‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ Fact Check: Did Charles Manson Scope Out the Tate-Polanski House Before the Murders?

Quentin Tarantino’s film plays with facts in intriguing ways

Damon Herriman Charles Manson Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
Sony Pictures

(Spoiler alert: Do not read on if you haven’t seen Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.”)

Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” which takes place around the time of the Manson Family murders of Sharon Tate and her friends, shows Charles Manson himself dropping by her house on Cielo Drive before the killings.

Did it really happen? Or is another example of Tarantino taking artistic license? The answer is, there’s truth to this part of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” even if it isn’t exactly true.

The film shows Manson (Damon Herriman) getting out of a small ice-cream truck and walking up to the gate of 10050 Cielo Drive, the house Tate and Roman Polanski shared. Tate is home with friend Jay Sebring, who was among those murdered on that infamous night. They see a man walking up to the door, and Sebring (Emile Hirsch) intercepts. Manson then asks about someone named Terry, who used to live there, and leaves when he hears his friend has moved on.

There’s no evidence that this incident actually happened. But it is absolutely true that Manson visited the property before the murders.

The home was the residence of Byrds producer Terry Melcher and actress Candice Bergen from May 1966 to January 1969. Polanski and Tate moved into the house in February 1969, renting from Rudolph Altobelli. (The early part of the film is set in February 1969.)

In “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders,” author Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor in the 1970 Manson murder, wrote that Terry Melcher once “described meeting Manson” and said that Manson once came along when Dennis Wilson, of the Beach Boys, gave Melcher a ride home to 10050 Cielo Drive.

Manson had befriended Wilson, and even lived with the famous musician, along with Manson family member Susan Atkins and others. At the time, Manson harbored hopes of becoming a popular musician himself.

Melcher was involved in a record company, and Bugliosi said Manson came to believe that Melcher had promised to help him with his music.

But it wasn’t to be.

Bugliosi wrote:

After listening him play and sing, Melcher had said no… According to various Family members, Melcher had made numerous promises to Manson, and hadn’t come through on them.

Unsurprisingly, Melcher has a different memory. Bugliosi said that Melcher had twice gone to Spahn Ranch, where the Manson family moved as their numbers grew. He heard Manson perform, and was not “enthused.” He also gave Manson money to buy food for his haggard band of followers.

Bugliosi wrote:

The first time he went to Spahn, he had given Manson fifty dollars, all the money he had in his pocket, because ‘I felt sorry for these people,’ but it was for food, not an advance on a recording contract; and he’d made no promises. As for Manson’s talent, he wasn’t impressed enough to allot the time necessary to prepare and record him.

Additionally, Mark Lindsay, leader of the band Paul Revere and the Raiders (who are referenced in Tarantino’s film) said he saw Manson in person during a visit to the home when Melcher lived there. He told the Houston Press:

Jimi Hendrix came by, everybody did. I was on the road a lot, and one day I came home and walked in the door and there was a business meeting going on. Terry was there and Dennis Wilson from the Beach Boys and some high-powered attorneys. …So I walked into the kitchen to get a drink and there was this guy squatting against the refrigerator on the floor wearing this work shirt and jeans and looking really scruffy. So I said “Excuse me” and tried to open the door, but he wouldn’t move, he was just like a doorstop and stared straight ahead. After trying a few times, I walked into the other room and said “Hey, who’s the weird dude in the kitchen?” And someone said “Oh, that’s just Charlie. He’s okay!”

Bugliosi said Atkins, one of the four Manson followers who was involved in the attack at Cielo Drive, said in her confession: “The reason Charlie picked that house was to instill fear into Terry Melcher because Terry had given us his word on a few things and never came through with them.’”

But Bugliosi said this may not have been the primary motive, because Manson likely knew by the night of the murders that Melcher was no longer living at Cielo Drive.

During the trial, Atkins was asked whether she knew why they were sent specifically to Melcher’s former residence. She responded, “to get all of their money and to kill whoever was there.”