Today would be the 90th birthday of Academy award winning Ukrainian-American Jack Palance. He was born Volodymyr Palahniuk in Hazle, Pennsylvania to parents from Western Ukraine (Lviv & Ivano Zolota, Ternopil), and lived a very extraordinary life. He started working as a young adult in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, and later became a professional boxer under the name Jack Brazzo, breaking the record for longest string of victories by knockout. At the onset of WW2, Jack left boxing to join the US Air Force but on a training mission his plane had caught fire, burning his face and required extensive plastic surgery which gave him his distinct facial features. After being discharged, he studied at Stamford University and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Drama.
Palance’s acting break came as Marlon Brando’s understudy in A Streetcar Named Desire, and he eventually replaced Brando on stage as Stanley Kowalski. In 1957, Palance won an Emmy for best actor for his portrayal of Mountain McClintock in Requiem for a Heavyweight. Four decades after his film debut, Palance won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor on March 30, 1992, for his performance as cowboy Curly Washburn in the 1991 comedy City Slickers. Stepping onstage to accept the award, he dropped to the floor and demonstrated his ability, at age 73, to perform one-handed push-ups (watch the video). He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6608 Hollywood Boulevard.
Jack was also very interested in Ukrainian history, and as a child his father would read to him and his siblings the Ukrainian language newspaper front to back. He was also a big fan of Ukrainian cinema and headed the Hollywood Trident Foundation, an organization for Ukrainians working in the film industry. Palance wanted his final role as the lead Oles in Sanin’s “Kobzari”, a person who returns to Ukraine from America, and goes through suffering, misery, separation, despair, disappointment, and then redemption. It was scheduled to begin production the year following his death in 2006.
Perhaps Jack’s most Ukrainian moment came in 2004 when he was invited to the awards ceremony for the “Russian Nights” Art festival, to win the “Russian People’s Choice Award” along with Dustin Hoffman. In accepting his award, Dustin Hoffman noted that his grandparents came from “Kiev, Russia” and expressed gratitude to the “Russian people”. After being introduced, Palance said:
I feel like I walked into the wrong room by mistake. I think that Russian film is interesting, but I have nothing to do with Russia or Russian film. My parents were born in Ukraine: I’m Ukrainian. I’m not Russian. So, excuse me, but I don’t belong here. It’s best if we leave.
Palance and his entourage then proceeded to get up and leave. He refused to accept the award, even in private, or to view “72 Meters”, the movie being screened as the festival finale. As part of the film’s plot development, the Ukrainian submarine’s Russian officers refuse allegiance to newly independent Ukraine, steal the ship and sail it to Russia.
It was with a heavy heart to see Jack go, as he passed away due to natural causes with his family at his side in California. The only Hollywood actor to be titled ‘of Ukrainian descent’.
February 18, 1919 – November 10, 2006