape Trial[01720]
[c]Sex crimes;Feb. 1, 1978: Roman Polanski Flees the United States to Avoid Rape Trial[01720]
Tate, Sharon

Polanski was no stranger to Hollywood scandal. Almost a decade before being charged with statutory rape in 1977, Polanski’s pregnant wife, Tate, was murdered, along with several others, on August 9, 1969, in a Hollywood Hills home by Manson, Charles Manson-family cult members. Polanski was not in the United States at the time of the murders but returned immediately to mourn the loss of his wife and their unborn child.

Roman Polanski is escorted by deputies with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department outside a Santa Monica courtroom in August, 1977.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Eight years later, in March, 1977, Polanski allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted a thirteen-year-old girl, Samantha Gailey (later Samantha Gelmer), whom he had met at a photo shoot for the French edition of Vogue magazine. Before this initial photo shoot, Gailey and her mother had agreed to a second modeling opportunity, an encounter that ended with charges against Polanski for rape. Polanski and Gailey had been alone at this second photo session, which took place at the home of actor Jack Nicholson Nicholson, Jack (who was not home at the time), on March 10. Polanski allegedly provided alcohol and drugs to Gailey, and then reportedly raped her. (Police officers who were searching the home after Polanski was accused of the crime arrested Nicholson’s then-girlfriend, actor Angelica Huston, for cocaine possession.)

Polanski was arrested on March 11 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and originally charged with six counts, including sodomy, lewd and lascivious acts involving a minor, drug use, and statutory rape. On March 25, he was indicted by a grand jury on six felonious counts but was released on two thousand dollars bail. On August 8, after a plea bargain with prosecutors, he entered a guilty plea to one count of committing an unlawful sexual act with a minor, a less serious charge than rape; the other charges were dropped. He appeared in court on September 19. The court ordered him to undergo ninety days of psychiatric testing and therapy in a federal penitentiary in Chino, California, but he was allowed to delay the start date until December 19 so that he could finish a film.

Lawyers for Polanski first believed that ninety days in the federal penitentiary would mark the end of his sentence. They thought that California Superior Court judge Laurence J. Rittenband would not sentence their client to prison time. However, despite the plea bargain during the initial court appearance and a reduction in charges, and fearing a sentence of up to fifty years, Polanski, a French citizen, fled to London on February 1, 1978, and then to Paris a day later. He remained a fugitive there after leaving the United States, insulated from the risk of extradition because France did not have an extradition agreement with the United States (the French would not extradite one of its own citizens). A return to the United States would lead to his arrest, further charges, and sentencing.


Polanski continued to make films in the years following his flight from the United States. However, very few of them were critically supported. He regained a good deal of renown, though, with his film The Pianist. Pianist, The (film) Not surprisingly, the film emerged under a shroud of scandal and suspicion because of Polanski’s continued notoriety. The film, based on the true story of Polish pianist Władysław Szpilman, is set during World War II and touches close to home for Polanski, who survived the Kraków ghettoes during the Holocaust years. The film received overwhelming acclaim and received several Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, which he won. The film also received Oscars for Best Actor and best writing (adapted story). Polanski did not return to California to receive his Oscar; actor Harrison Ford Ford, Harrison accepted on his behalf.

In a July, 2002, article in Vanity Fair, writer A. E. Hotchner Hotchner, A. E. discussed Polanski’s mood in the days following the sensational 1969 murder of Tate. Hotchner quotes writer Lewis Lapham as remarking that “the only time I ever saw people gasp” was when Polanski approached a Swedish model, attempted to seduce her, and told her “I will make another Sharon Tate out of you.” Polanski denied the encounter and sued for libel. Libel cases;and Roman Polanski[Polanski] He argued that the accusatory account tarnished not only his character but also his memory of Tate. Because of his fugitive status in the United States, and because of Great Britain’s cooperation with U.S. extradition law (the case originated in London), Polanski acquired permission to appear via satellite from Paris for the duration of the court proceedings. The British court ruled 3-2 in favor of Polanski. Gailey, Samantha
Polanski, Roman
Rape;and Roman Polanski[Polanski]

Further Reading

  • Cronin, Paul, ed. Roman Polanski: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. This book presumes Polanski had a career of dark and brutal films that reflect the filmmaker’s troubled life. Contains interviews that cover forty years of his career. Most of the interviews come from foreign film journals, but also included are American television interviews with Dick Cavett and Charlie Rose.
  • Hotchner, A. E. “Queen of the Night.” Vanity Fair, July, 2002. The article that was the subject of Polanski’s libel and slander charge against the Conde Nast publication. Polanski sued the publication in a British court in November, 2003.
  • Morrison, James. Roman Polanski. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Focuses on Polanski’s film career. Begins with his earliest films, which were made in Eastern Europe. Includes thorough commentaries on Polanski’s films that give a great deal of attention to the greater social, economic, political, and moral contexts of the mid- to late twentieth century.
  • Polanski, Roman. Roman. New York: William Morrow, 1984. Polanski’s autobiography. A candid look inside the life, mind, and work of the notorious filmmaker. Offers a rare glimpse into his upbringing, relationships, and approach to his filmmaking, in addition to addressing the events of 1977 that led to his self-imposed exile.

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