From the son of a poor Ukrainiain coal miner to Oscar-winning actor, Jack Palance's life is a topsy-turvy roller coaster of fast turns, steep climbs, and a lot of whirlwind excitement. His acting career is a testament to his grizzled good looks and cocky demeanor, and he continues to show an amazing flexibility and zest for the business after 6 decades in Hollywood.
The War Hero
Jack Palance was born Vladimir Palanuik on February 18, 1919, in the small mining town of Lattimer Mines, Pennsylvania. Growing up poor, Jack learned early on the value of a hard day's work. He spent his youth as a lifeguard, and when World War II led to a call to action, Jack joined the US Navy as a pilot. He was sent to England where he participated in bombing runs throughout the European theater. In 1943, his B-17 crashed in England on its way home from a mission. Palance was not seriously injured, but he suffered several broken bones in his face. Reconstructive surgery was positive, but it left Palance with a rather distinctive mug (and, in some reports, his gravelly baritone), though at the time Palance didn't know what advantages this would incur.
The Big Break
Returning home from the war, Palance used the newly funded GI Bill to attend Stanford University. There he met a budding young actress named Virginia Baker, and the two fell in love. Upon graduation in 1949 with a Bachelor of Arts in Drama, the two were married and relocated to New York City. Jack and Virginia struggled to survive while they searched for jobs. Both worked for a short time as short order cooks, and Jack night-owled as a waiter for several nightclubs. Eventually, Virginia earned a modeling contract and Jack became a semi-regular on Broadway. In 1950, Jack made his first appearance in a movie (credited as "Walter Jack Palance"), playing the plague-infected killer Blackie in Elia Kazan's gripping thriller Panic In The Streets. That same year he became the understudy for Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski in Tennesee Williams' Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Early on during the show's run, Brando and Palance set up a punching bag in their dressing room. While Brando was showing Palance a few moves he had learned from a professional prizefighter, Palance fired a shot at the bag, which caromed into Brando, breaking his nose. With Brando out of the job, Palance took over, and his success as the character sealed him a contract with 20th-century Fox (though Brando would return triumphantly to the role in the movie version.)
Come Back, Shane
From 1952 to 1953, Jack Palance was one of the busiest men in show business: besides his run in Streetcar, he appeared on nearly 20 television shows in bit parts, as well as making appearances in the Joan Crawford thriller Sudden Fear as a jilted actor (for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor); the racially insensitive Arrowhead playing a particularly offensive Apache warrior opposite Charlton Heston; and the low-budget Man In The Attic as a pathologist on the trail of Jack the Ripper. However, perhaps his most famous role was that of Jack Wilson, the Yankee-hating villain of the classic western Shane. Dressed in all black and performing with a menace that chilled the most hardened viewer, Palance's performance was devastating - and although he was again nominated for Best Supporting Actor, he lost to the charismatic Frank Sinatra for his once-in-a-lifetime role in From Here To Eternity.
Throughout the rest of the 1950s, Palance continued to score big supporting roles and the occasional lead in Hollywood films: the troubled cowboy father in The Lonely Man; the British noir classic The Man Inside; the tough-nosed captain in Robert Aldrich's ensemble war epic Attack; Simon the Magician in bumbling Biblical extravaganza The Silver Chalice; and the failing actor in The Big Knife. He also won an Emmy for his portrayal of the down-and-out fighter in Rod Serling's Playhouse Theater drama "Requiem for a Heavyweight" in 1956. He and Virginia also had their first child, a son Robert, in 1957. By now, Palance was approaching 40, and his roles as the leading man were drying up. Still, Palance's career was already filled with challenging and memorable roles. Was it enough to build a legacy upon?
A European Affair
In 1960, Jack decided to move to Europe, where roles were plentiful, a career move which would come to haunt him in later years, though many other actors had profited from such a decision. He starred in the Italian epic The Mongols in 1961, along with a haunting German version of Austerlitz, playing the brutal camp commander General Weirother. He also played a captured GI in an Italian POW camp in The Warriors Five (though, strangely, he was the only American-born actor in the camp) in 1962. He returned to Hollywood briefly in 1963 for a stint on "The Greatest Show On Earth", based on the Oscar-winning movie. Playing the arrogant but charming tight-rope walker Johnny Slate, Palance never fit in with the show's hopelessly sappy format, and he and the show parted from the airwaves that same year. Virginia also gave birth to twin girls that year, but she and Jack had drifted apart. She longed to settle down with the family in suburban America; he was the tireless actor, doing interviews with the legendary Fritz Lang for German television and making art films with Sergio Leone and Andy Warhol, among others. In 1965, he and Virginia returned to Hollywood, but by then the marriage was in shambles. During the filming of the forgettable television version of Alice Through The Looking Glass in 1966, he and Virginia divorced, and she took custody of the children.
Jack made sporadic appearances on TV ("The Man From U.N.C.L.E.", "The Carol Burnett Show") and in movies (The Spy In The Green Hat, Justine) throughout the 1960s, but by the end of the decade, he was once again disillusioned with Hollywood moviemaking. Still, he agreed to make one more movie before he left, and it is perhaps the largest scar on his impressive career as an actor: his role as Fidel Castro in the widely-panned Che!. Starring opposite Omar Sharif as the charismatic rebel leader Che Guevara, Palance's stereotypical, over-the-top performance as the cigar-chomping Cuban is simply terrible. The movie suffered from a poor script and production issues, but Palance's job is dreadful in every regard. Rightly so, Palance relocated to Italy once more to mark the 1970s.
The Slow Descent
By now, Palance had been somewhat pigeonholed into three types of roles: the hardened cowboy, the tough cop/crime boss, and the scene-stealing war hero. He fulfilled these roles admirably in the 1970s, with performances in such middling fare as Sting of The West, Welcome to Blood City, Monte Walsh, and Bronk (which later turned into a TV series again featuring Palance as the tough-talking title character.) He occasionally branched out to show his range, starring as Count Dracula in a faithful TV version of Bram Stoker's spooky classic, and as Scarface in the forgotten classic The Big Boss. He also did the occasional comedy (Saddle Tramps being a particular favorite of the author's) and even delved into erotic thrillers (The Black Cobra, one of the early Emmanuelle films) and the science fiction films that sprouted up throughout the 1970s (playing the mad doctor Omus in an interesting adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Shape Of Things To Come.) Palance also began his slow descent into marginality with his guest appearance on "The Sonny and Cher Show", as well as his role as lothario on the short-lived sci-fi show "Buck Rodgers of the 25th Century."
Palance wallowed in obscurity throughout the 1980s, hosting a show based on Robert Ripley's "Ripley's Believe It Or Not!" serials and making a token appearance in the new western classic Young Guns. However, Palance's career was revived in a single blow when he was tapped by Tim Burton to star as the sleazy crime boss who ran Gotham City in the director's fantastic German revision of Batman. His brief but seething role as Carl Grissom earned Palance accolades, and roles in Tango & Cash and Solar Crisis sparked new interest in the former leading man. But his role as Curly Washburn, the grizzled trail guide in the smash comedy City Slickers. Palance carried the movie with his bravado and take-no-crap-from-nobody attitude, turning his Jack Wilson character from Shane into a lovable cowpoke and finally earning him the Oscar that had eluded him decades before (Palance famously celebrated onstage by doing one-armed pushups for a delighted audience). He later reprised his role as Curly, albeit with a twist - starring as Duke, Curly's twin brother, in City Slickers II: The Legend Of Curly's Gold. Other roles showed his love of family, lending his voice to the noble king in 1994's The Swan Princess and playing the curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge in a 1997 TV version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Still, he has also kept to his old habits of the dynamic and dastardly supervillain, playing the scourge of the seas Long John Silver for TV's Treasure Island and the Devil himself in the miniseries The Incredible Adventures of Marco Polo.
Palance was most recently seen as the deceased (yet very much alive) father of Ted Danson in the Sunday night CBS thriller Living With The Dead. His next film will be the independently-released Searching for Bobby DeNiro, where Palance will be sure to once again unveil his gravitas and presence for all of the audience to delight in. Whether you love him or hate him, you have to respect him; Vladimir Palanuik, you've come a long way, baby.
Sadly, the great Jack Palance passed away November 10, 2006, a day before he was to appear in his hometown of Lattimer (where he ownwed a bean farm) for a Veteran's Day celebration. He was 87.
Fun Fact: Before his appealing role in Panic in the Streets, Palance was briefly considered for the role of Gort the Robot in the sci-fi classic The Day The Earth Stood Still, but was rejected for being too short.