Oscar-winning actor Jack Palance, master of menace, dies in California at 87

Saturday, November 11th 2006, 7:34 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ For most of his Hollywood career, Jack Palance played memorable tough guys in films such as ``Shane'' and ``Sudden Fear,'' but it wasn't until he was in his 70s that he won an Oscar for his comedic self-parody in ``City Slickers.''

Palance endeared himself to viewers of the 1992 Academy Awards when he accepted his Oscar for best supporting actor by dropping to the stage and performing one-armed push-ups.

Billy Crystal, his ``City Slickers'' co-star and that year's Oscar host, turned the moment into a running joke, making increasingly outlandish remarks about Palance's physical prowess throughout the show.

Palance died Friday of natural causes at his home in Montecito, Calif., surrounded by family, said spokesman Dick Guttman. He was 87.

``I am deeply shocked and saddened by the loss of my dear friend Jack Palance, a true movie icon,'' Crystal said in a statement. ``Winning the Oscar for that movie and the one-arm push-ups he did on the show will link us together forever, and for that I am grateful.''

The push-ups not only created a magic Oscar moment, but also 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.

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.

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.

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.''

He also appeared frequently on television, winning an Emmy in 1957 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.''

Palance played against type, to a degree, in ``City Slickers.'' His 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.

``He was one scary, intimidating, big hulking guy with a huge heart,'' said Ron Underwood, who directed Palance in ``City Slickers'' and in the actor's last role, as a man celebrating his 100th birthday in the 2004 TV movie ``Back When We Were Grownups.''

Born Walter Jack Palahnuik in Pennsylvania coal country on Feb. 18, 1919, Palance was the third of five children of Ukrainian immigrants.

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, 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 for ``Panic in the Streets.''

Through most of his career, Palance maintained his distance from the Hollywood scene. Weary of being typecast, Palance moved with his wife and three young children to Lausanne, Switzerland, at the height of his career.

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. His favorite pastimes away from the movie world were painting and writing poetry and fiction.

In addition to his daughter, Palance is survived by his second wife, Elaine Rogers Palance; another daughter, Brook Palance Wilding; grandchildren Lily and Spencer Spottiswoode and Tarquin Wilding; his brother, John Palance, and sister Anne Despiva.

A memorial service was planned for Dec. 16.