IF ALL THE BEST cowboys have Chinese eyes, then Jack Palance is Confucius. Possessing a steely gaze to go along with his coffee‑and‑cigarettes growl and leathery visage (the result of a bomber accident in World War II that burned his face), the coal miner's son from Lattimer, Pennsylvania (born Walter Jack Palahnuik in 1919), solidified his reputation as one of the movie West's great villains in Shane, in which his character, the cold‑blooded Wilson, plugs a hapless Elisha Cook, Jr., into the mud. "I was lucky," Palance says. "Early in my career I got to work with Elia Kazan, George Stevens, and the guy from that war story, Halls of Montezuma -what the hell was his name?"
A journalism student at Stanford University, Palance was set on a career as a reporter in San Francisco. "Thirty‑five dollars a week," he remembers being offered for one job. "I said to myself, To hell with this crap, I'm going to Broadway."
And so he did. Kazan plucked him off the stage for Panic in the Streets, Palance's 1950 screen debut, which the actor soon followed up with Oscar-nominated roles in Sudden Fear and Shane. Despite a long and active career, including scores of films (many of them European, such as Jean‑Luc Godard's Contempt) and a four‑year stint on TV as host of Ripley's Believe It or Not, Palance is best remembered by young fans for City Slickers and his 1992 Oscar acceptance speech ("Billy Crystal? I crap bigger than him"), complete with those infamous one‑armed push‑ups. "The Oscars?" says Palance. "Oh, I don't know anything about that. That was nothing." Keep scratching this 75‑year-old tough guy and you'll find an old softy who would "rather be at my easel painting" at his woodsy Pennsylvania retreat and shmoozing about boxing. "Joe Louis was the greatest fighter I ever saw," says Palance. "To see him glad‑handing at a Las Vegas casino was really sad."
Palance, in contrast, is still fighting, currently in the inevitable City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold, in which he plays the late leatherneck's twin brother. "The first guy, his life was cows," Palance says. "The other guy's a sailor, lived on the sea for 45 years. He hates horses, hates cows, hates all of that crap. He eventually forms a partnership with Billy Crystal and there's a treasure map and off they go." And off goes Palance, the man with the face, into the sunset with his Oscar and his legend fully intact. Believe it…or not.