Jack Palance dies at 87

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Jack Palance, the raspy-voiced actor who made his name playing movie villains but won an Oscar at age 73 for his work as a grizzled cowboy in the comedy "City Slickers," has died. He was 87.

Palance died Friday of natural causes at his home in Montecito, Calif. He was surrounded by family members at the time, according to the Associated Press.

When receiving his supporting actor Oscar in 1992, Palance delighted the audience by dropping to the stage and performing one-armed push-ups, belying the unhealthy character he played in the film and showing Hollywood that he had a few good years left. It was perfect fodder for Oscar host Billy Crystal, his co-star in "Slickers," who peppered the rest of the evening with good-natured jokes about Palance.

Crystal remembered Palance as "a true movie icon," and he noted that the 1953 Western "Shane," which featured one of Palance's memorable early roles, was the first movie he ever saw.

"To act with him on 'City Slickers' was a true blessing," Crystal said. "Winning the Oscar for that movie and the one-arm push-ups he did on the show will link us together forever, and for that I am grateful. As intense, powerful and intimidating as he appeared on screen, he was just as sensitive, thoughtful and intelligent off it."

Palance also earned won two supporting actor Oscar nominations in the early 1950s, for his menacing performance as a malicious gunfighter in "Shane" and as Joan Crawford's sinister tormentor in "Sudden Fear" a year earlier. He also earned a Emmy in 1957 for his powerful performance as a slow-witted boxer in the Rod Serling-penned "Requiem for a Heavyweight," which aired on CBS' prestigious "Playhouse 90."

A one-time boxer from the coal mine region of western Pennsylvania, Palance often played complex tough-guy roles, characters who were both good and bad. With his sharp cheekbones, dark eyebrows and piercing glare, he was a menacing presence, and his clipped delivery cadence instilled fear. Indeed, his gruff humor and straightforward personality were part and parcel of his screen persona. Indicative of his lack of pretension, he claimed to have never watched any of his movies. Once, during a taping of the first incarnation of TV's "Hollywood Squares" in 1966, Palance fell asleep in his celebrity box.

He was born Vladimir Palahniuk in Lattimer, Pa., on Feb. 18, 1919. Palance was drafted to serve in World War II and flew B-17 bombers out of England. He reportedly once crash-landed his plane, necessitating plastic surgery on his face. Palance later denied the specifics of the story but did admit to having surgery.

After the war, he studied briefly at the University of North Carolina while on a football scholarship but left after two years for New York, where he made his Broadway debut with a bit part in the comedy "The Big Two." He later landed the part of Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire" after Marlon Brando's departure. "Streetcar" led him to be cast by director Elia Kazan in his first movie role, 1950's "Panic in the Streets." Playing a plague-carrying fugitive pursued by a military doctor, Palance made a ferocious impression. He went on to play a succession of mostly sinister or rugged characters in thrillers, war movies and Westerns, including 1950's "Halls of Montezuma," 1953's "Second Chance," "Arrowhead" and "Flight to Tangier" and 1954's "The Silver Chalice."

In 1955, Palance had the leading role in Robert Aldrich's "The Big Knife," playing a down-on-his-luck actor conned by a vicious studio head. The same year, he starred in the noir crime drama "I Died a Thousand Times."

Palance worked seemingly nonstop in the 1960s. Capitalizing on his dark and ferocious visage, he was cast in movies ranging from low-budget foreign actioners — including 1961's "The Mongols" and 1962's "Warriors Five" and the costume epic "Barabbas" — to Jean-Luc Godard's "Contempt." In 1963-64, he starred as Johnny Slate in the ABC series "The Greatest Show on Earth," playing a hard-driving circus boss. He landed a role as a Mexican brigand in Richard Brooks' 1966 hit "The Professionals," which reinvigorated his career in A-pictures. His late 1960s features included a turn as Fidel Castro in 1969's "Che!"

Palance went on to portray rugged characters in such films as "Monte Walsh" (1970) and the oil-gusher actioner "Oklahoma Crude" (1973). He also kept his career active by performing in a slew of low-budget foreign films as well as the occasional venture into arty fare, such as 1979's "Cocaine Cowboys."

From 1982-86, he hosted the ABC series "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" on which he was joined by his daughter Holly Palance in 1983. More prominent Hollywood movie parts came again in the late '80s and '90s, including 1988's "Young Guns" and 1989's "Tango & Cash" and "Batman."

But it wasn't until he was cast opposite Crystal and Daniel Stern as a veteran cowboy tasked with whipping urban tenderfoots into shape as cattle wranglers in the Ron Underwood-directed "Slickers" in 1991 that Palance had his late-career resurgence.

More recently, Palance co-starred in "City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold," playing the twin brother of his character who died in the original. His TV movie credits also were extensive, including such recent entries as "Buffalo Girls," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Ebenezer," "Sarah, Plain and Tall: Winter's End," "Living With the Dead" and "Back When We Were Grownups."

Palance, who briefly studied journalism at Stanford University, was an avid painter and poet who penned the book-length verse "The Forest of Love," a candid look at an older man's quest for intimacy. He also contributed several paintings for the book.

Married from 1949-68, Palance and his wife, actress Virginia Baker, had three children, all of whom followed their father into acting: daughters Holly and Brooke and son Cody, who died in 1998.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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