Arriving in Zurich to accept a lifetime achievement award at a film festival, director Roman Polanski was surely anticipating a warm reception. But as Polanski, 76, disembarked from his flight, he was detained by Swiss authorities and thrown into the high-security airport prison to await extradition to the U.S. on a conviction stemming from a 1977 sex charge. In a phone call from the prison to his wife, actress Emmanuelle Seigner, the stunned director tried to play down the seriousness of the situation. “‘Don’t worry, don’t worry,’ he said repeatedly,” according to one family friend. “He reminded her that he’d been through a lot of difficulties and that this would work itself out.”
In fact, Polanski may be in real trouble. Thirty-two years ago he pleaded guilty in Los Angeles to having sex with a girl who was then 13 years old. He spent 42 days in prison undergoing an evaluation, but after serving that time he learned that a judge was thinking about rejecting a plea deal and imposing a far longer prison term—at which point Polanski fled the United States. Since then he has been living in France and has never set foot on American soil. Until recently, American officials haven’t seemed overly concerned about apprehending the director, whose works include Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby and The Pianist, for which he won an Oscar in 2003 that he accepted in absentia. Echoing the sentiment of several European officials who voiced outrage over the arrest, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said, “This affair is frankly a bit sinister.”
The timing of the sting was certainly puzzling. Polanski, who holds dual French and Polish citizenship, owns a chalet in the Swiss resort of Gstaad and has traveled freely to the country many times over the years. Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, maintains that what made this visit different was that U.S. officials knew ahead of time that Polanski would be there. “It wasn’t a big secret that he was going to be in Zurich,” she told PEOPLE. She also said that American authorities had in the past tried more than half a dozen times to nab Polanski but that he had apparently learned of their plans and altered his itinerary.
Some of Polanski’s friends scoff at that explanation. British writer Robert Harris, who was working with Polanski on The Ghost, a movie starring Pierce Brosnan based on Harris’s novel, points out that the director spent three months this year filming in Germany, which, like Switzerland, has an extradition treaty with the U.S. “He could have been picked up by German police at any time,” says Harris. There is speculation that politics could have played some role in this latest twist in the case. The U.S. has been pressuring Switzerland to disclose the names of potential American tax cheats, and giving up Polanski may be a Swiss ploy to curry favor. “I do not know,” says Harris, “but it’s very bizarre it should happen now.”
That it is happening at all is a bit of a surprise. The victim in question, Samantha Geimer, now 45, who sued Polanski and reached a monetary settlement, has maintained that he should face no further criminal liability. (The sexual encounter took place in Jack Nicholson’s home after Polanski supplied Geimer with a drug.) As Geimer told PEOPLE in 1997, she even has sympathy for Polanski, pointing out that his mother died in a Nazi concentration camp and his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family in 1969 (see box). Said Geimer: “I don’t carry around bad feelings about him.”
Polanski has vowed to fight extradition, a process that could take several months. During that time, pending appeal, he is likely to remain in detention at the Zurich airport prison. If he does return, it is unclear what punishment he would be facing. All Gibbons would say is that “once he comes back, it’s up to a judge to decide what to do.” Says Harris: “If anyone is going to be able to cope with this, it’s him. He’s strong and he’s a fighter.”