The well-loved bad guy dies at 87

Award-winning actor made his mark as scary-looking villain

Jack Palance 1919-2006

November 11, 2006|By Myrna Oliver | Myrna Oliver,Los Angeles Times

Jack Palance, the leather-faced, gravelly voiced actor who earned Academy Award nominations for Sudden Fear and Shane before capturing an Oscar for his role as the crusty trail boss in the 1991 comedy western, City Slickers, has died. He was 87.

Mr. Palance, who had been in failing health, died yesterday of natural causes in Montecito, Calif., at the home of his daughter Holly, family members said.

He was one of the best-loved bad guys in motion picture and television history - the murderous husband in Sudden Fear (1952), the creepy gunslinger in Shane (1953) and the cantankerous cattle driver Curly in City Slickers - and kept acting well into his 80s.

When Mr. Palance accepted his Oscar for best supporting actor he delighted viewers of the 1992 Academy Awards by dropping to the stage and performing one-armed push-ups to demonstrate his physical prowess.

"That's nothing, really," he said slyly. "As far as two-handed push-ups, you can do that all night, and it doesn't make a difference whether she's there or not."

That year's Oscar host, Billy Crystal, turned the moment into a running joke, making increasingly outlandish remarks about Mr. Palance's accomplishments throughout the show.

Mr. Palance was always the iconoclast. "He's an original in the category of old-timers who don't care what people think," Holly Palance 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."

He didn't talk, she said, unless he had something important to say.

As an actor, Mr. Palance was equally at home on television, earning an Emmy for his role as a has-been boxer in Requiem for a Heavyweight in 1956. And he was still doing quality work on television in the 1990s - notably in the third installment of Sarah, Plain and Tall as Christopher Walken's long-lost and resented father.

Mr. Palance was born Feb. 18, 1919, in Lattimer Mines, Pa., and named Volodymir Ivanovich Palahniuk.

Although he grew up in coal-mining country, the celluloid tough guy had no intention of becoming a miner. He attended the University of North Carolina on a football scholarship and dropped out to try boxing. When World War II came, he served in the Army Air Forces. A bomber pilot who had seen little action, he was at the controls when his plane lost an engine and slammed nose-first into the ground. He suffered severe head injuries and required extensive facial reconstruction.

After his discharge, he changed his last name to Palance and resumed his education at Stanford University, studying journalism. He became a sportswriter for the San Francisco Chronicle and also worked for a radio station.

Unhappy with the $35-a-week journalist's pay, he took the advice of an actress friend and headed for Broadway. Within two weeks, Mr. Palance was in a play.

After appearing in such fare as Temporary Island and The Vigil and a stint as Marlon Brando's understudy in A Streetcar Named Desire, he won a "most promising personality" award for his 1950 appearance in Darkness at Noon.

His theatrical success helped him in Hollywood, where Mr. Palance made his film debut in director Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets in 1950. Billed as Walter Palance, he portrayed a fugitive carrying the bubonic plague.

Within two years, he earned his first Academy Award nomination as the menacing actor husband of Joan Crawford's playwright in Sudden Fear. A year later, he was nominated again for his role in Shane.

Although he enjoyed raising cattle - Mr. Palance maintained a 1,000-acre cattle ranch in California's Tehachapi Mountains - he was a vegetarian who had painted abstract landscapes since the 1950s, loved trees and wrote poetry. He wrote and illustrated a book, The Forest of Love: A Love Story in Blank Verse, that was published in 1996.

Surrounded by art in Rome, where he lived for a number of years making spaghetti Westerns, Mr. Palance was inspired to take up painting and his artwork bore the stamp of Impressionism.

Mr. Palance was married to actress Virginia Baker for 18 years, and they had three children. The marriage ended in divorce.

Besides his daughters, Holly Palance and Brooke Palance Wilding, he is survived by his wife, Elaine Rogers Palance; a brother, John Palance; a sister, Anne Despiva; and three grandchildren. His son, Cody, who appeared with his father in the 1988 film Young Guns, died of cancer in 1998.

Myrna Oliver writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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