Academy Award-winning actor Jack Palance died Friday of natural causes at his home in Montecito, Calif. He was 87.
A leading man in countless Westerns and later a first-rate character actor, the rugged-faced, gravelly voiced Palance appeared in more than 125 films over almost half a century, as well as three television series. He is most closely associated with two roles: that of the villain in the classic Western “Shane,” made in 1953, and a comic variant on that role in “City Slickers,” which won him an Academy Award in 1991 for supporting actor.
The acceptance of his award made for one of the more eccentric Oscar moments in recent history when the then-72-year-old actor fell to the ground and did a series of one-armed push-ups. Host Billy Crystal turned it into a running joke throughout that kudocast.
Palance had won Oscar noms 40 years earlier for “Shane” and “Sudden Fear” as the homicidal husband of Joan Crawford. In 1956 he won an Emmy for creating the role of a down-and out boxer in Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”
He was passed over for the film version of the teleplay, which went to Anthony Quinn, whom Palance had understudied in “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the start of his career.
The son of Ukrainian immigrants, he was born Vladimir Palaniuk in Lattimore, Pa. His father, a coal miner, died of black lung disease and for a time it appeared that son Jack would be faced with the same prospect. He even worked in the mines during summer vacations from school.
He escaped the oppressive mining town through sports, winning a football scholarship to the U. of North Carolina and then becoming a boxer under the name Jack Brazzo. He enlisted in the Air Force, but in November 1943 his B-24 plane died on takeoff, and Palance was knocked unconscious. He spent many months recovering from the injury, undergoing plastic surgery on his damaged face, and was honorably discharged.
Under the GI Bill he entered Stanford U. to study journalism, but quickly turned to drama. In 1946, shortly before graduation, he quit and moved to New York where he landed his first Broadway role a month later in “The Big Two” for director Robert Montgomery. Palance worked odd jobs to make ends meet until he understudied for Quinn in the road company of “Streetcar.” He then returned to Broadway and subbed for Marlon Brando, who had broken his nose.
Director Elia Kazan was sufficiently impressed and cast him in his film debut as a murderer in “Panic in the Streets,” a suspense thriller released in 1950. He remained in Hollywood for “Halls of Montezuma” and then returned to Broadway in Arthur Koestler’s drama “Darkness at Noon.”
The Oscar nomination for “Sudden Fear” in 1952, and another for “Shane” a year later, established him as a bad guy, which he continued in many less distinguished films such as “Arrowhead,” “Man in the Attic,” “Sign of the Pagan,” “The Silver Chalice” and a tepid remake of “High Sierra” called “I Died a Thousand Times.”
Among his better roles were assignments for hard-edged director Robert Aldrich including Clifford Odets “The Big Knife” and the war dramas “Attack” and “Ten Seconds to Hell.”
Equally impressive was his Emmy award-winning role in “Requiem” on television, and a starring role in a TV version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon.” Then in 1957, Palance quit and moved to Switzerland, where he made ends meet by appearing in glossy European-made films and the occasional art film such as Jean Luc Goddard’s “Contempt.”
He returned to the U.S. in 1963 for the short-lived TV series “The Greatest Show on Earth” and was then cast in Richard Brooks’ “The Professionals” in 1966. He worked on a string of Westerns and films like the disastrous “Che,” then found more appealing work in the made-for-TV arena including a remake of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang.” In 1974 there was another series attempt, a cop show called “Bronk,” which did not work.
A series version of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” followed in 1982, with Palance narrating. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Palance made a comeback starting with Percy Adlon’s “Bagdad Cafe,” “Young Guns” and a supporting role in “Batman.”
“City Slickers” made him a star all over again and he reprised in its sequel playing the brother of the character he’d played in the original.
His last role was in 2004 in the telepic “Back When We Were Grownups.”
Palance fathered three children with actress and producer Virginia Baker whom he divorced in 1968. A son, actor Cody, died in 1998.
Palance is survived by his second wife, Elaine; daughters Holly Palance and Brook Palance Wilding, both actresses; three grandchildren; a brother and a sister.
Memorial services will be held Dec. 16.
Donations may be made to the Penn State U., Hazelton campus.