Jack Palance, who was born on this day in 1919 and died on Nov. 10 2006, had one of the scariest physiognomies in movies but my favourite memory of him is of a wink.
When I used to visit Los Angeles from Toronto to do stories for TV Guide Canada in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I stayed at the Sportsmen’s Lodge on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. It had a good coffee shop with a very decent breakfast and it was not unusual to see familiar showbiz faces there.
One time, as I walked into the restaurant, I spotted Jack Palance walking toward me. With his considerable size, purposeful stride and stern demeanour, he appeared intimidating but I was still very tempted to speak to him. At the last, I elected not to intrude on his path towards breakfast.
He looked very stern and unfriendly as he approached but as we passed each other it was clear he had spotted that I had recognised him and decided not to react as he broke into a wide smile and winked at me.
A terrific character actor, Palace won the best supporting award at the Oscars for the modern western comedy “City Slickers” in 1992 and he did one-arm pushups onstage to show potential casting agents how fit he was at 73.
His award came around 40 years after his first nominations for David Miller’s noir thriller “Sudden Fear” opposite Joan Crawford and Gloria Grahame and George Stevens’s classic western “Shane” starring Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur and Van Heflin.
Palance co-starred in another of the all-time great westerns – Richard Brooks’s “The Professionals “ (1966) with Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Claudia Cardinale (pictured with Palance top) and Woody Strode – and other good little westerns such as “The Lonely Man” (1957) with Anthony Perkins, and William A. Fraker’s likeable “Monte Walsh” (1970) also with Marvin plus Jeane Moreau.
He made a couple of sharp Robert Aldrich dramas – Hollywood tale “The Big Knife” (1955), based on the play by Clifford Odets, with Ida Lupino and Wendell Corey, and World War II picture “Ten Seconds to Hell” (1959) with Jeff Chandler and Martine Carol.
There were many swords-and-sandals vehicles including “The Barbarians” (1960), “Sword of the Conqueror” (1961), “The Mongols” (1961) and John Frankenheimer’s “The Horsemen” (1971) with Omar Sharif and Leigh Taylor-Young. His credits also include Percy Adlon’s charming offbeat comedy drama “Bagdad Cafe” (1987) and the comic book blockbuster “Batman” (1989).
Palance played Fidel Castro in Richard Fleischer’s “Che!” (1969) also with Sharif, Long John Silver in “Treasure Island” (1999), and Scrooge in “Ebenemer” (1998) plus the title roles in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1968) and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1974). He succeeded Humphrey Bogart as Roy Earle in “I Died a Thousand Times”, Stuart Heisler’s almost scene-for-scene 1955 remake of W.R. Burnett’s 1941 Raoul Walsh thriller “High Sierra”.
There were many, many war pictures and quite a few turkeys, but a Palance picture is invariably worth watching for the intensity he brings to his roles and, who knows, you might also catch a wink.