Correction to This Article
A Nov. 11 Style article incorrectly said that the late Jack Palance played Jesus in "The Silver Chalice." He played Simon the Magician.

Jack Palance, the Best Of the Bad Guys

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 11, 2006

Jack Palance made ugly beautiful -- all 6 feet 4 of him.

You may remember him as Curly, the ornery cowboy from the "City Slickers" movies, or maybe the obnoxious, wizened 73-year-old who -- after winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1992 for his first time playing that role -- looked down on host Billy Crystal and made a joke we love and respect but can't repeat here. After which, he performed a series of one-hand push-ups while Crystal looked on in mock amazement. It was a wonderfully squirmy moment, in which the message was clear, as he bobbed up and down: I'm a man. You can measure me like this. And this. And this.

Was he serious or twitting himself? We'd like to think he was enjoying the doubt -- that embarrassing silence when hushed onlookers aren't sure whether someone's read their postmodern handbook or not.

Regardless, he was cool in his own way. You imagined his brawniness was earned from old-fashioned lugging, hefting and swinging of heavy stuff like rocks, bricks and metal pipes, not on Nautilus equipment with wall-to-wall mirrors and some trainer named Serge looking on. And you didn't think about inconvenient facts, like his real name: He was born in Lattimer Mines, Pa., in the bone-chilling middle of February 1919, and got slapped with Vladimir Palahniuk, which was no name for a cowboy.

Some of you will remember him as Jack Wilson, the relentless bully in 1953's "Shane" who drew guns on Alan Ladd -- that reluctant White Hat -- and took two in the gut. It was always Palance's role to be the dead guy in the final reel. He was the hero's best friend, in a way. After you shot Palance dead, there wasn't much left to do except walk into the sunset. You had gunned down Palance; you were the man.

But That Man is gone, now, for good. He died at 87 of natural causes, not gunshot wounds -- at his Montecito, Calif., home yesterday. Gone, too, are the days -- oh, indulge us, will ya? -- when good meant good and bad meant bad. When westerns were normal entertainments in the movies and on TV -- not metaphorical hi-tech adventures in outer space, or sensitive retro-westerns in which various Eastwoods and Costners showed their tender sides. To women. Jaysus.

His film debut came in 1950, playing a murderer named Blackie in "Panic in the Streets." He scared the life out of Joan Crawford in 1952's "Sudden Fear," for which he earned his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. And he got another nod, but no prize, for his Jack Wilson.

It was beginning of the Palance Role, as Hollywood's go-to bad guy -- and not just as a cowboy. He was an Apache in "Arrowhead," Jack the Ripper in "Man in the Attic," Attila the Hun in "Sign of the Pagan" and he even played Jesus Christ in "The Silver Chalice." But whomever he played, he was always Palance. And he made a whole career of that face -- that nose that looked like it had been battered into a fleshy pretzel with a spade -- and that voice, which sounded like he sprinkled gravel and, possibly, boot nails into his pork and beans for breakfast. His swaggery walk could out-swagger John Wayne. Yes, we said John Wayne. Wanna draw about it, pal?

He seemed mercifully free of airs. "Most of what I do is garbage," he told a reporter once. And as for the directors he worked for, "most of them shouldn't even be directing traffic." Real men, you see, don't talk pretty or eloquent. They just say it like it is.

So we hope you know what we mean when we say, admiringly and with a tip of the black hat, that Palance was one of the last real men. Just remember the way he said, "Prove it!" before he died at the hands of Shane. The pug-ugly majesty. The way he went down like a rock. You never cried for him, going down. Which is why, we guess, we shouldn't cry for Jack, even with the knowledge that, after the credits roll, he isn't going to get up, dust off his hat, ready for another take. He's done and down. And he ain't getting up.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company