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Arts and Entertainment

When Robert Evans Hosted Seder For Roman Polanski, Kirk Douglas, Warren Beatty And Walter Matthau

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In the spring of 1973, legendary producer Robert Evans was in the midst of courting director Roman Polanski to helm what would later become the single most iconic L.A. movie ever made: Chinatown. Somehow, the courtship culminated in Evans hosting the Polish-French-Jewish filmmaker for Passover, where they were joined at the seder table by actors Warren Beatty, Kirk Douglas, Leigh Taylor Young, Walter Matthau, director Billy Wilder, and the late superagent Sue Mengers. The seder was led in perfect Hebrew by Kirk Douglas, who "was a better rabbi than actor," according to Evans. The New Yorker reports that mob fixer Sidney Korshak arranged the catering for the meal.

Here's how it all came together, as recounted in Evans' book, The Kid Stays In The Picture:

"Polanski from London, Mr. Evans."
"Roman, I've got two houses for you to look at. I think you'll like them both."
"I can't come for two weeks."
"The script's a fuckin' mess, Roman. I need you here yesterday."
"I've got to go to Poland, Bob, for Passover."
"Fuck Passover, Roman. If you don't get here, we're never going to get into shape. I'll have Passover at my house."
A first: I'd never held a Passover seder in my home. I didn't know what to serve, but if it took matzos to get the maestro to America, matzos it was."
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So Polanski "blew into town," and started feverishly battling screenwriter Robert Towne on the Chinatown script. Meanwhile, as Evans recounts, "a Chinese acupuncturist had been summoned from Paris to be the thirty-eighth person to work on my sciatic problem."

The acupuncturist was removing the hairlike needles ("which hurt like hell by the way") from Evans' back when an "urgent call" from Polanski was put through. The urgency, it turned out, was Polanski reminding Evans that the oldest continuously practiced ritual in the western world (aka the Passover seder) was set to take place the next night. Evans had apparently forgotten, and Polanski was unamused.

"You forgot, didn't you?" Roman snickered. "And you're my producer! It's like a Polish movie. I've got a script I don't understand and a producer who's flirting with senility!" But Evans managed to get the meal together, as he recounts in his book:

Punctually, at sundown, dressed in suit, shirt, and tie, Roman arrived. Greeting him were Anne and Kirk Douglas; Carol and Walter Matthau and their son, Charlie; Audrey and Billy Wilder; Sue Mengers and her husband, Jean-Claude Tramont; the fetching beauties Leigh Taylor-Young and Joanna Cameron; and sporting a yarmulke, Warren Beatty. From the drawing room, we adjourned to the dining room, where my butler and two servants proceeded to serve a Passover meal authentic enough to get a nod from Golda Meir. Only half of the guests at the table were Jewish in faith, but in spirit, it was as festive as joining a kibbutz betrothal.

Walter Matthau's young son Charlie asked the Four Questions and Evans took dozens of pictures of the evening. In his Jack Nicholson biography, Marc Eliot alleges that Nicholson, Anjelica Huston and Hugh Hefner were also in attendance at the legendary seder.

Four years after the seder, Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl at Nicholson's Mulholland home and later fled the U.S. to avoid a potentially lengthy prison sentence. He has avoided extradition attempts for almost four decades, and a Los Angeles judge recently shut down his bid to resolve the case without further jail time.

H/T: Richard Rushfield's fantastic Hollywood newsletter The Ankler, which you should be reading (Subscribe here).

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