On the Uncanny Jack Palance

The arc of the career of Ukrainian-American actor Jack Palance (Volodymyr Palahniuk 1919-2006) was like a jump-rope in repose: high at the beginning and end and sagging in the middle. It’s amazing that he got anywhere at all, he was such a weird and weird-looking dude. His voice was an insinuating hiss, his grin, a perverse leer. Usually the biggest and strongest person in any room, he had an exceptionally strange face, chiseled and flat, with very high cheekbones that always reminded me of the Dick Tracy villain Mrs. Pruneface. So odd-looking was he that studio publicists concocted a story that he had undergone reconstructive surgery to compensate for injuries he sustained while bailing from a burning bomber during the war (a story I long believed). It turns out that his puss had taken meany beatings, but only in the boxing ring. Palance had boxed as a professional under the name Jack Brazzo, and also put on the gloves on an amateur basis during his war service. Prior to this, like the rest of his family, he was a coal miner in his native Pennsylvania.

Palance’s leg up into his chosen art came as the replacement for Marlon Brando in the original Broadway production of Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Three more plays followed: A Temporary Island and The Vigil (both 1948) and Sidney Kingsley’s Darkness at Noon (1951). Meanwhile, in 1950 Streetcar’s director Elia Kazan cast him in his plague thriller Panic in the Streets. This led to a terrific role as a manipulative, gaslighting villain in Sudden Fear (1952) with Joan Crawford for which performance he was Oscar-nominated. He was nominated again the following year as the cold-hearted killer in the wester classic Shane (1953) — my dad’s favorite movie, so this is easily the first performance of Palance’s I would have seen. More villainous parts followed: Jack the Ripper in Man in the Attic (1953), Attila the Hun in Sign of the Pagan (1954), and Simon Magus, the man for whom the sin of simony is named, in The Silver Chalice (1955). He was more sympathetic as a mixed-up movie star in Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife (1955), and played a similar Hollywood movie producer in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963). Also notable from this time was his part as the punch-drunk boxer in the original 1956 TV version of Rod Serling’s classic Requiem for a Heavyweight, particularly poignant in light of his own background as a pugilist. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s he did much live TV drama, countless war movies and heist films, and many international productions.

In 1963 he starred in his first TV series, The Greatest Show on Earth, in which he played a circus boss not unlike the one played by Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille’s eponymous film, but with a different name. The show was produced by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball through Desilu (and Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Television) and had scores of top notch guest stars, but only lasted one season.

Notable stuff from the next few years included the all-star western The Professionals (1966), the title role in a TV version of The Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968), Fidel Castro in Che! (1969), and Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1969). From 1970 through 1973 he did NINE westerns in a row: The McMasters, Monte Walsh, Companeros, The Horsemen, It Can be Done Amigo, Chato’s Land, Sting of the West, Brothers Blue, and Oklahoma Crude. This was followed by Dan Curtis’s Dracula (1974).

In 1975 Palance starred in his second TV series, his obligatory self-named cop show in the tradition of Columbo, McCloud, McCoy, Cannon, Quincy, and Banacek. Palance’s was called Bronk (his character’s full name was Bronkov). He played a police lieutenant in a small California town. The show only lasted one season, but it is historically notable anyway for the interesting reason that it was created and produced by none other than Carroll O’Connor, then best known to the world as Archie Bunker.

The years immediately after that were probably Palance’s low point. His output included lots of spaghetti westerns and things like Cocaine Cowboy (1979), a low budget independent film shot at Andy Warhol’s house in Montauk, with Warhol playing a small role in the film; and the TV movie The Ivory Ape (1980), with Steven Keats, about explorers who find a fabled white gorilla.

As I’m sure many of you have anticipated the permanent turnaround in Palance’s career came when he was hired to host and narrate a 1981 TV special drawn from the popular newspaper feature Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. This led to a new series that lasted from 1982 through 1986. This was actually the second Believe It Or Not TV series, and there had been film and radio series before it (read about them here). Palance’s strange and creepy persona was a perfect match for the job, which consisted of relating true stories from the worlds of history and nature, odd coincidences, unusual specimens, and so forth. This is how many people my age and younger first knew Palance, though as we have seen, he had already been a star for 30 years.

Though Palance was now appoaching 70 years old, his new visibility revived his acting career, some might say to heights he had never attained even in his early years. The well known movies he appeared in during this time include Bagdad Cafe (1987), Young Guns (1988), Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Tango and Cash (1989), City Slickers (1991, for which he famously won an Oscar), City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold (1994), Buffalo Girls (1995), Ebenezer (in which he plays a western version of Scrooge (1998), The Incredible Adventures of Marco Polo on His Journeys to the Ends of the Earth (in which he played Beezelbub, 1998) and Treasure Island (in which, at the age of 80, he played Long John Silver, 1999). His last role was in the all-star TV movie Back When We Were Grown-Ups (2004) with Blythe Danner, Faye Dunaway, Peter Fonda, Peter Riegert, et al.

Palance’s children Holly and Cody became actors as well, and his third child, Brooke married a son of Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Wilding. And he is a distant cousin of the guy who wrote the novel Fight Club. Believe It…or Not.