Jack Palance

Screen villain in 'Shane' and 'Sudden Fear' who finally won an Oscar for his self-parody in 'City Slickers'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Vladimir Palahnuik (Walter Jack Palance), actor: born Lattimer Mines, Pennsylvania 18 February 1919; married 1949 Virginia Baker (two daughters, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1966), 1987 Elaine Rogers; died Montecito, California 10 November 2006.

The actor Jack Palance, whose craggy features, deep-set eyes and Slavic cheekbones gave him exceptional physical presence, was a notable screen bad guy whose memorable performance as the silent, sinister and black-garbed outlaw in Shane brought him fame. He excelled as villains, and when he played heroes they were often intensely troubled, racked with pangs of conscience or guilt, as in The Big Knife and Attack!

Reference books refer to his "excessive enthusiasm" or "vigorous overplaying", but he often played excessive characters - Attila the Hun in Sign of the Pagan, Jack the Ripper in Man in the Attic, a demented magician in The Silver Chalice, and the son of Gengis Khan in The Mongols.

Oscar-nominated for two of his most dastardly roles, as the hired gun proving a ruthless threat to homesteaders in Shane and the husband plotting to kill his wife Joan Crawford for her money in Sudden Fear, he finally won the award for his tough and leathery trail boss taking three middle-aged men through a cattle drive in City Slickers, a role which parodied his screen image. On the night of the awards, he made Oscar history by interrupting his halting acceptance speech to perform one-armed press-ups on stage. Asked afterwards about the incident, he replied, "I didn't know what the hell else to do."

The son of Ukrainian immigrants, his father a coal-miner, he was born Vladimir (later changed to Walter) Palahnuik in Pennsylvania in 1919. Attending the Lattimer Mines elementary school, he developed a flair for athletics and a muscular build, and at the age of 14 entered an amateur boxing contest, using his nickname, Jack, and tied for first place with a 17-year-old. At Hazle Township High School he excelled in basketball and football, and it was his athletic prowess that gained him a scholarship to the University of North Carolina, where he played fullback on the football team, but he left at the end of one year to train for a boxing career.

He made his professional début, billed as Jack Brazzo, at the age of 20, winning his first bout and 18 of his next 20 matches, while acquiring a broken nose. When a blow to the Adam's apple forced his retirement from a match, followed by a week in which he could not speak, he decided to give up boxing, and returned home to work in the mines.

In 1942 he trained as a bomber pilot with the US Army Air Force, and it has been alleged that he had a crash during take-off - the resultant operations on facial burns giving him the unusual features that were to serve him well as an actor. Palance later described the story as an invention of studio publicists:

A flack created the legend that I had been blown up in an air crash during the [Second World W]ar and my face had to be put back together by way of plastic surgery. If it is a "bionic face", why didn't they do a better job of it? The only plastic surgery I've ever had in my life was a 10-minute operation to open my nasal passages because my nose had been broken during my career as a heavyweight boxer.

At the end of the war, Palance returned to college under the GI Bill of Rights, studying journalism and dramatic arts at Stanford University, where he was prompted by Aline MacMahon to go, in 1947, to New York to look for theatre work. He later recalled:

I got a job in the theatre after looking for only a month. I went to the auditions for a play that was being directed by [the actor] Robert Montgomery entitled The Big Two. When I saw all of the other would-be actors in the waiting room, I was about to walk out when Mr Montgomery stopped me by saying, "I want you." He had been looking for a Russian type, and my cheekbones filled the bill.

Palance had just one line, spoken in Russian, and the play ran for only three weeks, after which he returned to casual work - including cook, waiter, model and lifeguard - between roles in two more flops, The Temporary Island and The Vigil (both 1948).

He played his first leading role in an off-Broadway production of Sean O'Casey's anti-war drama The Silver Tassie (1948). The New York World Telegram reported that as a soldier who returns from the front a cripple he "has a fresh intensity and frustrated dynamism that gives the performance a keel". He then auditioned for the touring version of A Streetcar Named Desire, and was signed to understudy Anthony Quinn in the leading role of the brutish Stanley Kowalski (created on Broadway by Marlon Brando). Tired of vainly waiting for the indomitable Quinn to miss a performance, Palance gave up the job and returned to New York, and, when Brando needed a new understudy, he applied for and got the job.

Palance was inadvertently to create his own opportunity when Brando, a boxing enthusiast, asked him to work out with him in the theatre's boiler room. A mistimed punch broke Brando's nose, requiring time in hospital, and Palance had his chance. The writer Dick Vosburgh was part of the audience that heard the dismaying announcement that the part of Kowalski was to be played by "Walter Jack Palance" (a virtual unknown replacing a Broadway sensation), and recalls that Kim Hunter, as Kowalski's libidinous wife Stella, told him that she had not played her part with Palance before and was scared that he would crush her ribs, so physical was his performance. Palance won praise from critics who saw him and, as soon as Brando returned to the play, he accepted the offer of a film contract from 20th Century-Fox.

Still billed as "Walter Jack Palance", he made his screen début in Panic in the Streets (1950), directed by Elia Kazan, a gripping film noir made on location in New Orleans and telling of the race against time to locate those who came into contact with a man, fished out of the river, who was a carrier of bubonic plague. Palance made a chilling impression as a ruthless killer desperate to evade the search, though the film did not do well - the studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck later noted, "Films about disease rarely find large audiences." The star Richard Widmark said of his fight scene with Palance,

We rehearsed with a rubber gun but, unbeknownst to me, for the take, he switched to a real gun and banged me on the head. I was out for about 20 minutes. I was mad as hell when I came to, but I wasn't about to attack him. He's a tough guy, strong as a gorilla.

Palance supported Widmark for a second time in Lewis Milestone's The Halls of Montezuma (1950). Widmark had started his career playing a string of neurotic psychopaths for Fox, and Palance seemed to have inherited his mantle - in this Second World War story of a group of marines trying to locate a Japanese rocket site, Widmark was the tough but compassionate commander and Palance a punch-drunk ex-boxer.

After unsuccessfully canvassing the studio for the role of Eufemio in Kazan's Viva Zapata! (it was given to Anthony Quinn), he asked the studio to release him, and he returned to New York to appear on stage with Claude Rains in Darkness at Noon (1951) before being called back to Hollywood by the director George Stevens to play a hired gunman in Shane (made in 1951 but released in 1953).

His first two screen performances had divided critics, but for his performance as the chilling black-clad outlaw who meticulously puts on a pair of gloves before killing, he was persuaded that less is more, and his quiet portrayal of smouldering violence beneath surface calm made "Blackie" Wilson one of the screen's iconic villains. The role won Palance an Oscar nomination (though he says only 12 lines in the film) in the year of the winner Frank Sinatra's sensational comeback in From Here to Eternity.

Joan Crawford personally requested Palance as her leading man in David Miller's excellent thriller Sudden Fear (1952), in which he played an unscrupulous would-be actor who conspires with his mistress (Gloria Grahame) to murder his wealthy playwright wife (Crawford). It earned him another Oscar nomination - his first, because of Shane's delayed release - and ironically he was beaten by Anthony Quinn for Viva Zapata!

Palance was now in constant demand and rarely stopped working - between films he appeared on television, showing his flair for comedy on Your Show of Shows and The Milton Berle Show.

His films included Arrowhead (1953) as an anti-white Apache, the British-made Man in the Attic (1953) as Jack the Ripper, and Second Chance (1953), a routine thriller shot in 3D but remembered for its climactic fight between Palance and Robert Mitchum on the top of a disabled cable car dangling above a mountain gorge. It was the first film in which he was billed simply as Jack Palance.

In the summer of 1954 he toured in a play, Dark of the Moon, as a young man who becomes a werewolf but a wild leap during his energetic performance fractured both his feet, curtailing the tour. On screen, he was made up to look appropriately fearsome as Attila the Hun in Sign of the Pagan (1954), and he was a pantomime-like evil wizard in The Silver Chalice (also 1954), a biblical tale that marked the début of Paul Newman (in a film he tries to forget).

On stage at the first American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, in 1955, Palance played Cassius in Julius Caesar and won particular acclaim for his Caliban in The Tempest. Palance's voice had always been a prime asset. The producer Jack Haley Jnr said,

There are only two other voices in the world like that - Orson Welles and Richard Burton. The Palance voice is like a finely tuned musical instrument. It can whisper, roar, leer, shock, cajole, or ham it up. It ranges from a low, rumbling growl to medium-pitched urbanity.

Palance was a movie idol haunted by past indiscretions in Robert Aldrich's powerful film version of the Clifford Odets play The Big Knife (1955), and he inherited Humphrey Bogart's role as gangster "Mad Dog" Roy Earle in a remake of High Sierra entitled I Died a Thousand Times (1955).

His career seemed at its peak in 1956 when he was top-billed in Robert Aldrich's cynical exposé of military hypocrisy Attack!, and on television he won an Emmy Award as best actor for his portrayal of an ageing boxer in Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight. But when the play was filmed he lost the part, once again, to Anthony Quinn.

In 1957 he wrote a story about his father for Redbook magazine, but after a proposed film version fell through he moved in 1958 to Europe, where he made more than 30 movies, including The Man Inside (1958), The Battle of Austerlitz (1959), Revak the Rebel (1960), The Mongols (1961) and Barabbas (1961). He had one of his best roles - and a lengthy love scene with Brigitte Bardot - when he played a vulgar film producer in Jean Luc Godard's Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963).

He returned to the United States in 1963, where he worked frequently in television, made a stage appearance in The King and I (1965) with Celeste Holm, and played the role of a Mexican bandit in Richard Brooks's vigorous western The Professionals (1966), but he would frequently return to Europe to accept roles in low-budget movies that were not widely distributed, though Il mercenario (A Professional Gun, 1968), was a popular spaghetti western, and Palance was a convincing Fidel Castro in Che (1968), filmed in Puerto Rico.

In 1970 he made an album entitled simply Palance, on which he sang country-and-western songs, three of which he wrote himself, and in the same year he appeared in the elegiac western Monte Walsh, written by Jack Schaefer, the author of Shane. For two years (1974-76) he starred in a television series, Bronk, as a police lieutenant.

Proud of his heritage, Palance provided the narration for a television documentary, The Helm of Destiny (1986), about Ukrainian immigrants in America. He returned to mainstream movies with The Young Guns (1988), menacing the "brat pack" cast, and, as the flamboyant Carl Grissom, Batman (1989), before his scene-stealing role as the knife-wielding trail boss in City Slickers (1991) that finally won him an Academy Award and gave him "grand old man" status with filmgoers.

Palance confessed later that, despite the number of westerns he had made, he was never keen on riding:

The biggest problem in doing City Slickers was the horse. I'm six foot four, and they gave me the biggest horse I've ever seen. I could hardly straddle him. He seemed to get wider every day.

Since his character died in the film, a twin brother was invented so that Palance could appear in the ill-advised sequel, City Slickers II (1994). Thereafter, he announced that he was going to concentrate on writing. "I don't particularly care if I ever act again," he said.

In 1996 he published a volume of poetry, The Forest of Love. He acted for the last time in 2004, playing a 99-year-old anticipating his 100th birthday in the television movie Back When We Were Grown-Up.

Tom Vallance