Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Jack Wilson & Curly (1919-2006)

“I crap bigger than you!”

I don’t know what it says about me, or Jack Palance, that this is the movie line that first comes to my mind when I think of him. It comes, of course, from his Oscar-winning turn in the 1991 comedy City Slickers. Palance’s character in that film was a distillation of his movie persona, established during a film career that encompassed more than half a century and scores of feature films. Curly Washburn was macho and malevolent and prone to make more normal men (like, say, the three played by Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern and the late Bruno Kirby) feel at best inadequate and at worst in fear of their lives. Four decades of playing impossibly tough men and movie villains had prepared both Palance and film audiences for that role in, for him, a rare comedic outing.

I think we were all a bit afraid of Jack Palance. But City Slickers made it okay to embrace him. We were happy for him when he got the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. And what a coincidence that he got it on an Oscar telecast hosted by his City Slickers costar Billy Crystal. He gave Crystal his most memorable running gag of the evening (and perhaps of all of Crystal’s hosting outings) when he made a point during his acceptance speech that he was as good as any younger actor and then proceeded to do a series of one-armed pushups. The chemistry between the gruff Palance the diminutive, wisecracking Crystal was entertaining enough that a City Slickers sequel was inevitable. Never mind that Palance’s character had been killed off in the first movie. He came back as Curly’s twin brother Duke in City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold.

Of course, Jack Palance had a career even before his path crossed Billy Crystal’s. If the City Slickers thing hadn’t happened, he would be most remembered (and probably still is, by a lot of people) for a small but memorable role as a villain in the classic 1953 western Shane. In that flick Palance played Jack Wilson, a gunfighter hired by a cattle baron who covets the land being farmed by settlers, including Van Heflin and Jean Arthur. When Wilson manipulates a tipsy Elisha Cook Jr. into a duel and then kills him, Shane (played by Alan Ladd) prevents Heflin from meeting a similar fate by confronting the perpetually grinning Wilson. Uttering one of his few lines in the movie (“Prove it!”), Palance doesn’t draw fast enough to survive his confrontation with Shane.

Other memorable Palance roles included Blackie, one of a pair of New Orleans thugs (with Zero Mostel), who contact the plague from a murder victim and are sought franticly by public health doctor Richard Widmark and detective Paul Douglas, in Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets; Joan Crawford’s husband, who plots to murder her in Sudden Fear; Simon the Magician in The Silver Chalice; Capt. Raza, who captures Claudia Cardinale, in Richard Brooks’s western (featuring Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan and Woody Strode) The Professionals; Fidel Castro in Richard Fleischer’s Che!; Chet Rollins (a good guy, for a change) in Monte Walsh; Rudi Cox, a former Hollywood set decorator who finds himself hanging out in a desert roadside café in Percy Adlon’s Bagdad Cafe; and one Lawrence G. Murphy opposite a bunch of Brat Pack cowboys (and his own son Cody, since deceased, in a small role) in Young Guns.

I feel particularly sentimental about Jack Palance’s passing, and not simply because he is one more Hollywood actor who was around my entire life and who is now gone. For one thing, this man could have been my father. Well, no, not really, but he was about the same age and, like my dad, flew a B24 in World War II. He even had a cattle ranch (despite being a vegetarian) in the same California county where my dad farmed for more than 30 years—but not in the flat San Joaquin Valley but up in the Tehachapi Mountains. He also had a farm in his native Pennsylvania. Supposedly, it was the crash and burning of his bomber plane that gave him his distinctly craggy features—after reconstructive surgeries. But, as he once said on a TV chat show, “I know I’m no beauty, but these are the Estonian features I was born with.” He was born with the name Volodymir Ivanovich Palahniuk, which got anglicized to Walter Jack Palance and then shortened to simply Jack Palance. For some reason, everyone wanted to pronounce his surname “Pa-LANCE,” which annoyed him. He insisted that it should rhyme with “balance.”

Like many screen actors, he got his start on the stage. He shared the distinction (with Anthony Quinn and, notably, Marlon Brando) of having played Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. One story has it that Palance replaced Brando, for whom he was the understudy, in the role on Broadway after Brando was hospitalized because Palance accidently punched him in the nose during a workout with a punching bag.

Some longtime actors with iconic features and screen personas wind up becoming fixtures in fanboy TV shows and movies. Palance came close but never quite made it. At the dawn of his movie career, he was considered for the role of the robot Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still but lost out to a taller actor. He had a small role (as Carl Grissom) in Tim Burton’s Batman, but nobody remembers that. And he nearly played the role of Klingon General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country but had to decline because the shooting conflicted with City Slickers, so the role went to Christopher Plummer.

But, in this vein, Palance did do some work that has special meaning for some of us geeky fan types—providing another reason that I am feeling sentimental about the passing of this man. He never appeared on the TV series Dark Shadows, but he did make three TV movies with Dark Shadows impresario Dan Curtis. In 1968, around the dawn of Dark Shadows’s run, he played the title role(s) in Curtis’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Two years after Dark Shadows ended its run, the two teamed up again to do the story that Curtis had shamelessly ripped off to spin the legend of Barnabas Collins. Palance starred in Curtis’s Dracula, giving the infamous count more sympathy, similar to the misunderstood Barnabas, who had made Dark Shadows a afternoon TV phenomenon. Six years later, they switched genres, as Palance was featured with the likes of Randy Quaid, Dale Robertson and Bo Hopkins in the comedic western The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang.

But, of course, Palance won’t be remembered by most people for those movies. It will be the rugged westerns and the hard-boiled crime stories on the big screen. And City Slickers. Somehow the line spoken by Tracey Walter about Curly in that movie seems apropos: “Lord, we give you Curly. Try not to piss him off.”

-S.L., 16 November 2006

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