Actor Jack Palance, whose distinctive craggy face cemented a long career playing villains – until he spoofed himself with his Oscar-winning turn in the 1991 comedy City Slickers – died of natural causes Friday at his home in Montecito, Calif., surrounded by family, his spokesman told the Associated Press. He was 87.
By the time he had costarred with Billy Crystal in the tenderfoot comedy, Palance had spent 42 years as an actor, racking up several indelible performances, including those in the 1952 film noir classic Sudden Fear, with Joan Crawford, and the 1953 western Shane, as evil gunslinger Jack Wilson – who toughed it out with star Alan Ladd in one of the screen’s definitive barroom brawls.
And though Palance was memorably menacing and outrageous in that comedy with Billy Crystal, he was equally jolting when collecting his Best Supporting Actor trophy for that role. When presenter Whoopi Goldberg called his name, Palance, then 72, bounded to the rostrum, accepted his statue, then moments later dropped to the floor to astound the audience with a swift series of one-arm push-ups.
“That’s nothing, really,” Palance told reporters backstage afterward – adding that he worked out every day and could do 27,643 push-ups.
Born in Hazleton, Pa., the son of Ukrainian-immigrant parents, Palance arrived in Hollywood in the late ’40s with a rebuilt face (his was burned in World War II) and a voice like a whisper from the grave, as PEOPLE described him in 1992, the week after his Oscar feat.
Palance used his villainous visage and ominous speaking style to such advantage that during the filming of his first movie, 1950’s Panic in the Streets, legendary director Elia Kazan told him, “You’re going to win an Oscar for this.”
The golden statuette didn’t arrive for another 40 years, prompting Palance to tell a reporter long after his screen debut: “Most of the stuff I do is garbage.” And of the directors he worked with, Palance said, “Most of them shouldn’t even be directing traffic.”
He was one tough guy.
Palance is survived by the three children from his first marriage, to actress Virginia Baker (it ended in divorce, in 1966), and by his widow, Elaine Rogers (whom he married in 1987).