Friday, November 10, 2006

Rest in Peace, Jack Palance

Legendary American tough guy and veteran character actor Jack Palance passed away earlier today. As the Associated Press reports:
Palance died of
natural causes at his home in Montecito, Calif., surrounded by family, said spokesman Dick Guttman. He was 85, according to Associated Press records, but his family gave his age as 87.
Born Volodymyr Palanyuk (his family was Ukranian) in Hazle Township, Pennsylvania, the 6-feet-4-inch Palance became a boxer and World War II pilot before studying journalism and then drama at Stanford University. A persistent rumor had it that the actor’s taut, rugged, leathery face was due to wartime plastic surgery after a field accident in 1942. But Palance refuted these rumors, saying:
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 made his debut movie appearance in 1950’s Panic in the Streets playing a murderer called Blackie. His first widespread critical acclaim came two years later for his role as Joan Crawford’s dark stalker in Sudden Fear. That performance earned Palance an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He went on to play a notorious gunfighter in the 1953 Alan Ladd Western, Shane (for which he received another Oscar nomination), and get work--frequently playing bad guys--in movies ranging from Arrowhead and Man in the Attic (both from 1953), to The Lonely Man (1957), Monte Walsh (1970), and Batman (1989). Palance also showed up occasionally on the small screen in those early days, playing parts in Playhouse 90, Run for Your Life, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. In addition, he starred in a 1968 TV production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Although he’d been nominated for Academy Awards several times during his younger, more active days, it wasn’t until Palance was 70 years old that he finally won an Oscar for his appearance as menacing cowboy Curly Washburn in the 1991 Western spoof classic, City Slickers. His most recent role was apparently in the 2004 teleflick Back When We Were Grownups.

Crime-fiction fans might remember Palance, too, for his role in a short-lived TV detective drama called Bronk (1975-1976), created by Carroll O’Connor. Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce describes Bronk as an interesting but fundamentally flawed project:
It found Palance playing Alexander “Bronk” Bronkov, a cop assigned to the mayor of Ocean City, California, who needed Bronk’s help to clean up corruption in his town. The series had promise; Palance came across pretty darn well on the tube, with his deep voice and commanding presence. But the folks in charge of that show loaded Bronk up with an almost criminal overabundance of idiosyncracies: he was allergic to cats, smoked a pipe, had a disabled daughter (who was injured in the same car crash that took Bronk’s wife’s life), and even played the harmonica.

I guess the intent was to soften Palance’s bruiser image, and make his character distinct from the plethora of other TV sleuths during that era. But all the quirks merely proved distracting, and the show’s writers soon went looking for storylines beyond corruption-busting--plots that actually made Bronk seem more like its competitors, rather than less. There were no fan campaigns to stop the series’ cancellation. I think Palance himself called it “stupid.”
Perhaps one of the most intriguing things about Jack Palance was brought up in today’s New York Times obituary. “Late in life,” explains reporter Richard Severo, “he wrote ‘Forest of Love,’ a prose poem about male sexuality and fears of loneliness. It was accompanied by his own pen-and-ink drawings, inspired in part by his feelings about his farm near Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He had been drawing and painting since the late 1950’s, when he lived in Rome, but hardly anybody knew about that talent until ‘Forest of Love’ was published” in 1996. Palance also “painted and sold landscape art,” explains Wikipedia, “with a poem included on the back of each picture.”

Not exactly what you’d expect out of a tough guy, eh?

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Here’s the main title sequence from Bronk; theme by Lalo Schifrin.

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