As an Army Air Force bomber pilot, Lt. Voladimir Palahnuik hadn’t seen combat action in World War II beyond some submarine- bombing runs, when one day an engine conked out while he was at the controls.
Takeoff and landing are the worst times for any aircraft to lose an engine. For the AT-9 trainer, the loss of one of its two props as it left the ground in Pampa, Tex., created an instant and catastrophic dead weight. The plane swerved up and over in a swift loop and slammed nose-first into the ground.
Palahnuik suffered such severe head injuries that for a while it was touch-and-go. He had been a Pennsylvania coal miner and a scholarship football player at the University of North Carolina and, at 6 feet, 4 inches and 210 pounds, a promising heavyweight prospect. Now, in his mid-20s, he didn’t know what he was going to be. And as the war was drawing to a close so, surely, was his career as an airman.
More than 50 years later, Jack Palance gazed out the window of his Kern County ranch house on a cold, gray afternoon and remembered. “There are some moments you never get over,” he said. “That was one of them.”
What he remembered, however, is anyone’s guess, because that was all he had to say about it. Palance is a hospitable if somewhat desultory host (“Do you want to sit here? Do you want to sit there? Where do you want to do this interview?”), but, for the 76-year-old actor, with 130 films under his belt plus several TV series and a life in Europe and a life in the theater before all that, the act of remembering out loud in front of a stranger presents itself as a chore.
“I look back and it’s all like a dream,” he would say toward the end of a daylong session. Earlier, he had taken his first question and looked up and away with a long thoughtful expression, as if to say, “Do I really want to do this?”
Palance is one of the featured players in the CBS-TV miniseries “Buffalo Girls,” which is adapted from the Larry McMurtry novel and begins airing tonight. Others in the multi-star cast include Anjelica Huston, Reba McEntyre, Melanie Griffith, Peter Coyote, Russell Means and Sam Elliott.
As the story of Calamity Jane, “Buffalo Girls” deals mainly with female friendship. But it’s also about frontier hunters--Palance plays a beaver trapper--who have developed guilty second thoughts about the indiscriminate slaughter they’ve visited on the Old West. If they can’t revive the animals, they can at least burnish the myth in Buffalo Bill’s traveling show.
“It’s wonderful to look at the 1890s and the behavior of people then, and balance them against how we behave today, and realize that things you once thought quaint are no different,” Palance said. “Life goes on.”
“Buffalo Girls” has an elegiac feel to it. So, at times, did the afternoon, as the tufts of low clouds began burning off the high plateau of Palance’s 1,300-acre spread, and heavy, restless gusts began whipping out of the Tehachapis and shunting against the windows of the house like the ghosts of rampaging buffalo.
Palance took it all in from his vantage on a sofa as he heard a question, answered briefly and sometimes elliptically and then receded into lengthy silence.
He had been outdoors earlier, and the raw air had buffed his big cheekbones into a tomato-like ruddiness. In profile, you saw the ex-boxer’s nose, crushed like a walnut at the bridge, flared at the base. He had been 12 and 2 as a pro. He had sparred with onetime light heavyweight champion Billy Conn (“He was like a feather in the wind,” he says of Conn). In New York in the early ‘40s, Palance had worked his way up to $200 semi-main event bouts on the under card. “Then I thought, ‘You must be nuts to get your head beat in for $200.’ The theater seemed a lot more appealing.”
Movie aficionados might feel a little miffed that Palance is recognized now as the dry, faintly absurd Curly in 1991’s “City Slickers” and brother of Curly in last year’s “City Slickers II,” and for the seeming foolishness of his one-armed pushup display in 1992 at the Academy Awards, where he took home an Oscar for best supporting actor.
And they’d have a case. Richard Widmark had star billing in 1950’s “Panic in the Streets,” but Palance, in his film debut as a fugitive carrying bubonic plague, was darkly overpowering; he loomed feverishly out of Hieronymus Bosch. If the plague had a desperate human face, it was his.
And what would George Stevens’ 1953 epic “Shane” be without Palance’s satanically sinister gunfighter, Wilson, who peered with a cobra’s sleek delight at game little Alan Ladd? Palance was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for that role, as he had been a year earlier for scaring the hell out of Joan Crawford in “Sudden Fear.”
As it turns out, however, in a reversal of the traditional Hollywood comic’s longing to play drama, Palance’s preference has always been for lighter stuff. When he slaps his face in that shaving lotion ad and says, “Confidence is sexy, wouldn’t you say?” we know what the antecedent is: Curly, the geriatric Macho Man, whose self-parodic image now beams out in the culture at large. What’s less clear, but true just the same, is that Palance is in on the joke.
“I’d always done the light roles, the comedic roles,” he recalled of his college theater days. “A friend said to me, ‘Jack, you gotta expect people in New York are gonna laugh at you, so you better get used to it.’ I played Caliban in ‘The Tempest’ in the New England Shakespeare Festival’s first year. I was a clown in a play called ‘Temporary Island.’ ”
His college days finished out at Stanford University, where he enrolled under the GI Bill after the war. “Where I come from, it was a big deal to go to college,” Palance said. “My parents were delighted when I went to North Carolina, and they were horrified when I left.”
Where he came from was Lattimer Mines, Pa., a coal town with a population of 300 and a company store that supplied everything, including young Voladimir’s shoes. One of four kids, he worked the mines, like his father, and took the name Palance soon after he left the Air Force. (As he pronounces Palahnuik , slowly and ironically in its original Ukrainian, it sounds like an automobile engine cutting out with a cough.)
Dustin Hoffman once observed that most successful male actors come to a crisis point in their careers because, as he put it, “acting is basically a female profession. It’s submission. You’re constantly under the control of other people; women are more accustomed to those situations and are better at handling them.” Palance has never had such misgivings.
“Beginning when I was a child of 3 or 4, my father would read me these marvelous stories,” he said. “I was filled with the characters in these stories. He re-created every one that spoke. He belonged to a church group and loved to perform. Seventy years later I can still visualize the characters he brought to life. That was the beginning. I’ve never felt that acting made you less of anything.”
P alance still feels close to the man who fired his imagination. “He died of cancer, complicated by black lung, in the early ‘50s,” he said. “I stood outside the house as they carried out his body.”
Palance left Stanford as a journalism major in his senior year (an error in his transcript left him one credit short of graduation; Stanford has rectified that oversight by offering Palance his degree, which he’ll pick up in June). But he had also kept up his interest in the theater, and when a job offer at the San Francisco Chronicle came up at $35 a week, he recalled, “I figured I could do at least as well carrying a spear, or a gun.”
He returned to New York, where he studied under famed teacher-director Michael Chekhov and with Betty Cashman, who further impressed on him the importance of pride in being an actor. He even tried the Method under Stella Adler. “She said one time, ‘I want everyone to find a dime-sized spot on the wall to find your concentration.’ One student said he’d found his. ‘No, that’s nickel-sized. Try again,’ she said. I said, ‘To hell with this.’ ”
Palance hadn’t been in town long before he auditioned for a play called “The Big Two,” directed by Robert Montgomery. “The room was crowded. I looked at all these people and said, ‘I’ve got to get the hell out of here.’ I was at the door when a voice called out, ‘ You ! I want you ! Don’t leave!’ It was Montgomery. He gave me a small role as a Russian officer.” At that point Palance knew he had what every unknown craves--the ability to stand out in a crowd.
He understudied both Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” directed by Elia Kazan, and Kazan remembered him when he came west to direct “Panic in the Streets.”
Palance drew instant attention. “I didn’t endear myself to Palance when I wrote such things as: ‘Here’s a man who could play Frankenstein without makeup. He has the face only a mother could love,’ ” columnist Hedda Hopper said in 1954. “I had no idea then that Jack was shy, sensitive and very intelligent.”
Palance never found Hollywood appealing. With his young wife, New York actress Virginia Baker, he set up house in Beverly Hills, where they began to raise their children, Holly, Brooke and Cody. (Palance and Baker divorced in 1968; his marriage to his second wife, Elaine, also ended in divorce.)
“I don’t begrudge other people the choice of how they want to live their lives, but for me, it was like a bird living in a cage,” he said. One day in 1964, having lost his way during a drive through Tehachapi, he came to a plain that reminded him of his home in Pennsylvania. “I asked someone if there was anything in the area for sale and bought this property on the spot.”
P alance has created a number of memorable roles throughout his career. He won an Emmy for the 1956 “Playhouse 90" production of “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” His death scene in that same year’s “Attack!” remains one of the grisliest ever filmed. He brought surprisingly fresh gravity and pathos to his 1973 TV portrayal of “Dracula.” Even as a decent and gentle soul, he kept the viewer on edge in 1988’s “Bagdad Cafe.”
But there’s hardly a veteran actor out there who hasn’t gone through dry spells or taken the cinematic equivalent of tank-town fights. Palance played a number of roles requiring little more than baleful glowers and hefty swordplay (“Sign of the Pagan,” “The Silver Chalice,” “Sword of the Conqueror”). He spent long periods in Europe making spaghetti Westerns and such forgettable works as “The Mongols,” “Warriors 5" and “The Mercenary.”
But even a fighting spirit can’t always offset the torments of rejection and its corrosive tributary--self-doubt. Palance has a tungsten pride and his own approach to doing things. He began to develop a reputation.
“I’m sorry, I can’t think of anything nice to say about the guy,” says a leading film critic and historian who asked not to be identified. “He hosted ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’ on TV in the ‘80s, and he made life so miserable for the producers that they actually hated it when for years the show got renewed.
“An actor has a million tricks when he wants to give you a hard time. He knew them all. I like to be able to compliment older actors. OK, I’ll say this: He’s very good at pure menace.”
Palance doesn’t mind owning up to his combativeness when he tells this anecdote about a run-in he had with director Jean-Luc Godard: “We were making a movie called ‘Contempt,’ with Brigitte Bardot. Godard was saying nasty things about actors. I felt I had to come to the defense, not only of myself, but the profession. We had words. ‘It’s too bad you’re not French,’ Godard said. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because then you’d know how important I am.’ I don’t think he used a real actor in a film again for three years.”
While filming “The Professionals,” Palance made the mistake of telling writer-director Richard Brooks how he thought a scene should be played. Brooks, a former Marine, did not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise, and held up shooting to announce that Mr. Palance would now tell us how to direct. Twenty-nine years later, Palance is bemused and chagrined at the memory.
“He did use a couple of my ideas,” Palance says by way of extricating himself from an old embarrassment.
Says “Buffalo Girls” director Rod Hardy: “He does have a reputation for being a bit of a sonofabitch, but can’t we all be ornery? He’s survived in an industry that’s very hard on one. He’s had unemployment. But he’s a boxer. He likes to say, ‘Stand up and let’s see what you’ve got.’ And the fact that he knows how he can put people off makes him even more difficult.
“But I’ve never worked with anyone more professional. He’s not a young man, and we had to shoot through some terrible conditions, particularly in New Mexico at 9,000-feet elevation, where it got freezing cold. We went through hail, rain, sleet and had to shoot at all sorts of odd hours to catch the light. He never complained. He found a lot of humor in his character. He took a rich role and made it sing. He has a farewell scene that’s so riveting that all I could do was sit back and watch.”
‘H e’s an original in the cate gory of old-timers who don’t care what people think,” says daughter Holly Palance, who is an actress and writer living in Hollywood (daughter Brooke lives in Santa Fe, N.M.; son Cody works full time at the ranch).
“You have to remember that he clawed his way out of the mines,” Holly says. “And he’s never been comfortable being a bad guy with a bad face. He loves comedy. He takes pleasure in lightening up.
“A lot of what he calls manhood is the simple love of privacy. He won’t talk unless he has something important to say. And his pride in his work is not just his. It’s one of the things Michael Chekhov taught him. ‘Lots of times, at casting calls, casting directors won’t look up when you come on stage,’ Chekhov told him. ‘What you do is you stand at the desk and say nothing until they look up. When they do, then you say, “My name is Jack Palance.” ’
“I have a very ambivalent attitude about the business and how this company town is supposed to be the be-all and end-all,” she says. “It wasn’t that for my parents, and it isn’t for me.”
T oward the end of the day, 38-year-old Cody Palance sat on the other end of the couch.
“What is it like being the son of a famous actor who gets killed in every role?” he asked, glancing ironically at his father. Cody is an aspiring rock ‘n’ roll singer. He has his father’s shrouded walk; his face looks like he’s seen the apocalypse.
“I think it’s time to sit back and not be involved with being an actor anymore,” Jack said. “I hate talking about myself. What does it mean to say the words someone else wrote? Nothing.”
“There are roles you’ve done that couldn’t have been done better,” Cody said.
“Anyone could’ve done them,” Jack said.
“But you’re good. That’s different.”
Cody seemed impatient with his father’s deference, but Jack was done with the subject.
“Look, there’s Sanji,” he said. They gazed out the window as a chestnut mare with swollen sides walked slowly up the field outside and stopped at the fence, about 50 feet away, to peer in their direction. “She’s hobbling. She’s 32. She probably won’t last much longer.”
The horse stood and stared at the house as though she could see what was going on inside. They stared back. For a long time, nobody moved.*
* “Buffalo Girls” airs tonight and Monday at 9 p.m. on CBS.
* “BUFFALO GIRLS” ROAM
On location with actresses Anjelica Huston and Melanie Griffith. See today’s TV Times.