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Jack Palance fondly remembered for classic roles

Marty Schroeder | Thursday, November 16, 2006

Jack Palance was a man’s man. He had the kind of cowboy gruffness that every kid who had ever watched a Western wished they could emulate – or, like their idol, ride off into the sunset themselves.

He was unlike any other, and his distinctive voice gave us villains from classics that range from the classic Western “Shane” to Tim Burton’s “Batman” and all the way around to Curly and Duke in the “City Slickers” series. He was a giant among actors and matched his onscreen tough guy look with a real tough guy persona, having worked as a coal miner, a boxer and a student pilot during World War II.

Born Volodymyr Palahniuk to a coal mining family of Ukrainian descent in western Pennsylvania. After working as a coal miner with his father, he began a boxing career. Fighting under the name Jack Brazzo, he recorded 12 knockouts before losing to future heavyweight contender Joe Baksi. This career, after a promising start, didn’t pan out so Jack looked to other places and discovered a passion for drama.

Attending Stanford University for drama and earning a B.A., his big break came when he landed the spot as Marlon Brando’s understudy for ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.” He eventually replaced the immortal Brando for this play, which led to his career on the silver screen. His first role was in 1950s “Panic in the Streets,” which led to the biggest break of his career – starring as the villain Lester Blaine in the 1952 film noir, “Sudden Fear.” This led to a nomination for an Academy Award in the best supporting actor category. His star was shining, as this was only his third screen appearance. He went on to play similar villainous roles such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula and Attila the Hun.

Throughout his career, he was generally typecast as a villain, such as the iconic Jack Wilson in an Academy Award-nominated performance for “Shane” – and found it hard to find roles outside of this type.

In order to combat this, he took the role of pompous Hollywood producer Jeremy Prokosch in Jean-Luc Godard’s artsy 1963 film “Les Mépris.”

However, after receiving the same types of offers time after time, Palance and his family moved to Switzerland in am attempt to diversify his repertoire. However, after six years he returned to the United States, claiming the Europeans were offering him the exact same roles he hoped to escape from in Hollywood.

In his old age, never one to back down from a challenge, he took on the role of grizzled and curmudgeonly Curly. This satire on his previeous persona garnered him yet another Oscar nomination, which he won. In one of the more famous moments in his life, Palance, at the age of 73, performed one-armed pushups on stage as part of his acceptance piece. Still the tough guy.

Earlier generations may remember him for his roles as murderers in film noirs and evil gunslingers in Westerns, while the younger generations will remember his Boss Grissom in “Batman” and Curly from “City Slickers.” However Palance is remembered, he will always be revered as a singular figure who was able to elevate himself over the politics of Hollywood. Just as tough in real life as he was on the screen, his presence will be sorely missed. His distinctive rasp and independent attitude will forever be placed in the upper echelons of Hollywood stardom.

You will be missed, Jack Palance, sorely missed.

Contact Marty Schroeder at mschroe1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.