Jack Palance, who played tough guy Curly Washburn in “City Slickers,” passed away Friday, November 10th, one day shy of Veteran’s Day. Although Associated Press records gave Palance’s age as 85, his family said he was actually 87. He passed away of natural causes in his Montecito, California home, surrounded by family members.
Palance, originally named Vladimir Palaniuk, was the son of the son of an anthracite coal miner and grew up in Lattimer Mines, Pennsylvania. He was of Ukranian descent, and spoke fluent Ukranian. His command of Russian, Italian, Spanish, (and possibly some French) is not as easily explained. Palance was a graduate of Stanford University (1947) with an a Bachelor of Arts degree in Drama. He worked as a short order cook, waiter, soda jerk, lifeguard at Jones Beach State Park, and a photographer’s model to make ends meet before his acting career took off.
Boxing fame came before the opportunity to act. Palance was a professional heavyweight boxer in the early 1940’s fighting under the name of Jack Brazzo. He was pretty good, winning his first 15 fights, 12 by knockout before losing a fourth round decision to Joe Baksi, a future heavyweight contender.
When World War II began, Palance joined the service. He was wounded in combat and received a Purple Heart. That medal was joined by a Good Conduct Medal, and World War II Victory Medal. Palance was left with his distinctive gaunt look when plastic surgeons repaired as much of his burned face as they could after Palance, a student pilot, had to bail out of a burning B-24 Liberator while on a training flight over Southern Arizona. He was discharged from the service in 1944.
The story of how Palance came to replace Marlon Brando, as Stanley Kowalski, in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” when Brando starred in that Broadway play, is a story that wouldn’t have been believed if it had been offered as in a script! The truth is that Palance was Brando’s understudy. The two men had rigged up a punching bag in the Palace theater’s boiler room. The two men were throwing punches around and working out, and one of Palance’s punches missed the bag entirely and landed on Brando’s nose. The star was hospitalized and Palance went on for Brando. Palance’s good reviews as Stanley Kowalski helped him land his Century-Fox contract. Palance’s trademark prominent eyebrows, deep, rumbly voice and intense manner showed up in films for the next 50 years.
Palance was hired for a part in “Panic In The Streets” (1950). His skill as a character actor was quickly recognized. He received an Academy Award Nomination for his third film, as Leslie Blaine in “Sudden Fear.” He was nominated the following year for his role as the evil gunfighter, Jack Wilson, in “Shane.” He went on to work in several more movie Westerns, however he also had the opportunity to play diverse roles in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Dracula,” and “Attila the Hun.”
In 1957, Palance won an Emmy Award for Best Actor with role as Mountain McClintock in Playhouse 90’s production of Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight.
Marlon Brando was well known for his “method-style acting.” Jack Palance applied the same acting style, which led to him actually punching Burt Lancaster in the face during a film scene. Lancaster responded by punching Palance in the gut, with a punch sufficiently hard to produce vomiting.
Palance went on to become a very successful movie actor, accumulating a filmography listing which spans five pages. He will probably be best remembered for his roles in “City Slickers” (for which he won a Best Supporting Oscar in 1991) and “City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold,” playing Curly Washburn, and Curly’s twin brother, Duke Washburn, respectively.
The quintessential cool guy, Palance once actually fell asleep in his square during a taping of The Hollywood Squares, in 1966!
If you visit Palance’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, you’ll find it is located smack in front of the display window for Fredericks of Hollywood. To say that they are a seller of “intimate apparel” would be an understatement worthy of Palance himself.
Palance was married to Virginia Baker from 1949 to 1966. All three children from that marriage eventually went into acting. Cody Palance appeared with his father in “Young Guns” and died at age 42 of malignant melanoma in 1998. Holly and Brooke have quite a few screen credits to their name. In 1987, quite a few years after his divorce, Palance married Elaine Rogers.
In 1992, Palance was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
Palance will be remembered for dropping to the floor during his Oscar acceptance speech for “City Slickers” in 1992, at age 72, and doing one-handed push-ups. Asked afterwards why he did it, he responded, “I didn’t know what the hell else to do.” When he provided the voice of Rothbart in “The Swan Princess” in 1994, his character is featured doing one-handed push-ups.
For a man who played tough guys, Palace had an unexpected artistic side. An avid painter and poet, Palance commented, “One of the most important reasons for living is to do something – live outside of yourself and put together an idea, an idea that you want to explore and then complete…Awaken your creative sensitivities!” He painted and sold landscape art, with a poem included on the back of each picture. Palance also wrote “The Forest of Love,” a book of poems, published in 1996 by Summerhouse Press.
The star’s personal lifetime collection of over 3,000 items located at his Holly-Brooke Farm in Butler Township, Pennsylvania, went on the auction block October 12-15, 2006. Some smaller keepsake items were included for people who wanted something belonging to the 87-year-old actor. Each item had a special sticker featuring a picture of the actor and the words “Jack Palance Collection” on the back of it.. Holly-Brooke Farm, named after Palance’s two daughters, has been for sale for several years.
Many will miss Jack Palance’s smiling tough guy image. Although the man refused to view any of his own movies, the rest of the world will continue to watch and enjoy them for years to come.