With his steely gaze, gravelly voice, and a face that looked like it was hammered out of solid rock, Jack Palance, who died of natural causes at home in Montecito, Calif., on Nov. 10, at age 87, was born to play tough guys. Through more than 50 years in Hollywood, his forte was villains, and not just any villains but the meanest of the mean — the kind, to paraphrase Johnny Cash, who’d shoot a man just to watch him die, and smile while doing it. Palance could exude menace without uttering a word, and his formidable screen presence was never diminished by age. As millions of Oscar viewers learned in 1992, when Palance accepted the Best Supporting Actor award for City Slickers, he could still do one-armed push-ups at 73.
It will surprise no one that Palance came by his grizzled persona honestly. Born Volodymyr Palanyuk, the actor was raised in rural Pennsylvania, where his father was a coal miner. Palance worked in the mines himself before becoming a boxer in the late 1930s. When World War II began, he joined the military but was forced to bail out of a plane on a training flight. For years, legend had it Palance underwent plastic surgery to reconstruct his burned face, but the actor denied this: ”If it is a ‘bionic face,’ why didn’t they do a better job of it?”
After performing as Marlon Brando’s understudy in A Streetcar Named Desire, Palance quickly made a name for himself in Hollywood. He received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the 1952 noir melodrama Sudden Fear, then was nominated again the following year for his performance as a cold-blooded gunslinger in the iconic Western Shane. Over the following years, Palance’s career took a few dips (most of the filmmakers he worked with, he grumbled, ”shouldn’t even be directing traffic”), but he scored a comeback by spoofing himself opposite Billy Crystal in the 1991 comedy City Slickers.
In his private life, Palance had a softer side and was both a painter and a poet. ”As intense, powerful, and intimidating as he appeared on screen, he was just as sensitive, thoughtful, and intelligent off it,” Crystal said in a statement. And, though his acting could be severe, he didn’t take himself seriously. Asked once about his impromptu Oscar-night push-up performance, he said, ”I didn’t know what the hell else to do.”
JACK IN SPADES
Though he described many of his films as ”garbage,” these classics are keepers. — Michelle Kung
SUDDEN FEAR (1952)
Palance oozes charm and loathing as a disgruntled actor who woos heiress Joan Crawford.
A true brute, Palance’s gunslinger fires on all cylinders in one of filmdom’s great showdowns.
REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT (1956)
The ex-fighter won an Emmy for his portrayal of a washed-up boxer.
CITY SLICKERS (1991)
Palance sends up his own tough-guy image — and wins an Oscar for his trouble.
The one-armed push-up display was almost as entertaining as his Academy Award-winning turn.