LOS ANGELES — Jack Palance, the craggy-faced menace in “Shane,” “Sudden Fear” and other films who turned successfully to comedy in his 70s with his Oscar-winning self-parody in “City Slickers,” died Friday.
Palance died of natural causes at his home in Montecito, Calif., surrounded by family, said spokesman Dick Guttman. He was 87.
When 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 Palance’s accomplishments throughout the show.
It was a magic moment that epitomized the actor’s 40 years in films. Always the iconoclast, Palance had scorned most of his movie roles.
“Most of the stuff I do is garbage,” he once told a reporter, adding that most of the directors he worked with were incompetent, too.
“Most of them shouldn’t even be directing traffic,” he said.
Movie audiences, though, were electrified by the actor’s chiseled face, hulking presence and the calm, low voice that made his screen presence all the more intimidating.
Tough guy from early on
His film debut came in 1950, playing a murderer named Blackie in “Panic in the Streets.”
After a war picture, “Halls of Montezuma,” he portrayed the ardent lover who stalks the terrified Joan Crawford in 1952’s “Sudden Fear.” The role earned him his first Academy Award nomination for supporting actor.
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The following year brought his second nomination when he portrayed Jack Wilson, the swaggering gunslinger who bullies peace-loving Alan Ladd into a barroom duel in the Western classic “Shane.”
That role cemented Palance’s reputation as Hollywood’s favorite menace, and he went on to appear in such films as “Arrowhead” (as a renegade Apache), “Man in the Attic” (as Jack the Ripper), “Sign of the Pagan” (as Attila the Hun) and “The Silver Chalice” (as a fictional challenger to Jesus).
Other prominent films included “Kiss of Fire,” “The Big Knife,” “I Died a Thousand Deaths,” “Attack!” “The Lonely Man” and “House of Numbers.”
Weary of being typecast, Palance moved with his wife and three young children to Lausanne, Switzerland, at the height of his career.
He spent six years abroad but returned home complaining that his European film roles were “the same kind of roles I left Hollywood because of.”
His career failed to regain momentum upon his return, and his later films included “The Professionals,” “The Desperadoes,” “Monte Walsh,” “Chato’s Land” and “Oklahoma Crude.”
When he appeared as Fidel Castro in 1969’s “Che!” about Latin American revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, he told a reporter: “At this stage of my career, I don’t formulate reasons why I take roles — the price was right.”
He also appeared frequently on television in the 1960s and ‘70s, winning an Emmy in 1965 for his portrayal of an end-of-the-line boxer in “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”
He and his daughter Holly Palance hosted the oddity show “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” and he starred in the short-lived series “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “Bronk.”
Forty-one years after his auspicious film debut, Palance played against type, to a degree. His “City Slickers” character, Curly, was still a menacing figure to dude ranch visitors Crystal, Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby, but with a comic twist. And Palance delivered his one-liners with surgeon-like precision.
Career journey had many twists
Through most of his career, Palance maintained his distance from the Hollywood scene. In the late 1960s he bought a sprawling cattle and horse ranch north of Los Angeles. He also owned a bean farm near his home town of Lattimer, Pa.
Although most of his film portrayals were as primitives, Palance was well-spoken and college-educated. His favorite pastimes away from the movie world were painting and writing poetry and fiction.
A strapping 6-feet-4 and 210 pounds, Palance excelled at sports and won a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina. He left after two years, disgusted by commercialization of the sport.
He decided to use his size and strength as a prizefighter, but after two hapless years that resulted in little more than a broken nose that would serve him well as a screen villain, he joined the Army Air Corps in 1942.
A year later he was discharged after his B-24 lost power on takeoff and he was knocked unconscious.
The GI Bill of Rights provided Palance’s tuition at Stanford University, where he studied journalism. But the drama club lured him, and he appeared in 10 comedies. Just before graduation he left school to try acting professionally in New York.
“I had always wanted to express myself through words,” he said in a 1957 interview. “But I always thought I was too big to be an actor. I could see myself knocking over tables. I thought acting was for little ... guys.”
He made his Broadway debut in a comedy, “The Big Two,” in which he had but one line, spoken in Russian, a language his parents spoke at home.
The play lasted only a few weeks, and he supported himself as a short-order cook, waiter, lifeguard and hot dog seller between other small roles in the theater.
His career breakthrough came when he was chosen as Anthony Quinn’s understudy in the road company of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” then replaced Marlon Brando in the Stanley Kowalski role on Broadway. The show’s director, Elia Kazan, chose him in 1950 to for “Panic in the Streets.”
Born Walter Jack Palahnuik in Pennsylvania coal country on Feb. 18, 1919, Palance was the third of five children of Ukrainian immigrants. His father worked the mines for 39 years until he died of black lung disease in 1955.
In interviews, Palance recalled bitterly that his family had to buy groceries at the company store, though prices were cheaper elsewhere.
Yet, he told a Saturday Evening Post writer, he had “a good childhood, like most kids think they have.”
“It was fine to play there in the third-growth birch and aspen, along the sides of slag piles,” he said.
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