The late Jack Palance changed the face, the posture, the attitude of the Oscars 14 years ago, when he celebrated winning the best supporting actor Academy Award with a couple of off-color jokes and two-handed and then one-armed push-ups. Every year from then on, the show's director, producer and host have prayed for the gift that Palance handed Billy Crystal, who kept bouncing onstage with updates like "Jack Palance just bungee-jumped off the Hollywood sign" or "The shuttle just rendezvoused with Jack Palance, who somehow launched himself into orbit."
What younger audiences may not realize about the rugged, raspy actor, who died of natural causes at age 87 one week ago, is that Palance's win for his comic turn in City Slickers (1991) - as a cowpoke so tough he ate bacon at every meal - built on earlier generations' affection for him as one of the sturdiest bad guys ever.
Whether in Westerns like The Professionals (1966) or contemporary melodramas like the marital-murder movie Sudden Fear (which won Palance his first Oscar nomination in 1952), Palance was, as the late critic Pauline Kael once quipped, "The Prince of Darkness." And as character-actor royalty, Palance did more than change the Oscars: He helped determine the history of the movies.
"Killing used to be fun-and-games in Apache land," said Sam Peckinpah, the director of the greatest Western ever made, The Wild Bunch. "Violence wasn't shown well. You fired a shot and three Indians fell down. You always expected them to get up again. But when Jack Palance shot Elisha Cook Jr. in Shane, things started to change."
It's one of the most memorable scenes in action movies. Palance, as a black-hat gunman hired by a ranch baron to drive the farmers out of Wyoming, taunts Cook, an Alabama-born sodbuster, into a shooting match. Palance calls him Southern trash, Cook calls Palance a low-down Yankee, but what counts is what follows - a slow killing done without slow motion. Cook can only draw his gun part of the way out before he sees Palance's weapon pointed at him. And Palance shows no mercy, executing him with a shot whose echo seems to bring the Grand Tetons down on Cook's head. The potency of Palance's dead aim kicks Cook onto his back and into a deathbed of mud.
Shane (1953) directed by George Stevens, won Palance his second Oscar nomination, and it was deserved: He had shown the physical and emotional intelligence that can turn action moments into indelible vignettes. Palance didn't often work with directors as talented as Stevens, but when he did, he never let them down.
Palance's roots were in Pennsylvania coal-mining country; he went to the University of North Carolina on a football scholarship but dropped out to become a boxer. When World War II broke out, he became a pilot in the Army Air Forces, suffering injuries during a crash landing that added to his craggy, prematurely worn appearance. After studying journalism at Stanford University, and trying his hand at sports reporting and broadcasting, he became a stage actor, once understudying Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Streetcar's director, Elia Kazan, gave Palance his film debut in one of Kazan's best and least-known movies, Panic in the Streets (1950). Palance played a small-time New Orleans criminal responsible for the dumping of a body filled with pneumonic plague into the Mississippi River. He and the legendary character actor Zero Mostel made an unlikely comic-ominous duo of villains, like a hard-guy Laurel and Hardy. "I kept Palance slapping Zero in the butt, making him run," said Kazan in Jeff Young's interview book, Kazan - The Master Director Discusses His Films, explaining that he created a slapstick ambiance in the midst of terror.
And Palance's acrobatic flair kept it all from getting silly. Kazan set a chase in and around a waterfront warehouse on catwalks and on ropes. Kazan told Young, Palance "actually looked like a cat up there ... he was a great athlete."
He was also, when he had the chance, a great actor, period. He was superb as the John Garfield-like Hollywood leading man in Robert Aldrich's movie version of Clifford Odets' The Big Knife (1955), a man torn between fulfilling his promise as an actor and giving in to the posh hedonism of a fat big-studio contract. The anguish in his voice is what you remember from his performance in this movie. It's excruciating when he agrees to manipulate a dumb blonde named Dixie (Shelley Winters), who knows that he let his publicist take the blame for a hit-and-run accident, and says, "All right. Anything for my art."
And body, voice, heart and mind moved in synch when he created his masterpiece, fading boxer Mountain McClintock, in the original 1956 TV version of Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight. Drawing on his own background as a fighter, Palance deflated every fight-film cliche. This time he played a man at the end of his existential rope and infused him with a piercing befuddlement.
At the end, forced to make a living as a phony wrestler, McClintock says "Clown" to his reflection in the mirror - and Palance fashions a moment as heartbreaking as Brando's "I coulda been a contender."
When Palance played the clown for the Oscars, he was having a good time. From Panic in the Streets to a brief, chilling part in Batman (1989) and then his crowd-pleasing role in City Slickers, Palance was a contender and even, sometimes, a champ.