Actor Jack Palance; in a Varied Career, Roles as Embodiment of Evil Stand Out

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 11, 2006

Jack Palance, 87, the veteran character actor who personified pure menace in his most notable roles, including in "Shane" and "Sudden Fear," died Nov. 10 at his home in Montecito, Calif. No cause of death was reported.

Mr. Palance is perhaps best remembered by modern movie audiences for his hilarious one-arm push-up stunt at the 1992 Academy Awards, where, at age 73, he won the Oscar for best supporting actor for his role as Curly Washburn in the 1991 comedy "City Slickers."

In Curly, he became a parody of his tough-guy screen persona. Usually he was the sociopathic gunfighter, the murderous husband, the macho killer. He looked the part. Tall and intimidating, with a calm, low voice and a boxer's broken face, he exuded danger; wise men, and women, knew to step aside.

He preferred the lighter stuff, he told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. Those roles came along occasionally -- for example, as a retired Hollywood set painter in "Baghdad Cafe" (1988) -- but in more than 150 movies, TV appearances and theater roles over a half-century-long career, he was more often the quintessential bad guy.

He could be that way in person, too. Over the years, he often expressed his disdain for Hollywood mores and developed a reputation as being difficult on sets.

In the 1995 Los Angeles Times article, director Rod Hardy agreed with that assessment but said that everyone can be ornery at times. "He's survived in an industry that's very hard on one," Hardy said.

His early years were not easy. Born Vladimir Palahnuik on Feb. 18, 1919, in a tiny Pennsylvania coal town called Lattimer Mines, he followed his Ukrainian immigrant father into the mines at a young age. He also tried his hand at professional boxing, compiling a record of 15 consecutive victories with 12 knockouts before losing to a future heavyweight contender.

He won a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina but left after two years. Big-time college football, he thought, was becoming too commercial.

He joined the Army Air Forces in 1942 but was discharged a year later after he was in a plane crash in which he suffered severe head injuries and burns on his face, which required plastic surgery.

He used the G.I. Bill to study journalism at Stanford University, leaving a credit short of graduation in 1947. He made his Broadway debut that year, appearing in a comedy called "The Big Two." He had only one line, spoken in Russian, which his parents spoke at home.

Mr. Palance was the understudy to both Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn in the original Broadway production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," directed by Elia Kazan. After replacing Brando in the role of Stanley Kowalski, his performance landed him a movie contract with 20th Century Fox.

In his first film, "Panic in the Streets" (1950), directed by Kazan and starring Richard Widmark and Paul Douglas, he played Blackie, a killer infected with bubonic plague. After "Halls of Montezuma," he portrayed Lester Blaine, a lover stalking a terrified Joan Crawford, in "Sudden Fear" (1952); his performance resulted in his first Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor.

He was nominated again the next year for his role as Jack Wilson, the sinister gunfighter who toys with Alan Ladd as the peace-loving former gunslinger in "Shane," the George Stevens epic. In a final and memorable showdown, freighted with symbolism and foreshadowed throughout the film, Ladd outshoots the black-hatted arch villain.

He was a renegade Apache in "Arrowhead" (1953), Jack the Ripper in "Man in the Attic" (1953), Attila the Hun in "Sign of the Pagan" (1954) and Fidel Castro in "Che!" (1969). Other significant films in which he appeared include "Kiss of Fire," "Oklahoma Crude," "The Big Knife," "I Died a Thousand Times," " Le Mépris " ("Contempt"), "The Lonely Man" and "House of Numbers."

The Oscar for the "City Slickers" role came four decades after his Hollywood debut. He also won an Emmy for his role as the punch-drunk Mountain McClintock in the 1956 "Playhouse 90" production of Rod Serling's "Requiem for a Heavyweight."

During the 1980s, he appeared in "Young Guns" (1988) and Tim Burton's "Batman" (1989) and with his daughter Holly Palance co-hosted the TV series "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" He also painted and sold landscape art, including a poem on the back of each picture, and published a book of blank verse, "The Forest of Love" (1997).

Mr. Palance's marriage to Virginia Baker ended in divorce.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife of 19 years, Elaine Rochelle Rogers of Montecito, and two other children from his first marriage, Brooke Palance and Cody Palance.

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