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Possessing a face seemingly carved out of granite and a voice filled with equal parts gravel and menace, actor Jack Palance was an easy choice to play the heavy, but it was his underutilized intelligence and humor that allowed him to occasionally break free from Hollywood typecasting, with wonderfully unpredictable results. Following an auspicious Broadway debut, the young actor burst onto the screen with deliciously nasty performances in "Panic in the Streets" (1950), "Sudden Fear" (1952) and "Shane" (1953). However, despite having already garnered a pair of Academy Award nominations, Palance soon found himself being pigeon-holed as either a crook or a killer. Well regarded projects like "The Big Knife" (1955) and "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (CBS, 1956) gave audiences a glimpse of Palance's versatility. Seeking out work in Europe, the ex-pat actor took part in such diverse efforts as the cut-rate adventure "Sword of the Conqueror" (1961) and the French New Wave drama "Le Mepris" ("Contempt") (1963). With rewarding film roles becoming sparse, Palance found a modicum of success on television with endeavors such as a chilling adaptation of "Dracula" (CBS, 1974) and as the host of "Ripley's Believe It...
Possessing a face seemingly carved out of granite and a voice filled with equal parts gravel and menace, actor Jack Palance was an easy choice to play the heavy, but it was his underutilized intelligence and humor that allowed him to occasionally break free from Hollywood typecasting, with wonderfully unpredictable results. Following an auspicious Broadway debut, the young actor burst onto the screen with deliciously nasty performances in "Panic in the Streets" (1950), "Sudden Fear" (1952) and "Shane" (1953). However, despite having already garnered a pair of Academy Award nominations, Palance soon found himself being pigeon-holed as either a crook or a killer. Well regarded projects like "The Big Knife" (1955) and "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (CBS, 1956) gave audiences a glimpse of Palance's versatility. Seeking out work in Europe, the ex-pat actor took part in such diverse efforts as the cut-rate adventure "Sword of the Conqueror" (1961) and the French New Wave drama "Le Mepris" ("Contempt") (1963). With rewarding film roles becoming sparse, Palance found a modicum of success on television with endeavors such as a chilling adaptation of "Dracula" (CBS, 1974) and as the host of "Ripley's Believe It or Not" (ABC, 1982-86). Palance bookended his expansive résumé with a late-career comeback when he parodied his own villainous persona in the comedy feature "City Slickers" (1991), a performance that won the veteran actor his only Academy Award. Long regarded as the quintessential movie bad guy, Palance had the last laugh when his impromptu, one-handed push-up demonstration during his Oscar acceptance became one of the most iconic and hilarious moments in the televised ceremony's broadcast history.
Born Volodymyr Palahniuk on Feb. 18, 1919 in Lattimer Pines, PA, "Jack" was the son of Ukrainian immigrant parents, Vladmir and Anna. As a boy, he worked alongside his father in the local coalmines, only to find escape from the risky work via his athletic prowess. In the 1930s, under the nom de guerre of Jack Brazzo, he enjoyed a short, successful career as a boxer. Palance - a name he would later adopt upon deciding to become an actor - had already begun to doubt the wisdom of taking beatings for money, when the outbreak of World War II brought his stint in the ring to an abrupt end. In 1942, he enrolled in the U.S. Army Air Corps., where he underwent pilot's training until a serious accident led to hospitalization and his eventual discharge. On the G.I. Bill, Palance attended Stanford University, and after flirting with the idea of studying journalism, he opted for drama, a field he hoped might prove more lucrative. Upon earning his bachelors degree in 1947, the aspiring actor returned to the East Coast, where his distinctive looks and resonant voice paved the way for his Broadway debut that same year in "The Big Two." More stage roles followed, including one as Anthony Quinn's understudy as Stanley Kowalski in the touring production of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1948. Later, Palance replaced Marlon Brando for the same role in the Broadway version of the production, directed by Elia Kazan. When Kazan began casting for his next feature film, a gritty noir to be shot on location in New Orleans, he specifically sought out lesser known actors with believably rough-hewn characteristics. He found what he was looking for in Palance.
Billed has Walter "Jack" Palance, he made his film debut in the thriller "Panic in the Streets" (1950), as a killer unwittingly infected with pneumonic plague who is being tracked by a health service officer (Richard Widmark) to prevent a citywide epidemic. Although the film met with mixed reviews, nearly all critics gave favorable notices to newcomer Palance. After another appearance alongside Widmark in the war story "Halls of Montezuma" (1950), he followed with two more impressive film roles, both of which earned the young star Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor. In the first, Palance played Joan Crawford's duplicitous husband harboring deadly intentions in the thriller "Sudden Fear" (1952), followed by a career-defining turn as a cold-blooded gunslinger out to take down Alan Ladd in the classic Western "Shane" (1953). Leading roles soon followed, beginning with his fictionalized characterization of Jack the Ripper in the modest period thriller "Man in the Attic" (1953), and an ill-advised attempt to fill Bogie's shoes in "I Died a Thousand Times" (1955), an unnecessary remake of "High Sierra." (1941). Although quickly identified as a movie heavy, he also managed to play more sympathetic characters. Most notable was his highly charged portrayal of a blackmailed movie star in Robert Aldrich's adaptation of Clifford Odets' blistering portrait of Hollywood, "The Big Knife" (1955), followed by an Emmy-winning turn as a washed-up boxer in Rod Serling's landmark teleplay, "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (CBS, 1956).
Palance reteamed with director Aldrich for the grim and unflinching World War II action-drama "Attack!" (1956), and once more for Aldrich's post-WWII tale of a German bomb squad in "Ten Seconds to Hell" (1959). With the dawn of the 1960s, the actor found himself taking on more film work abroad, particularly in Italy, where he began churning out lackluster actioners, such as "The Barbarians" (1960) and "Sword of the Conqueror" (1961). Nonetheless, Palance continued to turn in respectable performances in such films as the religious epic "Barabbas" (1962) and a convincing appearance as a vulgar American movie producer in French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard's "Le Mepris" ("Contempt") (1963). Returning stateside, he gave episodic television a try for the first time with the big top-themed melodrama "The Greatest Show on Earth" (ABC, 1963-64), on which Palance played circus manager Johnny Slate. After the demise of the short-lived series, the actor took a supporting role opposite French leading man Alain Delon and Hollywood sex kitten Ann-Margret in the crime thriller "Once a Thief" (1965). Over the next two decades, Palance would keep busy with a combination of supporting roles in main stream adventures, such as the Burt Lancaster Western "The Professionals" (1966), and decidedly more "B-grade" material like the Hong Kong mercenary adventure "Kill a Dragon" (1967).
Palance's work on television increased during this time as well, and the scenery-chewing actor clearly enjoyed the wider latitude allowed to him in such projects as the Dan Curtis-produced "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (ABC, 1968). In addition to turns in easily forgotten shoot-'em-ups like "The Mercenary" (1968) and "The Desperados" (1969), he played Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro in the biopic "Che!" (1969), opposite Omar Sharif in the title role, then reteamed with his "I Died a Thousand Times" co-star Lee Marvin for the Western requiem "Monte Walsh" (1970). There was more work in the wide open spaces of the Western genre, opposite Charles Bronson in "Chato's Land" (1972) and George C. Scott in "Oklahoma Crude" (1973), prior to his seething portrayal of Bram Stoker's titular count in "Dracula" (CBS, 1974). Buoyed by that success, Palance decided to give a weekly TV series one more try when he signed to star on the police drama "Bronk" (1975-76), in which he played a tough, yet contemplative cop who takes on corruption in a fictional California burgh called Ocean City. The show, however, was another single season effort for Palance, who quickly returned to such subpar fare as "The Shape of Things to Come" (1979), a schlocky sci-fi movie that had very little to do with the original H.G. Wells source material. Dreck like the Italian-produced sword and sorcery adventure "Hawk the Slayer" (1981) and the thriller "Alone in the Dark" (1982) kept the actor employed, if not creatively satisfied.
While not necessarily career-boosting, at least the hours were better and the work steady for Palance when he accepted hosting duties on the historical oddities documentary program "Ripley's Believe It or Not" (ABC, 1982-86). Palance's campy delivery of the famous catchphrase, "Believe it... or not" was possibly the most consistently entertaining aspect of the guilty pleasure series, which he co-hosted for a time with his daughter, Holly. After endearing himself to a new generation of audiences with an offbeat performance as a courtly, aging artist in Percy Adlon's cult hit, "Bagdad Cafe" (1987), Palance's career experienced a much-needed resurgence. He embraced his villainous side with despicable turns in the Brat Pack Western "Young Guns" (1988), and an appearance as the crime boss of Gotham City in director Tim Burton's "Batman" (1989). Neither of these roles, however, would match the impact that his performance as tough-as-nails trail boss Curly Washburn in the Billy Crystal comedy "City Slickers" (1991) would have on his waning film career. The hit movie won the obviously tickled veteran an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and led to another sprightly and unexpected performance at the Academy Awards ceremony. As Palance strode onto the stage to accept his statuette, he gave an impromptu one-handed push-up demonstration as a commentary on his late-life virility, much to the delight of the audience and host Crystal, who turned the display into a series of well-received running jokes throughout the remainder of the 1992 broadcast.
Palance tried to keep the momentum going with a starring turn opposite funnyman Chevy Chase in the criminally unfunny "Cops and Robbersons" (1994), prior to the inevitable sequel, "City Slickers II: The Search for Curly's Gold" (1994), playing the deceased Curly's brother, Duke, in the latter film. Couched amidst several television efforts, Palance later played Long John Silver in a reinterpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" (2001). It would be his final role in a feature film before his death of natural causes at his home in Montecito, CA on Nov. 10, 2006. Jack Palance was 87 years old.
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