The voices on the phone were more like whispers. It was as if no one could give full voice to the dreaded news. “I’m locking the doors and pulling down the blinds,” said one caller, a top film director. “It’s like a doomsday scenario.”
Fifty years ago, Hollywood was frozen by news of the Charles Manson murders, a dark event the industry seems now bent on re-living. Three movies about Sharon Tate will shortly be released, as will a Quentin Tarantino film set against the background of the murders (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt will star). Roman Polanski, then Tate’s husband, is now also in the news, directing a new movie titled J’Accuse. Magazine articles and TV specials are in preparation about Manson and his cult – a cast of characters Hollywood cannot erase from its mind.
The man who told me he’d locked his doors was Stuart Rosenberg, a veteran filmmaker who’d shot many gritty crime movies but admitted shock and confusion that night. So did the next voice on my phone, Sidney Korshak, the celebrated fixer, who said simply, “The danger is greatest when absolutely nothing makes sense.”
Nothing was making sense at that moment in August when the brutality and randomness of the murders — five in 24 hours — left both the cops and the public in a state of numb confusion. By summer 1969 America had already witnessed political assassinations and rioting triggered by Vietnam, but somehow Manson brought the disarray up front and personal.
It was very personal to me and to Bob Evans, with whom I was then working at Paramount. A year earlier we’d persuaded Polanski to come to Hollywood to direct Rosemary’s Baby, which he’d now completed. We were mindful of his troubled past – a survivor of both Nazi and Russian terrorism — but Polanski now seemed cheerfully upbeat as he left for London for a brief post-production meeting. His bride, Sharon, who was pregnant, had told him she would invite a few friends for dinner in his absence.
Most of us learned of the murders by radio or phone calls. Bob Evans was tipped by a gossip columnist, Joyce Haber, who feared Evans, too, had been murdered. Within hours, the suspicions were pervasive: What were Manson’s motives? Was it an inside job? Were drugs involved? Polanski himself represented a dark aura: Having made brutal thrillers in the past, Polanski’s new movie, based on a bestseller, focused on a young woman (Mia Farrow) tormented by supposed friends. Did it somehow fit together?
Within hours after the news broke, Polanski was on a plane to return to Los Angeles. I knew his first destination would surely be Evans’ house, since the two had become close. Between the police and the media, the house would be locked in a state of siege. I, too, was already fielding urgent calls from the media: Had I been invited to Sharon’s dinner? Did I know if someone was stalking her?
Korshak asked those questions as well. I had gotten to know Korshak through Evans, who looked upon him as his godfather. Once an attorney for Chicago mob figures, Korshak had become a trusted adviser for Paramount, Universal and other Hollywood entities. Impeccably polite, clad always in blue suit and tie, Korshak was a good man to know in difficult situations.
The urgent need now was to mobilize security and other permissions to intercept Polanski and take him to a dressing room on the Paramount lot, where media access could be cut off, he could regain his composure and law enforcement could interview him away from the cameras. The previous occupant of the bungalow had just left; it was Julie Andrews.
To the media, Polanski had become not only a suspect but a huge distraction. “Was this a ritual mock execution that got out of hand in the glare of hallucinogens?” asked Newsweek. A frantic Evans, his home already surrounded, endorsed the plan to transport Polanski to the lot; it was successfully executed with the help of a security team.
Within hours this much became clear: An emotionally distraught Polanski was not in any way complicit. Clues about the real murderers already were emerging. The story was becoming even more horrific as a fearsome new cast of characters was now its focus.
That cast still holds fascination even as Manson himself has inspired an entire mythology of books and movies. Tate’s story will be depicted in forthcoming movies; she will be portrayed by Margot Robbie, Hilary Duff and Kate Bosworth.
In his writings, Polanski, now 85, and living in exile in Paris, has pinned blame for much of his ordeal on the media. “The reporting about Sharon and the murders in effect blamed the victims for their own murders,” he wrote in his memoir. “It was the press that made me despise the press.” His movie, backed by French funding, focuses on Captain Alfred Dreyfus who, in the 1890s, amid a wave of anti-Semitism, was accused of treason, banished to Devil’s Island, then exonerated.
Tarantino’s movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, will be released July 26. Photos of its star-laden cast already are splayed across promotional material, the actors looking slightly off-kilter in their ‘60s hippie gear.
Charles Manson died in jail in 2017. His remains were dispatched to a son, but his legend will clearly endure at the box office.