Jack Palance (born Volodymyr Palahniuk; February 18, 1919 – November 10, 2006) was an American actor and singer. During half a century of film and television appearances, he was nominated for three Academy Awards, all for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, winning in 1991 for his role in City Slickers.
Fighting under the name Jack Brazzo, Palance reportedly compiled a record of 15 consecutive victories with 12 knockouts before losing a close decision to future heavyweight contender Joe Baksi in a "Pier-6" brawl. Years later he recounted: "Then, I thought, you must be nuts to get your head beat in for $200." Palance was an outstanding high school football player and this skill was recognized by Raymond Wolf, the Head Coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Palance began his career at Carolina as a fullback, but Coach Wolf and the staff felt that he was best-suited to play in the line and, after some consideration, Palance left the game for good.
With the outbreak of World War II, Palance's athletic career ended and his military career began as a member of the United States Army Air Forces. Palance's rugged face, which took many beatings in the boxing ring, was said to have become disfigured while bailing out of a burning B-24 Liberator bomber during a training flight over Southern Arizona (where Palance was a student pilot). His distinctive cheekbones and deep-set eyes were said to have been the result of reconstructive surgery. The story behind Palance's face was repeated numerous times (including in respected film reference works), but upon his death, several obituaries of Palance quoted him as saying that the entire story had been contrived: "Studio press agents make up anything they want to, and reporters go along with it. One flack created the legend that I had been blown up in an air crash during the war, and my face had to be put back together by way of plastic surgery. If it is a 'bionic face', why didn't they do a better job of it?"
Palance was honorably discharged from the Army Air Corps in 1944. After the war, he attended Stanford University, leaving one credit shy of graduating to pursue a career in the theatre. A Bachelor of Arts degree in drama was conferred to him, honorary Class of 1949, in 1995) During his university years, he worked as a short order cook, waiter, soda jerk, lifeguard at Jones Beach State Park, and photographer's model. His last name was actually a derivative of his original name. In an episode of What's My Line? he described how no one could pronounce his last name and it was suggested he be called Palanski. From that he decided to just use Palance instead.
In 1947, Palance made his Broadway debut. He debuted on television in 1949, and this was followed a year later by his screen debut in the movie Panic in the Streets (1950). The very same year he was featured in Halls of Montezuma about the U.S. Marines in World War II, where he was credited as "Walter (Jack) Palance." Palance was quickly recognized for his skill as a character actor, receiving an Oscar nomination for only his third film role, as Lester Blaine in Sudden Fear.
The following year, Palance was again nominated for an Oscar, this time for his role as the hired gunfighter Jack Wilson in Shane. Several other Western roles followed, but he also played such varied roles as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula and Attila the Hun. Three years before Palance played the part, comic book artist Gene Colan based his interpretation of Dracula for the acclaimed series The Tomb of Dracula on Palance, explaining, "He had that cadaverous look, a serpentine look on his face. I knew that Jack Palance would do the perfect Dracula."
In 1969, Palance recorded a country music album in Nashville, released on Warner Bros. Records. It featured Palance's self-penned song "The Meanest Guy That Ever Lived". The album was re-released on CD in 2003 by the Water label (Water 119).
In 1982, Palance began hosting a television revival of Ripley's Believe It or Not!. The weekly series ran from 1982 to 1986 on the American ABC network. The series also starred three different co-hosts from season to season, including Palance's daughter Holly Palance, actress Catherine Shirriff and singer Marie Osmond. Ripley's Believe It or Not! was in rerun syndication on the Sci-fi Channel (UK) and Sci-fi Channel (US) during the 1990s.
Palance's success on Ripley's Believe It or Not! resulted in a demand for his services. He made memorable appearances in Young Guns (1988), Tango & Cash (1989) and Tim Burton's Batman (1989), all of which served to reinvigorate his movie career. Palance would be involved in new projects each year right up to the start of the 21st century. He also performed on Roger Waters' first solo album release The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking in 1984.
In 2001, Palance returned to the recording studio as a special guest on friend Laurie Z's Heart of the Holidays album to narrate the famous classic poem "The Night Before Christmas."
Four decades after his film debut, Palance won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor on March 30, 1992, for his performance as cowboy Curly Washburn in the 1991 comedy City Slickers. Stepping onstage to accept the award, the intimidatingly fit 6' 4" (1.93 m) actor looked down at 5' 7" (1.70 m) Oscar host Billy Crystal (who was also his co-star in the movie), and joked – mimicking one of his lines from the film – "Billy Crystal... I crap bigger than him." He then dropped to the floor and demonstrated his ability, at age 73, to perform one-handed push-ups.
Crystal turned this into a running gag. At first, he quipped, "I told Jack before the ceremony, 'Decaf, Jack, decaf'" then at various points in the broadcast he announced that Palance had done the following:
At the end of the broadcast, Crystal told everyone he would like to see them again, "But, I've just been informed Jack Palance will be hosting next year."
Years later, Crystal appeared on Inside the Actors Studio and fondly recalled that, after the Oscar ceremony, Palance approached him during the reception: "He stopped me and put his arms out and went, 'Billy Crystal, who thought it would be you?' It was his really funny way of saying thank you to a little New York Jewy guy who got him the Oscars."
In 1993, during the opening of the Oscars, a spoof of that Oscar highlight featured Palance appearing to drag in an enormous Academy Award statuette with Crystal again hosting, riding on the rear end of it. Halfway across the stage, Palance dropped to the ground as if exhausted, but then performed several one-armed push-ups before regaining his feet and dragging the giant Oscar the rest of the way across the stage.
Palance was married to his first wife, Virginia Baker, from 1949 to 1968. They had three children: Holly (born 1950), an actress, Brooke (born 1952), and Cody (1955–1998). On New Year's Day 2003, Baker was struck and killed by a car in Los Angeles.
Palance's daughter Brooke married Michael Wilding, son of Michael Wilding Sr. (1912–1979) and Elizabeth Taylor; they have three children. Cody Palance, an actor himself, appeared alongside his father in the film Young Guns. Cody would die from malignant melanoma at age 42 on July 16, 1998. Palance had hosted The Cody Palance Memorial Golf Classic to raise awareness and funds for a cancer center in Los Angeles. Aside from acting, Cody was also a musician.
In May 1987, Palance married his second wife, Elaine Rogers.
Palance painted and sold landscape art, with a poem included on the back of each picture. He was also the author of The Forest of Love, a book of poems published in 1996 by Summerhouse Press. He was a supporter of the Republican Party.
Palance acknowledged a lifelong attachment to his Pennsylvania heritage and visited there when able. Shortly before his death, he placed his Butler Township farm up for sale and his personal art collection up for auction.