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Jack Palance, 87; gravelly voiced actor won Oscar as crusty trail boss in ‘City Slickers’

Special to The Times

Jack Palance, the leather-faced, gravelly voiced actor who earned Academy Award nominations for “Sudden Fear” and “Shane,” and who finally captured the Oscar almost 40 years later as the crusty trail boss in the 1991 comedy western “City Slickers,” has died. He was 87.

Palance, who had been in failing health with a number of maladies, died Friday of natural causes at the Montecito home of his daughter Holly, family members said.

He was one of the best-loved bad guys in motion picture and television history -- the murderous husband in “Sudden Fear” (1952), the creepy gunslinger in “Shane” (1953) and the cantankerous cattle driver Curly in “City Slickers” -- and kept acting well into his 80s.

“When it comes to playing hard-bitten cowboys, there could never be anyone better than Jack,” “City Slickers” director Ron Underwood told The Times on Friday. “He was a scary, intimidating guy with a very warm and giving heart.”

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Palance’s performance accepting the Oscar may have been more memorable than the gnarly star turn that earned it.

Upon winning, he dropped to the stage floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and delighted the audience with vigorous one-armed push-ups. Septuagenarian actors, he said, must continually prove their virility to keep working in youth-oriented Hollywood.

The surprise stunt provided fodder for a series of ad-libbed jokes throughout the evening by Billy Crystal, his “City Slickers” co-star and the show’s host. The next year’s ceremony, in 1993, opened with Palance -- then 74 -- using his teeth to tow across the stage a 20-foot-tall Oscar statuette ridden by Crystal.

“I am deeply shocked and saddened by the loss of my dear friend Jack Palance, a true movie icon,” Crystal said in a statement Friday. “Winning the Oscar for that movie and the one-armed push-ups he did on the show will link us together forever, and for that I am grateful.”

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The two men worked together again in the 1994 sequel “City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold.” Since Palance’s Curly had died in the first film, he portrayed Curly’s equally curmudgeonly identical twin. “Only Palance returns with a flourish,” the Times review said. “He’s as gnarled and critter-like as ever.”

He had shown a flair for funny in the comic fable “Bagdad Cafe” (1988), in which he played a retired Hollywood set painter turned primitive artist. Palance was “a constant revelation and delight,” the Times review said, and emerged “as a terrific comedian.”

Equally at home on television, Palance earned an Emmy for his role as a has-been boxer in “Requiem for a Heavyweight” in 1956. And he was still doing quality work on television in the 1990s -- notably in the third installment of the Glenn Close-Christopher Walken vehicle “Sarah Plain and Tall,” in which he portrayed Walken’s long-lost and resented father.

In the Wild West retelling of “A Christmas Carol,” Palance starred as the title character in the movie “Ebenezer, " which premiered on cable in 1998. The classic Charles Dickens story was updated with a protagonist who runs a saloon in the 1870s and snarls, “Christmas, hogwash.”

“This Ebenezer Scrooge is no harmless old crank; he’s a gun ready to go off -- and that makes his redemption all the more cathartic,” a Times reviewer wrote.

Given his customary vile appearance in the black garb of various bad guys in the Old West, there was little wonder that Palance and his pictures easily made 1997’s “The Manly Movie Guide” by David Everitt and Harold Schechter. His name is listed with such classic western toughs as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

In reality, the man born Feb. 18, 1919, and named Volodymir Ivanovich Palahniuk hailed not from the West but from the coal country around Lattimer Mines, Pa., and was a fairly sensitive fellow.

Although he enjoyed raising cattle, he was a vegetarian who had painted abstract landscapes since the 1950s, loved trees and wrote poetry. He wrote and illustrated a book with the non-villainous title of “The Forest of Love: A Love Story in Blank Verse,” which was published in 1996.

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Surrounded by art in Rome, where he lived for a number of years making spaghetti westerns, Palance was inspired to take up painting. His artwork, which bore the stamp of Impressionism, had been exhibited about a dozen times, he told the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call in 1999.

Palance maintained a 1,000-acre cattle ranch in California’s Tehachapi Mountains and a 500-acre farm near his roots in heavily forested Luzerne County, Pa. His ranch brand was an “H” with a “B” and a “C” woven around it, the initials of the first names of his children, Holly, Brooke and Cody.

It was the farm, he said, that inspired his book about a man’s love for a woman and nature.

“Everything I talk about is about Pennsylvania,” he said of the prose poem that was published among his paintings and line drawings of trees. “I’m not inspired as much by California.”

As for his refusal to eat red meat, Palance told the Morning Call: “I’ve got so many cattle that I didn’t want to feel like I was eating them.... Because if you walk amongst the cattle, occasionally you’ll find that you have a friend.... These little ones -- they’ll run after you like a dog.... “

The celluloid tough guy, at 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds, grew up in coal-mining country but had no intention of becoming a miner. He attended the University of North Carolina on a football scholarship and dropped out to try boxing.

He had a 12-2 record as a professional boxer, and by the 1940s he was making $200 a fight, The Times reported in 1995.

“Then I thought, ‘You must be nuts to get your head beat in for $200.’ The theater seemed a lot more appealing,” Palance told The Times.

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When World War II came, he served in the Army Air Forces. A bomber pilot who had seen little action, he was at the controls when his plane lost an engine and slammed nose-first into the ground. He suffered severe head injuries and required extensive facial reconstruction.

“There are some moments you never get over,” Palance said in 1995. “That was one of them.”

After his discharge, he changed his last name to Palance and resumed his education at Stanford University, studying journalism. He became a sportswriter for the San Francisco Chronicle and worked for a radio station.

Unhappy with the $35-a-week journalist’s pay, he took the advice of an actress friend and headed for Broadway. Within two weeks, Palance was in a play.

After appearing in such fare as “Temporary Island” and “The Vigil” and a stint as Marlon Brando’s understudy in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” he won a “most promising personality” award for his 1950 appearance in “Darkness at Noon.”

His theatrical success helped him in Hollywood, where Palance made his film debut in director Elia Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets” in 1950. Billed as Walter Palance, he portrayed a fugitive carrying the bubonic plague.

The role earned him a back-handed accolade from columnist Hedda Hopper, who described him as “a man who could play Frankenstein without makeup.”

Within two years, he had earned his first Academy Award nomination, as the menacing actor husband of Joan Crawford’s playwright in “Sudden Fear.”

A year later, he was nominated again for being, in the words of film historian Leonard Maltin, “unforgettable in [the] role of the creepy hired gunslinger” Jack Wilson in “Shane.”

In 1956, Palance put his real-life training as a boxer to work in “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” which was written by Rod Serling and aired on the dramatic anthology series “Playhouse 90.” The New York Times called the show “an artistic triumph that featured a performance of indescribable poignancy by Jack Palance.”

Palance appeared in about 100 motion pictures, as well as many specials and movies for television. He had lead roles in such series as the “The Greatest Show on Earth” (ABC, 1963-64), in which he played hard-driving circus boss Johnny Slate, and “Bronk” (CBS, 1975-76), as contemplative police detective Lt. Alex Bronkov.

As the host of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” on ABC from 1982 to 1986, he “loved to skulk about the ruins and add a sinister tone to his narration of the stories,” according to “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows”. His actress daughter Holly joined him as co-host for part of that time.

“He’s an original in the category of old-timers who don’t care what people think,” Holly Palance told The Times in 1995. “You have to remember that he clawed his way out of the mines.... A lot of what he calls manhood is the simple love of privacy.”

He didn’t talk, she said, unless he had something important to say.

Palance was married to actress Virginia Baker for 18 years, and they had three children. The marriage ended in divorce.

In addition to his daughters, Holly Palance and Brooke Palance Wilding, he is survived by his wife, Elaine Rogers Palance; a brother, John Palance; a sister, Anne Despiva; and three grandchildren. His son, Cody, who appeared with his father in the 1988 film “Young Guns,” died of cancer in 1998.

Services are pending. Instead of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Pennsylvania State University Hazleton campus, www.hn.psu.edu.


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