From the get-go, people focused on Jack Palance’s face. The rugged cheekbones, the deep-set eyes and the sneering mouth—not to mention a 6-foot-4, 230-pound body—seemed ready-made to play silver screen bad guys. His expression could immediately project menace, but also something softer. In 1952, just two years into Palance’s film career, Los Angeles Times writer John L. Scott noted that the actor “has two faces.” “When he frowns he looks strictly sinister, but a smile makes him just a big good-natured guy,” Scott said of the 32-year-old actor. “His face may be his fortune in pictures.”
That memorable mug, along with an ability to portray both villainy and charm, earned Palance an Oscar, an Emmy and roles in more than six dozen movies. He died November 10 in Montecito, Calif. He was 87.
Born Volodymir Ivanovic Palahniuk into a coal miner’s family in Pennsylvania, Palance attended the University of North Carolina on a football scholarship but dropped out to pursue a career as a professional boxer. Fighting under the name Jack Brazzo, he won 15 fights—experience that helped prepare him for an Emmy-winning performance years later in Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”
He served as a bomber pilot in World War II, and was awarded a Purple Heart for head injuries and burns he sustained in a 1943 crash.
After the war, Palance enrolled at Stanford to study journalism, but switched to drama. “He knew he had gifts, although I’m sure he would have made a superb journalist,” says his former Encina Hall roommate Charles E. Miller, ’47. “I have a strong image in my mind of Jack pacing back and forth past the fourth-floor windows, as he rehearsed his lines for a play.”
Palance left Stanford one credit short of graduating and went to work on Broadway, where he succeeded Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. His film debut came in 1950 with Panic in the Streets. Two years later he earned an Academy Award nomination for the thriller Sudden Fear, with Joan Crawford, in which he played a husband intent on murdering his wife. His swaggering, malevolent gunslinger Jack Wilson in the 1953 classic Western Shane cemented his reputation as a movie villain, and brought another Oscar nomination.
He earned a new generation of fans as hard-bitten cowboy Curly Washburn in the 1991 comedy City Slickers, opposite Billy Crystal, a role that earned him an Oscar for best supporting actor. As he walked onstage to accept his statuette at the awards show, the 73-year-old Palance dropped to the floor and performed several one-armed pushups, delighting the audience and providing Crystal, the show’s host, one-liner material for the rest of the evening. At one point Crystal deadpanned, “Jack Palance just bungee-jumped off the Hollywood sign.”
He is survived by his wife, Elaine Rogers Palance; his daughters, Holly Palance and Brooke Palance Wilding; a brother; a sister; and three grandchildren.
- BRIAN EULE, ’01, is a Bay Area writer.