Jack Palance, the Western bad guy who discovered his comic side, dies aged 87

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The Independent Culture

Jack Palance, the muscular bad guy of the movies with a weather-beaten face and a growling voice, died yesterday at the age of 87.

In a career spanning more than 40 years, Palance played black-clad gunslingers in the Old West, unhinged or homicidal husbands, and pleasantly eccentric loners.

He first jumped to public attention as Jack Wilson, the gun-slinging villain in the emblematic 1950s Western Shane. Almost four decades later, he was finally recognised by the motion picture academy for his role as a cattle driver transplanted to the metropolis in the Billy Crystal comedy City Slickers.

Perhaps his most fabled exploit came, in fact, when he accepted his Oscar at the 1992 awards, when he was 73. Towering over his co-star, who was also that year's presenter at the Academy Awards, Palance said to Crystal: "I crap bigger than him." He then fell to the floor and started a series of one-arm push-ups. Old men like him, he said, had to keep proving their virility to work in Hollywood with its cult of youth. Crystal returned the joke the following year, when he had Palance drag him in by his teeth on an outsized Oscar-shaped chariot.

Palance came from an uncompromisingly tough background - the coal mines of north-eastern Pennsylvania. His family was of Ukrainian descent and his birth name was Vladimir Ivanovich Palahniuk. He escaped that world thanks to an American football scholarship to the University of North Carolina, only to drop out and try his hand at everything from boxing to sports journalism. When the Second World War came, he served as a bomber pilot and suffered extensive facial injuries in a nosedive crash.

After the war, he gravitated towards acting, first in theatre and then Hollywood, where Elia Kazan gave him his first break as a bubonic plague carrier in Panic In The Streets. He had demonstrated an artistic side from an early age, developing passions for painting and poetry. He was also a vegetarian.

It was his tough demeanour, though, that earned him success in such films as Shane, Sudden Fear and The Big Knife, and in the television boxing drama Requiem For A Heavyweight. Jean-Luc Godard cast him in his groundbreaking 1963 film Le Mepris, lending him an air of arthouse respectability that still earns him respect, especially in France. In Italy, meanwhile, he is known for his appearances in a string of spaghetti westerns. He also lived in Rome for several years.

After a relatively fallow period in the late 1960s and 1970s, he returned with a series of winning cameos in such films as Baghdad Café, Young Guns, Batman and Tango & Cash. For four years in the 1980s he used his talents to suitably creepy effect as the host of a television show called Ripley's Believe It Or Not.

Palance kept working well into his eighties, including a starring turn as Ebenezer Scrooge in a Wild West retelling of A Christmas Carol in 1998. In this version, Scrooge was a saloon-keeper - the sort of part Palance could master in his sleep. "This Ebenezer Scrooge," one reviewer wrote, "is no harmless old crank; he's a gun ready to go off - and that makes his redemption all the more cathartic."

His daughter Holly, one of three children, once explained his peculiar mix of gruffness and gentleness. "He's an original in the category of old-timers who don't care what people think," she told The Los Angeles Times in 1995. "You have to remember that he clawed his way out of the mines. A lot of what he calls manhood is the simple love of privacy."

Palance loved cattle and maintained a large ranch in the mountains north of Los Angeles, and another in his native Pennsylvania. Explaining his vegeterianism, he once said: "I've got so many cattle that I didn't want to feel like I was eating them - because you walk amongst the cattle, occasionally you'll find that you have a friend."

In recent years, he suffered from ever-deteriorating health and disappeared from public view. He died, surrounded by family members, at his daughter Holly's home in Montecito, just outside Santa Barbara on California's Pacific coast.