Winning an Oscar is supposed to be a night you’ll always remember. For Polish animator Zbigniew Rybczynski, it was a night he’d rather forget. In 1983, he earned the dubious distinction of being the only person to win an Academy Award, and within minutes, arrested and jailed.
The troubles began the moment that presenter Kristy McNichol tried to announce his name as a nominee in the Best Animated Short category for the film Tango:
She gave up due to the difficulty of his name, and when she had to announce his name again as the winner, she butchered it into something that sounded like “Zbigniewski Sky.”
Rybczynski, dressed in a tuxedo and sneakers, came onstage with his translator. He began his speech, “Distinguished members of the Academy, ladies and gentlemen, I made this short film so I will speak very short. I feel honored to receive this award. I am dreaming that someday I will speak longer from this place…” At that moment, the orchestra cut off his speech with the ignominious Looney Tunes theme.
His translator pleaded to the audience, “It’s not over yet. He has important message.” But McNichol and co-presenter Matt Dillon were already trying to escort Rybczynski offstage. Rybczynski insisted that he couldn’t leave yet, saying, “No, no.” Rybczynski gave McNichol a kiss as she backed off. “That is Slavic custom. We are very warm people,” the translator told the confused audience. Then, continuing via the translator, Rybczynski attempted to make a point that was garbled in the translation: “And on the occasion of the film like Gandhi, which will portray Lech Walesa in solidarity.”
After speaking with reporters in the press room, Rybczynski briefly stepped outside of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to enjoy a victory smoke. When he tried to walk back into the building, holding an Oscar no less, a private security guard denied him entry. The overaggressive guard’s behavior escalated into a physical altercation and the police were called.
Two officers arrived, Sgt. Richard Longshore and another detective. “I had a female detective with me who spoke about 15 languages,” Longshore said. “She explained the situation to him.” A frustrated (and according to the police, intoxicated) Rybczynski looked at Longshore and yelled, ‘American pig, I have Oscar.’ Then—if you believe the police account—Rybczynski tried to kick him in the groin.
Rybczynski was arrested, and his Oscar was booked as “property.” In jail, he asked to speak to celebrity ‘palimony’ lawyer Marvin Mitchelson, the only American lawyer whose name he’d ever heard. Mitchelson later quipped that when he was first contacted, he said, “First bring me an interpreter, and then tell me how to pronounce his name.”
The district attorney’s office declined to prosecute Rybczynski, saying there had been a language problem. Rybczynski later offered his own opinion of the event, saying that “success and defeat are quite intertwined.”
While Rybczynski’s special night was special for all the wrong reasons, the story has a happy ending. After the Oscar, he had a successful career directing dozens of experimental shorts and MTV music videos, and also spent many years developing new technologies like hi-def TV.
After years of living in the US, Rybczynski recently returned to Poland where he is heading the Wroclaw Visual Technology Studios, a hybrid school/production studio that focuses on applying new technologies to film production. Future confrontations with American law enforcement are perhaps less likely nowadays because, as this video shows, Rybczynski has also learned how to speak English.
Sources used in this story: Oscars.org, LA Times. Tango’s IMDB page, “Behind the Oscar: The Secret History of the Academy Awards” by Anthony Holden