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The archetypal villain

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Jack Palance
Jack Palance

V. GANGADHAR

Jack Palance, who passed away recently, had an appearance that fitted into the roles of crooks, murderers, maniacs and barbarians.

Playing the lead in the chilling, `The Silence of the Lambs,' Anthony Hopkins was seen on screen for only 45 minutes of the film, but that was enough to fetch him the Best Actor Oscar. Years earlier, the tall, lanky, lantern-jawed villain Jack Palance spoke only 16 lines in the classic Western, `Shane' and won a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Jack Palance died recently at 87, leaving behind a legacy that includes dozens of films and TV shows. He also leaves an indelible memory of the 1992 Oscar ceremony when, after receiving the Best Actor award for `City Slickers,' he did several single-handed push-ups rendering the show anchor Billy Crystal speechless.

Honour for `bad guy'

Perhaps, Palance was delighted that the most menacing villain of Hollywood had been honoured for his role in a comedy! It was easy to stereotype Palance as villain for he made his debut as the Killer Blackie in the 1950 film, `Panic in the Streets.' Two years later his role opposite Joan Crawford in `Sudden Fear,' where he played a maniacal killer, earned him an Oscar nomination for the Best Supporting role. Then came `Shane,' where as Jack Wilson, the gun-slinging hired killer, in black jeans, black neckerchief and black hat, he took on hero Alan Ladd in a bar room confrontation. "Prove it," he taunts Ladd who accuses him of being a killer. Beaten in the draw, he falls with two bullets in the gut. The rugged, deep-set dark eyes, high cheekbones, the gravel voice and the swagger made Palance unique in an era where good Westerns did not need high-tech wonders. Good and the bad were clearly defined and Palance, who has a face that looks as though it had been battered, fitted perfectly into the roles of crooks, murderers, maniacs and barbarians. Naturally, he was Jack the Ripper in `Man in the Attic' and Attila the Hun in `Sign of the Pagan.' No wonder this became a bit galling for an actor with a degree in drama and who was an understudy to someone like Anthony Quinn in classics like `The Street Car Named Desire' and had even taken over from Marlon Brando to play the lead in the same play. "Most of my roles were garbage," Palance used to mutter. And as for the directors? "Most of them could not even direct the traffic."

Background

Son of a Ukrainian coal miner who settled down in Pennsylvania, the actor, struggled through a series of jobs — coal mining, waiting at tables, radio repairs, Life Guard, professional boxer, model — before joining the Army Air Corps. Discharged after an injury, he enrolled in the University, gave up the study of Journalism, before graduating in Drama. Palance fought hard to remove the `villain' image and played character roles in the 1980s. He was an instant success on television, winning a Best Actor Emmy for the role of a professional boxer in the 1956 production of `Requiem for a Heavyweight.' Another side to his talent came to the fore in 1996 when he published his prose poem, "Forest of Love." It was on male sexuality and had his pen and ink drawings. Yet movie buffs of our generation will always remember him for that climax scene in `Shane.' Jack Wilson's fingers moving towards the holstered gun sent shivers down the viewers' spines!


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