Published November 10, 2006
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," has died.
Palance died of natural causes Friday at his home in Montecito, California, 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.
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).
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."
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."
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.
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, Pennsylvania.
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.
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.
He joined the Army Air Corps in 1942, and a year later he was discharged after his B-24 lost power on takeoff and he was knocked unconscious.
Later, Palance studied journalism at Stanford University. 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.
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."
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.