Biography of Jack Palance, Action Movie Star and Onscreen Villain

Jack Palance
Moviepix / Getty Images

Jack Palance (born Volodymyr Palahniuk; February 18, 1919—November 10, 2006) gained fame playing dark, villainous characters in movies in the 1950s and 1960s. He had an unlikely surge back into stardom in the 1980s culminating in an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in 1991's City Slickers.

Jack Palance Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Volodymyr Palahniuk
  • Known as: Jack Palance
  • Occupation: Actor
  • Born: February 18, 1919 in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, USA
  • Died: November 10, 2006 in Montecito, California, USA
  • Top Films: Sudden Fear, Shane, The Professionals, City Slickers
  • Key Accomplishment: Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in City Slickers
  • Spouses' Names: Virginia Baker (m. 1949–1968), Elaine Rogers (m. 1987)
  • Children's Names: Holly, Brooke, Cody

Early Life and Military Experience

Jack Palance, whose given name was Volodymyr Palahniuk, was born into a Ukrainian immigrant mining family in Lattimer Mines, Pennsylvania. As a teenager, he went to work in the mines, where his father was employed. By the 1930s, he made his way out of the mines and into the world of professional boxing. Under the name Jack Brazzo, he compiled a record of fifteen consecutive wins and twelve knockouts. He ultimately quit boxing after losing a match and deciding that the toll on his body wasn't worth the income.

During World War II, Palance joined the U.S. Army Air Force. Rumors persisted for much of his life that his chiseled facial features were due to reconstructive surgery performed after injuries sustained during a B-24 bomber flight. However, late in his life, he debunked the stories. He earned an honorable discharge in 1944.

Early Success and Stardom

After World War II, Palance attended Stanford University, but left shortly before graduation in order to pursue an acting career. Around the same time, he adopted his stage name, Jack Palance.

Palance debuted on Broadway in 1947 in The Big Two. Later on during the same year, he signed on as Marlon Brando's understudy in Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire. Palance later took over the lead, but producers hired Anthony Quinn for the touring production.

In 1950, Palance followed A Streetcar Named Desire director Elia Kazan to Hollywood and debuted onscreen in Panic In the Streets. For his third film, 1952's Sudden Fear, Palance received second billing to star Joan Crawford. His film noir portrayal of a murderous man earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He received a second Best Supporting Actor nomination for 1953's Shane, in which he played an evil gunfighter dressed in black. With these two nominations under his belt, Palance became one of the hottest young Hollywood stars on the scene.

Frustrated by Typecasting

Palance gained stardom playing characters that audiences loved to hate, and soon he became the most popular heel in Hollywood movies. He portrayed a wide array of villains, including Jack the Ripper in 1953's Man in the Attic, Apache in 1953's Arrowhead, and Attila the Hun in 1954's Sign of the Pagan. In 1957, Palance took home an Emmy Award for his role in the Playhouse 90 TV production of Rod Serling's play Requiem for a Heavyweight.

By the late 1950s, however, Palance was frustrated with being typecast as a villain. He moved with his family to Europe, where he signed onto several movies filmed in Italy (including 1961's Sword of the Conqueror and 1962's Night Train to Milan). Within a few years, he returned to the U.S., insisting that the European productions offered him the same kind of roles he had been trying to escape in the first place.

Although he appeared in a wide range of films throughout the late 1960s, Palance's stardom did not return. One of his best movies of the era was 1966's The Professionals with Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster. He also co-starred with Omar Sharif in the big budget 1969 biographical picture Che!, but the film was a commercial disappointment.

Late-Career Success

Jack Palance continued to work regularly through the 1970s. The 1973 British TV movie, Bram Stoker's Dracula, received critical acclaim. Palance also appeared in American TV movies, including 1975's The Hatfields and the McCoys.

Palance began a surprising return to stardom with his performance as the host of the mid-1980s TV series Ripley's Believe It or Not. He followed this success with a celebrated performance in the 1987 international hit Bagdad Cafe. Other well-received later performances include Tim Burton's Batman and Tango & Cash, both from 1989.

City Slickers

Jack Palance's most significant late-career success, and one of the biggest movies of his career, hit movie theaters in 1991. He played aging cowboy Curly Washburn in Billy Crystal's comedy smash City Slickers. Palance was the first choice for the role of Curly, but he initially declined the offer due to another project. After Charles Bronson turned producers down, however, Palance exited his other obligation and joined the cast.

Palance received stellar reviews and won his first Academy Award for the performance, taking him the Best Supporting Actor title for the first time after three nominations. He also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor. 73-year-old Palance shocked viewers of the Academy Awards when he hit the floor to demonstrate that he could still perform one-handed push-ups during his acceptance speech. He appeared in the sequel City Slickers II in 1994.

Death and Legacy

Palance continued to work until three years before his death. His last two performances took place in made-for-TV movies. He starred in 2002's Living With the Dead with Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen. His final onscreen role was a 2004 Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of Anne Tyler's novel Back When We Were Grownups co-starring Blythe Danner. He died in 2006, of natural causes.

Jack Palance was known for his independent approach to the development of his acting career. At six feet four inches tall and weighing over 210 pounds, he cut a sometimes-intimidating figure, and his frequent portrayals of onscreen villains added to his hard-boiled image. However, Palance was equally well-known for having a big heart and working well with others. He became a symbol of good health and longevity after his push-up display at the 1992 Academy Awards ceremony.