Degrees of Separation

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

This week I was struck -– again -- by the uncanny way that news stories in Los Angeles overlap through time and main characters.

Many fewer than six degrees of separation are needed to make a lot of connections between events in this town.

Take the Lakers. In last night's embarrassment, before the Lakers blew a 24-point lead and lost to the Celtics, ABC's cameras did the usual scan of celebrities in attendance.

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett. Justin Timberlake. Dyan Cannon.

And of course, Jack Nicholson. Grinning as always in his front row seat, just like at every game shown on national TV.

Nicholson's face also turns up in the HBO documentary I watched --after the game -- about the director-in-exile Roman Polanski.

It's Polanski, playing an unconvincing thug, who slices Nicholson's nose so graphically in Chinatown, the 1974 film that Polanski directed.

A few years later, it's at Nicholson's home on Mulholland Drive where Polanski committed the crimes that led him to flee the United States for France.

He gave Champagne and a Quaalude to a 13 year-old girl from the Valley. He persuaded her to take off her clothes, then lured her into Jack's Jacuzzi.

From there they did things that thirteen year olds shouldn't even know about. All of them illegal.

Nicholson wasn't home, and in a metaphorical sense, neither was the girl's mother.

She was a bit actress, and apparently thought it would further her career for her daughter to accept a date to be photographed in private by such a renowned director.

But as the girl, now a mother herself, says in the documentary, what happened really wasn't her mom's fault.

When the police raided Polanski's suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, they found nude photos that were enough to get a grand jury indictment.

When incriminating underwear showed up, Polanski agreed to a plea bargain that spared the girl from testifying.

He admitted knowing she was 13 and pleaded to a single count of unlawful intercourse with a minor.

From there, the documentary's main point is that Polanski never should have been threatened with prison time. The DA who prosecuted thought probation was enough. Even the girl's mother did not want Polanski jailed.

But the judge was a publicity hound who cared a bit too much what the press thought.

The Polanski case was the biggest media circus to hit the courthouse in Santa Monica, and Judge Laurence Rittenband did not like to be embarrassed.

Both the DA and Polanski's lawyer, Doug Dalton, say in the film that the judge reneged on deals to let Polanski go free. Just before sentencing, the judge was overheard at Hillcrest Country Club saying he intended to lock up Polanski for life.

So Polanski split for Paris. That was 30 years ago.

The most famous Hollywood exile since Charles Chaplin won an Oscar in 2003 for directing The Pianist and received a huge ovation from the stars – in absentia.

Polanski also figures in a story that broke in the news today.

His first wife was Sharon Tate, the beautiful blond – and pregnant -- starlet who was murdered in the notorious Benedict Canyon killing spree ordered by Charles Manson almost forty years ago.

Susan Atkins was a young Manson follower who suspended Tate from a roof beam and stabbed her dozens of times. She used Tate's blood to scrawl the word PIG on a door, part of Manson's lunatic scheme to incite a race war.

Atkins has now been in jail longer than any woman in California prisons –- but might be the first Manson girl to get out.

The former hippie chick has brain cancer, lost a leg to amputation, and may have less than six months to live.

Polanski's victim long ago public forgave him and said it's all in the past. I'm curious to hear what Polanski will say about Susan Atkins.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.

Banner image: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary