One of the screen's most grizzled actors, Jack Palance defined true grit for many a filmgoer. The son of a Ukrainian immigrant coal miner, he was born Volodymyr Palahnyuk (Anglicized as Walter Jack Palaniuk) on February 18, 1920, in Lattimer Mines, Pennsylvania. As a young man, Palance supported himself with stints as a miner, professional boxer, short-order cook, fashion model, lifeguard, and radio repairman. During WWII service, he enlisted in the AAC and piloted bombers, one of which crashed, knocking him unconscious in the process. The severe burns he received led to extensive facial surgery, resulting in his gaunt, pinched face and, ironically, paving the way for stardom as a character actor.
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Palance attended the University of North Carolina and Stanford University on the G.I. Bill and considered a career in journalism, but drifted into acting because of the comparatively higher wages. Extensive stage work followed, including a turn as the understudy to Anthony Quinn (as Stanley Kowalski in the touring production of A Streetcar Named Desire) and the portrayal of Kowalski on the Broadway stage, after Marlon Brando left that production. Palance debuted on film in Elia Kazan's 1950 Panic in the Streets, as a sociopathic plague host opposite Richard Widmark. He landed equally sinister and villainous roles for the next few years, including Jack the Ripper in Man in the Attic (1953), Simon the Magician (a sorcerer who goes head to head with Jesus) in The Silver Chalice (1954), and Atilla the Hun in Sign of the Pagan (1954). Palance received Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations for his performances in both Sudden Fear (1952) and Shane (1953).
Beginning in the late '50s, Palance temporarily moved across the Atlantic and appeared in numerous European pictures, with Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 Le Mépris/Contempt a particular highlight. Additional big-screen roles throughout the '60s and '70s included that of Ronald Wyatt in Freddie Francis's horror episode film The Torture Garden (1967), the monastic sadist Brother Antonin in Jesús Franco's Justine (1969), Fidel Castro in Che! (1969), Chet Rollins in William A. Fraker's Western Monte Walsh (1970), Quincey Whitmore in the 1971 Charles Bronson-starrer Chato's Land, and Jim Buck in Portrait of a Hitman (1977).
Unfortunately, by the '80s, Palance largely disappeared from the cinematic forefront, his career limited to B- and C-grade schlock. He nonetheless rebounded by the late '80s, thanks in no small part to the German director Percy Adlon, who cast him as a love-struck painter with a yen for Marianne Sägebrecht in his arthouse hit Bagdad Cafe (1987). Turns in Young Guns (1988) and 1989's Batman (as the aptly named Carl Grissom) followed. In 1991, Palance was introduced to a new generation of viewers with his Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning performance in Ron Underwood's City Slickers. The turn marked something of a wish-fulfillment for the steel-tough actor, who had spent years believing, in vain, that he would be best suited for comedy. These dreams were soon realized for a lengthy period, as the film's triumph yielded a series of additional comic turns for Palance on television programs and commercials.
Accepting his Best Supporting Actor award at the 1992 Academy Awards ceremony, Palance won a permanent place in Oscar history when he decided to demonstrate that he was, in fact, still a man of considerable vitality by doing a series of one-handed push-ups on stage. He reprised his role in the film's 1994 sequel, City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold.
Over the years, Palance also starred in the TV series The Greatest Show on Earth (ABC, 1963-4), as a hard-living circus boss, and Bronk (CBS, 1975-6) as a pipe-smoking police lieutenant, as well as in numerous TV dramas, notably Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956). From 1982-1986, he hosted the ABC revival of Ripley's Believe It Or Not. He also established himself as an author in the late '90s, by publishing the 1996 prose-poem Forest of Love. Accompanying the work were Palance's pen-and-ink drawings, inspired by his Pennysylvania farm; he revealed, at the time, that he had been painting and sketching in his off-camera time for over 40 years.
After scattered work throughout the '90s and 2000s, Jack Palance died on November 10, 2006 at his home in Montecito, California. He had been married and divorced twice, first to Virginia Baker from 1949-1966 (with whom he had three children), and then to Elaine Rogers in 1987. Two of his children outlived him; the third died several years prior, of melanoma, at age 43. ~ Rovi