Jack Palance, who made a career out of bullying good guys and portraying stern, craggy-faced menaces, died Friday. Surrounded by family at his California ranch, he passed away from natural causes at the age of 87.
Before breaking into Hollywood, Palance attended the University of North Carolina on a football scholarship. Well over six feet and 200 pounds, he became a prizefighter. He fought for two years, but nothing was accomplished other than having his nose broken, which would serve him well for his numerous villain roles. Afterwards, he had a stint in the Army Air Corps and worked variously as a short-order cook, lifeguard, waiter, and hot dog vendor.
In 1950, Palance’s luck turned and he made a distinguished film debut as a villain named Blackie in Elia Kazan‘s "Panic in the Streets." From that pulp masterpiece, Palance’s output never let up steam. Across his fifty year acting legacy, he portrayed, on average, two roles a year, not including his numerous guest appearances on television.
1950’s "Panic in the Streets" (91 %)
It was only two years after "Panic in the Streets" that Palance received his first Oscar nomination, and only one year after that he would receive his second. The first Oscar nom was for 1952’s "Sudden Fear" a noir thriller in which Palance played an actor trying to seduce perennial noir damsel-in-distress Joan Crawford. The second nom was for his Jack Wilson, an evil gunslinger in 1953’s "Shane." At 100% Tomatometer, it was a critical and commercial smash, and it cemented Palance’s main Hollywood image: serious, imposing, and an able go-to guy for Westerns.
1952’s "Sudden Fear;" 1953’s "Shane"
After this early artistic peak, his roles and movies became so varied that he covered virtually every genre. He continued to do Westerns, such as 1966’s "The Professionals" (100% on the Tomatometer) and "Young Guns". As Carl Grissom, he was there when comic books finally made it into Hollywood with Tim Burton‘s "Batman." Action buffs could see him in the buddy flicks "Tango and Cash" and "Cops and Robbersons." And with "Marquis de Sade: Justine," he’s one of the few to make major actors to make his mark in camp erotic horror.
Even art house buffs would eventually have a run in with Palance, who played Jeremy Prokosch in Jean-Luc Godard‘s "Contempt." At 94% Tomatometer, it remains one of Godard’s most accessible and celebrated films, and a unique opportunity to see Palance act alongside Brigitte Bardot, Fritz Lang, and Godard himself.
1964’s "Contempt;" 1991’s "City Slickers"
At the age of 72, nearly forty years after his last Oscar nomination, Palance won it in 1992 for his role in "City Slickers" as Curly Washburn, a spoof of his tough Westerner image. Upon accepting his award, he demonstrated his physical savvy by dropping to the stage and doing one-armed push-ups.
"That’s nothing, really," he said.
Though Palance had a way with words, it also came up in unexpected ways: he published a book of poetry called "The Forest of Love," published by Summerhouse Press. And at one point, Palance famously called "most of the stuff" he did "garbage," and even more famously said of the directors he’s worked with, "most of them shouldn’t even be directing traffic."