The Oscar-winning actor discusses his sci-fi cameo. Or maybe not.
Jack Palance (who died in November 2006) is not a name normally associated with science-fiction, fantasy, and horror films. He shot to fame as the black-hatted villain in George Stevens' classic 1953 Western SHANE, and later generation of viewers recall him for his rolls in the two CITY SLICKERS comedies, in which he co-starred with Billy Crystal. Yet there are numerous genre titles listed on Jack Palance's resume, starting with the Amicus-produced anthology TORTURE GARDEN in 1967. Years later, co-producer Max J. Rosenberg comtemptuously dismissed Palance's performance in the film, saying that the actor "pranced around like a wounded gazelle."
In 1968, Palance played DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE in a late-night, shot-on-video production for Dan Curtis (DARK SHADOWS), at a time when there was little if any original programming on television after 11:00pm. He later played the title role in the 1973 Dan Curtis telefilm DRACULA, scripted by Richard Matheson, which prefigures many of the elements of the 1992 BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA. His other genre credits include CRAZE (1973), THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME (1979), HAWK THE SLAYER (1980), WITHOUT WARNING (1980), EVIL STALKS THIS HOUSE (1981), and ALONE IN THE DARK (1982), GOR (1988), and OUTLAWS OF GOR (1989). These latter itles were low-budget exploitatin efforts that seemed guaranteed to sound the death knell for any careers involved.
Yet somehow, Palance managed to recover. In 1989 he played a crime boss opposite Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's gloomy BATMAN. After that, he showed up in the glossy but disappointing American-Japanese co-roduction SOLAR CRISIS (1990) before going on to win his Oscar for his performance as Curly in 1991's CITY SLICKERS.
Palance gave a memorable acceptance speech at the 1992 Academy Awards show, upbraiding Hollywood for its age-ism and making his point by dropping down and performing one-armed pushups on stage (which gave Oscar host Billy Crystal lots of amunition for the rest of the evening).
Palance's first feature film role after the Oscar win was in a modestly budgeted action-adventure sci-fi flick. At the time, I was the chief Los Angeles reporter for Cinefantastique magazine, covering the making of the film, so I was excited to meet the man and hopefully hear a few decades worth of Hollywood war stories. As you can see from below, the result was not quite what I expected.
October 1992, Terminal Island, off of San Pedro, California. This is the location of GLASS SHADOWS (later retitled CYBORG 2), and I am about to interview Jack Palance. Recalling his exuberant Oscar acceptance speech, I’m anticipating an animated conversation; a few easy questions should be all it takes to start him talking about this film. After all, he must be deluged with offers since winning the award, so he must have had good reason to select this as his next project.
As the unit publicist and I sit in the star’s trailer, the interview begins with a simple question about the role he’s playing, a cyborg.
“I don’t know what the hell a cyborg is,” he remarks.
Not the most auspicious beginning. I try to define the term, but all I get is a blank expression. Try another tack: “What about the script appealed to you?”
He waits a beat, then says matter-of-factly, “The script did.” He leans forward, a smile playing across those craggy features, as I wait for some kind of elaboration. Finally, he let’s me off the hook by saying, “What am I going to say? Of course it did, and I think it’s very good.”
“But what made you want to do it? The character? The story? The director?”
Trying to help me out, the unit publicist offers, “All of the above?”
“All those things,” he allows. “Plus, a company with money – that’s always an extra inducement.”
Long pause. Again, he stares at me with that smile. Suddenly I’m reminded of SHANE, and I start to get the impression he’s trying to goad me into reaching for my gun, so that he can shoot me down and then claim self-defense.
Oh well, see what happens with another question. “What’s it like working with Michael Schroeder?”
“It’s like making a film.”
End of comment. I wait politely, nervously, expecting more. Not about to oblige me, he chuckles to himself, apparently enjoying my discomfort.
His answers are so brief and so fast they don’t give time to formulate new questions. These few minutes are starting to seem like eternity. I feel like the character in the story by Jorge Luis Borges, who finds himself miraculously frozen in time while facing a firing squad. The difference is that he used that suspended moment to complete his masterpiece, an epic poem, in his own mind. All I’m doing is drawing a tremendous blank.
I’m trying to figure out a graceful way of giving up and excusing myself when rescue apparently arrives in the form of a knock on the door – the makeup crew is ready for Palance. Breathing a sigh of relief, I expect him to send us on our way with apologies about getting back to work; instead, he says to the grip, “That’ll only take a couple of minutes, and we’ve just started this interview.”
The grip withdraws, then returns momentarily, not to demand the actor’s presence in makeup but to give him a pack of cigarettes. While Palance lights up, I ponder methods of jump-starting this conversation. Sensing that I’m drowning, the unit publicist speaks up: “We understand that throughout most of the film, we see just shots of your mouth and eyes.”
“You just see me like this,” he says, framing his eyes with his hands. “Then I put in an appearance at the end. I come out singing that song ‘All of Me...why not see all of me?’ Then somebody shoots me and says, ‘You’re a lousy singer!’”
We all laugh, and those precious seconds allow me to think up something else to ask. “Why are you off-screen so much? Are you supposed to be a mysterious character?”
“You would gather that, wouldn’t you?” Again, he smiles and stares, the effect his time enhanced with billowing cigarette smoke.
By this time, I realize that, despite the press release hype, Palance is playing only a cameo, which is why he has so little to say about his work on the film – he hasn’t done much. Shifting gears, I ask what he’ll be doing tonight. With effects people rigging explosions and stunt people preparing for battle, it looks as if Palance’s character will be getting out from behind the television monitor and into some heavy-duty action.
“I don’t know; I think there’s a lot of shooting,” he replies. “I come in spraying bullets and save [Cash and Colt]’s lives. I give up my life so the lovers can continue.” Laughing, he adds, “That’s such a lie. They say, ‘Save the girl for him.’ If you had a gun, you’d turn around and shoot him and keep the girl for yourself!”
“So you’re sort of the one-man posse?”
“Yeah, I’m the hero. I’m Rambo; I’m a short Rambo.”
This sounds promising. Before CITY SLICKERS, Palance was best known for his villains, especially his Oscar-nominated role in SHANE. It occurs to me to ask if playing heroes is an enjoyable change of pace.
Long pause. “What the hell difference does it make? You've got a gun, and you're killing, either way."
So much for that topic. I'm starting to feel sweat dripping down my arms. It seems like hours have elapsed, though from the amount of tape on my recorder, it's been only ten or fifteen minutes. Even the unit publicist is shifting uncomfortably
Finally, taking pity on me she tries to bring this torture to an end by standing and saying. probably waiting for you in makeup." I, too, rise, and apologize for taking so much of his time.
"Don't worry about that,” Palance states in a commanding voice, motioning for us to sit. "If you have any questions, go ahead. You haven't asked very many. If you're going to do an interview on me, you have to ask questions."
Obviously., he wants to talk . I just haven't found the right topic, so I throw it up to him: “What would you like to talk about?
"No, no, no," he laughs. "That's putting the cart before the horse."
"Well," I fumble, I asked what you're doing tonight. but you said you weren't sure."
“I read the script, but until I get on set and see what he has scheduled, I don't know for sure. Michael has a good imagination."
Another potential topic: what the director brings to the film that wasn't in the script. "Has he stuck pretty close to the script, or does he make a lot of changes on set, coming up with new action for you?"
"God, I've only been here one night."
"Has there been anything particularly challenging about working on this film?"
"Isn't that a little unusual for a film with a limited budget, when you have to work long hours with only limited resources?"
"I'm not in those troublesome situations. I'm all eyes and mouth."
I've had all I can take. Trying to return his stare, which has so far kept me transfixed, I insist upon letting the makeup crew do their work on him.
As if apologizing for our departure, the unit publicist assures Palance that we will be on set to watch him perform. The actor notes this, apparently without ascribing any particular importance to it.
Outside, the fresh ocean breeze helps wash away the tension that has built inside me throughout the interview. I take a deep breath of salt air as Michael Schroeder walks over and starts asking about the interview. "What did he have to say? Does he like the film?"
I barely hear him. I'm suddenly struck by a vision. I see myself sitting behind a desk somewhere, working as an editor and assigning other writers to visit locations and conduct interviews with taciturn stars. This vision is more than a little appealing, and somehow I know that I won't miss these set visits a bit.
The interview portion of this article original appeared, in slightly altered form, in Imagi-Movies 2:1 (Fall 1994).