Netflix's newest and craziest original film, The Polka King (writer/director Maya Forbes), weaves a pretty incredible yarn. It tells the story of Jan Lewan, a Polish immigrant who moves to America with big dreams and big talent as a polka musician in the 1970s. He builds a loyal following in Pennsylvania and surrounding states as a polka star, before his world comes crashing down after he is jailed for running a ponzi scheme and scamming his fans out of millions of dollars. And while the story is certainly crazy, it's also true, which has fans wondering where Jan Lewan is now.
Today, Lewan is 76 years old and is a free man who has expressed regret for his past transgressions, and he recently aided in the production of The Polka King. Jack Black portrays Lewan in the movie, and the pair engaged in several lengthy Skype calls over a period of time. During these calls, Black essentially received Lewan's life story straight from the horse's mouth, while also gaining insight into his character and personality to later use in his portrayal. "He talked to me almost every night at eight o'clock for a couple hours on [Skype]," Lewan said of Black in an interview with his official videographer, Lightning Video. Black also confirmed their Skype sessions in an interview with Newsweek's Zach Schonfeld, adding that he also hung out with Lewan in person while recording songs for the movie's soundtrack. "We did a lot of Skyping," Black said. "I talked to him about his background [and] his life. And when I got to New York to record the soundtrack album, he was at the studio."
Lewan went to federal prison in 2004 after his conviction for running a ponzi scheme in which he fleeced people in 22 states out of around $5 million. The scam saw people investing in Lewan's souvenir-reselling business, which consisted of him buying cheap souvenirs in bulk in Poland and selling them for profit to his fans back in the United States. He offered fans a chance to invest in the business at a guaranteed 12 percent return on their investments, but eventually ended up unable to pay his investors back. Lewan served a total of five years in prison for the crime, but he almost didn't make it out alive.
While incarcerated, Lewan's cellmate slit his throat in an attempt to murder him after hearing an untrue rumor that Lewan was a child molester. "Look at me: I’m a softy," he told Cosmopolitan Review's Vince Chesney in a 2010 interview. "An old white foreign guy: I wasn’t like the other prisoners. They thought I was a molester." Despite the close call, however, Lewan made the most of his time in prison. He wrote of his life experiences with the intention of writing a book, and the notes were used as research during production on The Polka King. He also learned to rap while in prison, according to Cosmopolitan Review, and when Lewan attended the Sundance Film Festival in 2017 to see the premiere of the film, he even joined Black on stage during the event to show off his rap skills.
Since leaving prison in 2009, Lewan has returned to music, holding a sold-out reunion concert with his old bandmates at the Philharmonic Hall in his hometown of Hazleton, PA, and releasing a new album of his greatest hits in January of last year. He is also planning to lead another trip of fans to Poland (though not as part of a souvenir-reselling scheme) one last time in Sep. 2018, according to his website, which he is billing as the "2018 Farewell Tour to Poland."
Jan Lewan served his time in prison and has received a second chance at life, which he is making the most of by once again doing the things he loves... but without repeating the mistakes of his past.