Monday, September 5, 2011

Jack Palance

Yes, he was this scary in person. I worked with Jack Palance in 1992 on the television series Legends of the West. He was intimidating. His height, his sharp cheekbones, his intense silence — all added to an aura of quiet menace. When I gained the courage to speak with him I learned his silence was merely shyness. He told me about his fondness for watercolor painting, his love of poetry, his huge cattle ranch in Bakersfield. He shared concerns over his son Cody who was battling drug addiction (Cody worked as a stuntman on the show.) He also told me about his ongoing battle with hemorrhoids and how he was apprehensive about riding a horse in the upcoming scenes. His birth name Vladimir Ivanovich Palahnuik sounds like a character in a Dostoevsky novel. (He’s a distant cousin to novelist Chuck Paluhnik.) He was in 1919 born in Lattimer Pines, Pennsylvania, the son of Ukrainian immigrants. His father was a coal miner and Palance worked in the mines as a teenager. He earned a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina then dropped out to pursue boxing. Fighting under the name Jack Brazzo, he won his first 15 fights, 12 by knockout. In 1940, his career ended with a loss to future heavyweight contender, Joe Baksi. Palance’s stark appearance was due to his time as a boxer and a stint in the military during WWII. He was badly burned in a test flight over Arizona when the B-24 bomber he was piloting crashed and exploded. Future publicists claimed the resulting plastic surgery gave him a taut, leathery look with deep set eyes. Palance said the stories were all lies. “Studio press agents make up anything they want to, and reporters go along with it. One flack created the legend that I had been blown up in an air crash during the war, and my face had to be put back together by way of plastic surgery. If it is a ‘bionic face’, why didn’t they do a better job of it?” After the war, Palance attended Stanford then moved to New York to pursue a theater career. He made his Broadway debut in 1947 appearing as a Russian soldier in The Big Two. His break came a year later when he became Marlon Brando’s understudy in a stage version of A Streetcar Named Desire. He ultimately replaced Brando on stage. Palance’s film debut was Panic In The Streets (1951) helmed by Streetcar director Elia Kazan. Palance played a gangster, the first of many villains he portrayed. Two years later, the classic western Shane made Palance a recognizable star. He plays a silent gunfighter Jack Wilson who is ultimately shot and killed by the hero played by Alan Ladd. During production on Shane, Palance confessed to director George Stevens he was uncomfortable around horses. Unable to navigate the simple act of getting off a horse, Palance resorted to acrobatically leaping off the animal. Stevens loved the image and ran the dismount in reverse as if that’s how Palance mounted his horse. He resorted to filming Palance riding at a casual gait since the actor was terrified to gallop at speed. The change made the villain seem more menacing. Palance’s performance in Shane earned him his second Best Supporting Actor Nomination. (His first was for Sudden Fear in 1952.) 40 years later he won Best Actor at age 73 for his role as Curly Washburn in City Slickers. He was the highlight of the Oscar telecast when he dropped to the stage and performed one-armed pushups. In 2004, Palance was invited to a Russian Film Festival in Hollywood where he was told that Vladimir Putin honored him with the title the “people’s artist.” Palance refused the title saying, “I have nothing to do with Russia or Russian film. My parents were born in Ukraine. I’m Ukrainian. I’m not Russian. So excuse me, but I don’t belong here. It’s best if we leave.” He walked out of the festival, pride intact. Palance died in 2006 at age 87 after losing his son Cody to melanoma in 1998.

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