JACK PALANCE, AS VOLTAN, HAWK THE SLAYER, LONDON, MARCH, 1980
He exemplified evil incarnate on film — portraying some of the most intense and gripping villains witnessed in 50s westerns and melodrama — and Jack Palance went on to win Oscar “Best Supporting Actor” nominations for two of them. It would take a grizzled, eccentric comic performance 40 years later, however, in order to grab the coveted statuette.
Of Ukranian descent, Palance was born Volodymir Ivanovich Palahniuk on February 18, 1919, in Pennsylvania coal country. His father, a miner, died of black lung disease. The sensitive, artistic lad worked in the mines in his early years but averted the same fate as his father. Athletics was his ticket out of the mines when he won a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina. He subsequently dropped out to try his hand at professional boxing. Although he certainly had talent and a good boxing record, he decided on a less abusive way of life. After decorated WWII service with the Army Air Force as a bomber pilot, he resumed college studies as a journalist at Stanford University and became a sportswriter for the San Francisco Chronicle. He also worked for a radio station until the acting bug bit.
Palance made his stage debut in “The Big Two” in 1947 and immediately followed it understudying Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in Broadway’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a role he eventually took over. Following stage parts in “Temporary Island” (1948), “The Vigil” (1948) and “The Silver Tassle” (1949), Palance won a choice role in “Darkness of Noon” and also the Theatre World Award for “promising new personality”. This recognition helped him secure a 20th Century-Fox contract. Facial burns and resulting reconstructive surgery following the crash and burn of his WWII bomber plane actually worked to the leathery actor’s advantage in Hollywood. Hardly the look of a glossy romantic leading man, Palance instead became an archetypal villain equipped with an imposing glare, intimidating stance and killer-shark smile. In his movie debut in Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950), he stood out among a powerful cast as a fugitive carrying the bubonic plague. He was soon on his way.
Initially billed as Walter Jack Palance, he made fine use of his former boxing skills and war experience for the film Halls of Montezuma (1950) as a boxing Marine in Richard Widmark’s platoon. Palance followed this with the first of his back-to-back Oscar nods. In Sudden Fear (1952), only his third film, he played rich-and-famous playwright Joan Crawford’s struggling actor husband who plots to murder her and run off with gorgeous Gloria Grahame. Finding the right menace and intensity to pretty much steal the proceedings, he followed this with arguably his finest film role of the decade, that of creepy, sadistic gunslinger Jack Wilson who becomes Alan Ladd’s biggest nightmare (not to mention others) in the classic western Shane (1953). Their climactic showdown alone is text book.
Along the way there were some very good films such as Man in the Attic (1953), which was his first lead, The Big Knife (1955) and the war classic Attack (1956) mixed in with the highly mediocre Flight to Tangier (1953), Sign of the Pagan (1954), in which he played Attila the Hun, and the biblical bomb The Silver Chalice (1954). In between these filmings there were a host of powerful TV roles — none better than his down-and-out boxer in “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1956), a rare sympathetic role that earned him an Emmy.
Overseas in the 1960s, he made a killing in bible/war epics and “spaghetti westerns” which included The Barbarians (1960) Barabbas (1961) [Barabbas], and The Fall of the Giants (1969) [A Bullet for Rommel]. Also included in his 60s foreign work was his participation in the Jean-Luc Godard masterpiece Le Mépris (1963) [Contempt]. On TV he played a number of nefarious nasties to perfection ranging from Dracula to Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. Into his twilight years he showed a penchant for brash, quirky ,comedy capped by his Oscar-winning role in City Slickers (1991), its sequel, and others. He even played Ebenezer Scrooge in a TV-movie incongruously set in the Wild West.
Married twice, his three children — Holly, Brooke and Cody (who died in 1998 of cancer) — all dabbled in acting and appeared with their father at one time or another. A man of few words off the set, he owned his own cattle ranch and displayed other creative sides as a exhibited painter and published poet. His last years were marred by failing health and he died at age 87 of natural causes at his daughter Holly’s Montecito, California home.