Jack Palance, the intimidating character actor and perennial movie heavy who earned an Oscar when he switched to comedy, died Friday of natural causes. He was either 85 or 87 years old, depending on which sources you believe.
Palance was famous for most of his career as a movie villains and tough guys, but he had an impressive number of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror credits under his belt – a fact mostly overlooked in the few eulogies I’ve read so far.
Most of Palance’s genre titles were not particularly impressive; his hefty resume includes numerous misfired feature films and bad television productions: CRAZE (1973), THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME (1979), episodes of BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (1979). GOR in 1988, OUTLAWS OF GOR (1989), and SOLAR CRISIS (1990). But there were some good ones in there, too, such as Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989), in which Palance played a crime boss opposte Jack Nicholson.
In 1967, he played an obsessed collector of Poe in the fourth episode of the anthology horror film TORTURE GARDEN, which was written by Robert Bloch (PSYCHO). Palance was, weirdly enough, cast as an Englishman opposite English actor Peter Cushing, who was cast as an American. Palance kills the rival collector, who turns out to have collected Poe himself – and brought him back from the dead.
The film’s co-producer, the late Max J. Rosenberg, commented on at least one occasion regarding the actor’s hammy performance: “Palance pranced around like a wounded gazelle!”
A year later, Palance played the title roles in a television production of DR. JEKYLL AND MR HYDE for producer Dan Curtis (DARK SHADOWS). Shot on video, the show aired at 11:30pm on ABC, at a time when there was little if any original late-night programming.
In 1973, Palance played another famous monster for Curtis, the blood-thirsty vampire Count in DRACULA. Scripted by Richard Matheson, this tele-film prefigured BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) in taking liberties with the original material, suggesting that Dracula came to England seeking the reincarnation of his lost love. (A similar plot device had been used in Curtis’s Gothic daytime 1960s soap opera DARK SHADOWS, in 1932 version of THE MUMMY, and in the H. Rider Haggard novel SHE – but nowhere in Stoker’s novel.)
Later in the decade, Palance’s genre roles looked like for-the-money work; in fact, by the early 1980s, his career seemed to be in an unstoppable downhill slide, with titles like HAWK THE SLAYER (1980), WITHOUT WARNING (1980), EVIL STLAKS THIS HOUSE (1981), and ALONE IN THE DARK (1982). In particular, WITHOUT WARNING was something of an all-star bomb, featuring veteran character actors like Martin Landau, Cameron Mitchell, Lary Storch, Ralph Meeker, and Neville Brand (not to mention youngster David Caruso and, as the alien menace, Kevin Peter Hall, who would go on to play the title roles in PREDATOR and HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS).
Somehow, both Palance and Landau resurrected their careers, both earning Oscar nominations in 1992 for CITY SLICKERS and CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, respectively. Palance, of course, took home the gold that year (Landau would later win in 1994 for Ed Wood), givng a memorable acceptance performance (rather than a simple speech) that included some one-armed push-ups.
Palance’s first feature film role after the Oscar win was in a modestly-budgeted science-fiction thriller CYBORG 2, which was shot under the cryptic title GLASS SHADOWS, which also featured the motion picture debut of 17-year-old-future-Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie (daughter of Jon Voight). Palance’s roll was fairly typical for a film of that type – a small one designed to get his name value attached to the film.
At the time, I was covering the production for Cinefantastique magazine, so I had the opportunity to interview Palance, which turned out to be one of the stranger experiences of my life. The best way I can describe it is by comparing it to Palance’s scene in the Chevy Chase comedy COPS AND ROBBERSONS, where Palance’s taciturn police officer is bombared by questions by Chase’s son – and answers them all with monosyllable grunts. The difference is that, in the film, the Palance character clearly didn’t want to talk, but in real life he didn’t want the interview to end – even though he had nothing to say!
Looking back, I think Palance thought the situation was a bit of a joke – doing an interview about making a movie on which he was working for only a day – so he decided to have a little fun with it. Trying to get into the spirit of the thing, I wrote up the interview in spite of its non-answers and tried to milk it for a little humor when it finally appeared in print.
In spite of this strange encounter, I’ve enjoyed Palance’s work, before and since. He had a particular thing he did well, and Hollywood asked him to do it often. In lesser films he sometimes hammed it up or chewed the scenery, but more often than not he was very good at playing villains – a talent that translated well when he made the occasional jump to playing movie monsters like Mr. Hyde and Count Dracula. It’s unlikely that these performances will ever eclipse his more famous roles in SHANE (1953) or CITY SLICKERS in the public eye, but they do deserve recognition in their own right.