Behind the ravaged tough-guy mug of Jack Palance there lies a soulful and gentle interior, right? Not exactly. There doesn't seem a lot of interior left. Certainly he's not punchy like the immortal Mountain McClintock he played in "Requiem for a Heavyweight" on TV 24 years ago (and, again, in a kinescope recording of the play, tonight on public TV). Palance appears battle-pocked and ornery, a near-star who is annoyed by almost everything.
Now 60, Palance would rather be back on his farm in Drums, Pa., planting "several hundred acres" of soybeans than reminiscing about his Great Moment on live television or talking about his old villian image ("I never think about that anymore") or discussing the way his brutish physignomy may have shaped his destiny ("People write about that and I find it disheartening") or taking the rap for terrorizing the farmers in "Shane," his most famous role, or trying to decide whether this or that movie was any good.
"What difference does it make whether something is good or bad?" he asks with a sigh of angsty resignation.
Years of being up to here in the Big Muddy of the Mediocre may have left him jaded, but he wasn't the first talented actor to have fallen between the cracks of What Might Have Been. Nor, for sure, the last.
At least he had his night under the lights.
Millions have never seen "Requiem" and these include Palance. He couldn't watch it the night he did it on Cbs "Playhouse 90" because it was live. "I got a copy of it years ago in three parts, three huge cans, that somebody gave me," he says, "but then you need all the machinery to run it and I didn't have it."
His memories of "Requiem" are quite vague, but he says he does remember the era of live television, sometimes with a grimace, usually with a grin of pleasure.
"I do remember doing another show almost immediately after "Requiem" with Keenan Wynn, "The Last Tycoon" (from Fitzgerald's novel), which I loved doing, with Peter Lorre, Viveca Lindfors and some other people, and in one scene with Keenan he was starting to tell me something and I could see his face getting red, and suddenly there was a stop and all he could think of to say was, "Well! Well! Whaddayouthink about THAT?" That was it and you had to think of something to get back into the story. The kind of feeling was very frightening.
"It was a marvelous period. There was something terribly exciting about it all. It isn't exciting any more.
"I remember doing a show with an actress -- Carol Something, I forget her last name -- a lovely, dark-haired actress but Lord, I remember some guy running across the stage by the camera and he slipped and Carol fell out of his arms and you heard that head go 'Kuh-lunk' on the floor, and she was out and had to be in the next scene.
"And, frantically, while you're acting, they're working on this woman trying to get her to come to. What a catastrophe. Lines were going like crazy: finally they pushed her in there and propped her up in a chair and she mumbled a few lines. Someone slipped me a note: 'cover as much as possible, say whatever you can, cover for her lack of dialogue,' so you did. You said, 'I'm sure you came here to --' Something like that."
In another liver TV play, Palance played a bullfighter who fought not a real bull but a head and horns mounted on a wheeled device pushed around by stagehands. Unfortunely at least once the stagehands rolled right into the scene with the bull. "Now how do you get people back to a show like that when they've seen that kind of thing?" Palance asks, murmuring a laugh.
He is not an inordinately cheerful man. But then there are all sorts of things that can depress him. He isn't thrilled at the thought of all the ragtag gladiator epics he made in Yugoslavia or God knows where. And his happy if hectic memories of live TV are offset by later experiences, when the golden age gave way to the plastic age and he found himself in such enterprises as "Bronk," a CBS cop show that looked great as a pilot -- full of character, nuance, detail -- but then, when it got to be a series, fell over in a heap.
The network decided it wanted everything that had made the show distinctive taken out.
"It became a standard-procedure-type television program," he says with a visible groan. "What happens is that unfortunately an actor gets stuck in something like that. I would never, never have agreed to do 'bronk' if I knew it would be the 'bronk' that your saw.
"I couldn't get out of it. I'd signed. There I was reading this junk week after week and doing it."
That was in 1975, and "bronk" collapsed into the gutter after one miserable season. Earlier, Palance was in a better and slightly more successful ABC series. "The Greatest Show on Earth," inspired by C.B. DeMille's circus movie. But this was 1963 and "Earth" was slotted opposite the much-praised anthology drama series, "The Richard Boone Show," on NBC. "We were supposed to destroy each other," Palance recalls, but CBS had a little dum-dum hillbilly comedy called "Petticoat Junction" that obliterated them both.
SO THAT'S TELEVSION FOR YOU!
But it's not for Jack Palance. Reminded that he recently appeared in a rerun of a "Buck Rogers" episode on NBC. he says, "Oh, that thing!" Although last year he had a small role in NBC's Olympic-themed drama "The Golden Moment" that he thought was not bad, he also popped up in the commandingly ludicrous ABC film "The Ivory Ape," about the rout of a mangy albino gorilla.
"It was a silly show but you think, 'What the hell, they pay more money,'" says philosophical Palance. "It didn't help that we had a Japanese director who spoke very little English, and 11 Japanese in the crew. For a film made in Burmuda."
His lastest movie is "Without Warning," which he says will open soon, presumably with warning. "It's a type of space film. Visitors from outer space, not really going into space, space men coming here. They come here for sport. They see all these things [humans] running around and they love hunting. And they're running out of game on their own planet, so they come down because the hunting is good. They see all these things running around and it's just like we kill other animals.
"What was the name of that actor with Barbara Bain in 'Mission Impossible'"? Martin Landau, "Oh yeah. He's in it too.
It would really be stretching for poignance to compare Palance with the over-the-hill fighter he plays in "Requiem," but there are eerie parallels. To look at this magnificent performance today, you'd think Palance would have gone on to become one of the key actors of the American video theater (except of course that died a few years later) or maybe a movie star, even with that kisser, which certainly has a load of character.
Palance works now about as much as he wants but not enough to be happy.
"I don't think you ever do enough to be 'happy'," he says. "It's not the work itself, but being happy that's the problem. Very often you do something and you think, "My God, maybe something will happen to the film between now and the time it comes out and they'll never show it -- you're hoping it will -- but then, most of them do surface eventually.
"Would I like to do more? Oh, most of the time they aren't any good anyway."
Jack Palance will not be writing words of inspiration and optimism for the next edition of Reader's Digest, no. But there's dignity to the guy that isn't compromised by a fake happy face put on for interviews. Though he does brighten slightly when a photographer shows up to put that indescribable puss on celluloid once more.
There's also a dignity that compelled him to turn down a Blue Bonnet margarine commercial for which he would have had to wear "a baby cap." He says, "I thought that was totally ridiculous," but he will be returning to television soon in a series of ads for Haagen Dazs ice cream. "They say they sell all they make but they're doing commercials anyway, just as Rolls Royce might do theirs." says Palance in his chocolate-sauce voice. "Anyway, they're paying me a lot of money." Faint smile. "So maybe I won't have to do junk for the rest of my life.