Saturday, November 11, 2006

Jack Palance is Dead

Actor Jack Palance, best known for his many tough guy roles, died yesterday at the age of 87. He was probably most famous for his roles in Shane, where he played what could have been the most sinister villain in any Western (hired killer Jack Wilson) and in City Slickers (where he played a parody of his many tough guy roles, aging cowboy Curly).

Palance was born Vladimir Palaniuk near Hazleton, Pennsylvania on February 18, 1919. His father, an immigrant from the Ukraine, was a coal miner. While young he also worked in the mines. He would move onto professional boxing, scoring an impressive 15 wins in a row, with 12 knockouts, before losing to Joe Baksi, a future contender in heavyweight boxing. He served in World War II, and would eventually receive both a good conduct medal, a purple heart, and a Victory medal. Unfortunately, as a student pilot he would also be disfigured after bailing out of a B-24 Liberator that was on fire. Reconstructive surgery reparied much of the damage, but left him with the craggy, gaunt face for which he would become famous.

Following World War II Palance enrolled at Stanford University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Drama. As an actor his big break came when he was Marlon Brando's understudy on A Streetcar Named Desire. When Brando left the play, Palance replaced him as Stanley. He would go onto appear on Broadway in the plays A Temporary Island, The Vigil, and Darkness at Noon. It was in 1950 that he made his first appearance on television, in an episode of Lights Out. That same year he made his screen debut in the film Panic in the Streets.

The studios swiftly recognised Palance's talent and on his third film he found himself cast opposite Joan Crawford, playing sociopathic actor Lester Blaine. The role would earn him his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. A year later Palance would appear in Shane as cold blooded gunman Jack Wilson. Palance at the top of his game, giving what may be the greatest performance as a villain of a Western ever. He was again nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Indeed, Palance may have played Jack Wilson too well. The majority of his career would be spent playing heavies. He worked steadily throughout the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, playing in both major motion pictures and B-movies. Among the most notable films in which he appeared were I Died a Thousand Times, Goddard's Le Mepris, The Professionals, Monte Walsh, Batman, and, of course, City Slickers. In City Slickers Palance played Curly, the aging cowboy who also happened to be a parody of all the tough guy roles he had played. His performance would earn him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Much of his success in that film may well have stemmed from the fact that Palance actually preferred lighter roles to playing villains. Indeed, among his more recent performances, that of retired Hollywood set painter Rudi Cox in Out of Rosenheim (known as Baghdad Cafe here in the States) was among his best.

Palance also had a long career in television, although it was primarily as a guest star or an actor in TV movies. Perhaps his most significant performance on television was that of Mountain McClintock in "Requiem for a Heavyweight," which aired on Playhouse 90. He won the 1957 Emmy for Best Single Performance by an Actor. Palance also appeared on such legendary series as Your Show of Shows, Studio One, and Suspense. He also appeared on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, Convoy, The Red Skelton Show Run for Your Life, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. He was the lead in the series The Greatest Show on Earth and Bronk. He was also the host of the long running Ripley's Believe It or Not. Over the years Palance appeared in several TV movies, the most significant of which were two made in conjunction with Dan Curtis. The first was an adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The second was an adaptation of Dracula. Although Palance might seem oddly cast as Dracula, I honestly believe he may have been the best man to have played the Count besides Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman.

I have often thought that Jack Palance's talent was underestimated. His appearance and raspy voice made him perfect for playing villains, yet he could do so much more. While he could be absolutely sinister as Lester Blaine or Jack Wilson, he could just as easily be funny as Rudi Cox or Curly. He could even manage to shine such lesser vehicles as Cops and Robbersons (a Chevy Chase movie, of all things)! Although best known for playing heavies, Palance was capable of so much more. He was quite simply a very versatile actor.

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