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Jack Palance, 87; gravelly voiced actor won Oscar as crusty trail boss in `City Slickers'

November 11, 2006|Myrna Oliver | Special to The Times

Jack Palance, the leather-faced, gravelly voiced actor who earned Academy Award nominations for "Sudden Fear" and "Shane," and who finally captured the Oscar almost 40 years later as the crusty trail boss in the 1991 comedy western "City Slickers," has died. He was 87.

Palance, who had been in failing health with a number of maladies, died Friday of natural causes at the Montecito home of his daughter Holly, family members said.

He was one of the best-loved bad guys in motion picture and television history -- the murderous husband in "Sudden Fear" (1952), the creepy gunslinger in "Shane" (1953) and the cantankerous cattle driver Curly in "City Slickers" -- and kept acting well into his 80s.

"When it comes to playing hard-bitten cowboys, there could never be anyone better than Jack," "City Slickers" director Ron Underwood told The Times on Friday. "He was a scary, intimidating guy with a very warm and giving heart."

Palance's performance accepting the Oscar may have been more memorable than the gnarly star turn that earned it.

Upon winning, he dropped to the stage floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and delighted the audience with vigorous one-armed push-ups. Septuagenarian actors, he said, must continually prove their virility to keep working in youth-oriented Hollywood.

The surprise stunt provided fodder for a series of ad-libbed jokes throughout the evening by Billy Crystal, his "City Slickers" co-star and the show's host. The next year's ceremony, in 1993, opened with Palance -- then 74 -- using his teeth to tow across the stage a 20-foot-tall Oscar statuette ridden by Crystal.

"I am deeply shocked and saddened by the loss of my dear friend Jack Palance, a true movie icon," Crystal said in a statement Friday. "Winning the Oscar for that movie and the one-armed push-ups he did on the show will link us together forever, and for that I am grateful."

The two men worked together again in the 1994 sequel "City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold." Since Palance's Curly had died in the first film, he portrayed Curly's equally curmudgeonly identical twin. "Only Palance returns with a flourish," the Times review said. "He's as gnarled and critter-like as ever."

He had shown a flair for funny in the comic fable "Bagdad Cafe" (1988), in which he played a retired Hollywood set painter turned primitive artist. Palance was "a constant revelation and delight," the Times review said, and emerged "as a terrific comedian."

Equally at home on television, Palance earned an Emmy for his role as a has-been boxer in "Requiem for a Heavyweight" in 1956. And he was still doing quality work on television in the 1990s -- notably in the third installment of the Glenn Close-Christopher Walken vehicle "Sarah Plain and Tall," in which he portrayed Walken's long-lost and resented father.

In the Wild West retelling of "A Christmas Carol," Palance starred as the title character in the movie "Ebenezer, " which premiered on cable in 1998. The classic Charles Dickens story was updated with a protagonist who runs a saloon in the 1870s and snarls, "Christmas, hogwash."

"This Ebenezer Scrooge is no harmless old crank; he's a gun ready to go off -- and that makes his redemption all the more cathartic," a Times reviewer wrote.

Given his customary vile appearance in the black garb of various bad guys in the Old West, there was little wonder that Palance and his pictures easily made 1997's "The Manly Movie Guide" by David Everitt and Harold Schechter. His name is listed with such classic western toughs as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

In reality, the man born Feb. 18, 1919, and named Volodymir Ivanovich Palahniuk hailed not from the West but from the coal country around Lattimer Mines, Pa., and was a fairly sensitive fellow.

Although he enjoyed raising cattle, he was a vegetarian who had painted abstract landscapes since the 1950s, loved trees and wrote poetry. He wrote and illustrated a book with the non-villainous title of "The Forest of Love: A Love Story in Blank Verse," which was published in 1996.

Surrounded by art in Rome, where he lived for a number of years making spaghetti westerns, Palance was inspired to take up painting. His artwork, which bore the stamp of Impressionism, had been exhibited about a dozen times, he told the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call in 1999.

Palance maintained a 1,000-acre cattle ranch in California's Tehachapi Mountains and a 500-acre farm near his roots in heavily forested Luzerne County, Pa. His ranch brand was an "H" with a "B" and a "C" woven around it, the initials of the first names of his children, Holly, Brooke and Cody.

It was the farm, he said, that inspired his book about a man's love for a woman and nature.

"Everything I talk about is about Pennsylvania," he said of the prose poem that was published among his paintings and line drawings of trees. "I'm not inspired as much by California."

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