The Last Role of an American "City Slicker" with a Ukrainian Soul

translated by Markian Dobczansky, 02.12.2006, 16:46

Original article in Ukrainian by Kateryna Kindras, for UP.

He was the first and still the only Ukrainian to win an Oscar. Jack Palance, also known as Jack Brazzo and Volodymyr Palahniuk, passed away on November 10 in the company of his daughter in Montecito, California.

Peter Borisow sent word of this. Borisow is president of the Hollywood Trident Foundation, an organization that unites Ukrainians working in the film industry in Hollywood. Jack Palance was this organization's honorary head.

During the last ten years, the words "Hollywood actor of Ukrainian descent" were often added to his name. It was unusual for a Hollywood star to be identified by his or her ethnic heritage, but this was illustrative.

A few years ago at a Russian film festival in Hollywood, organizers decided to award the honorary title of "People's Artist of Russia" to Jack Palance and to Dustin Hoffman.

Hoffman, in accepting the award, gave a speech in which he thanked the Russian people and government for the award, while noting that his "ancestors came from the Russian city of Kiev."

When Jack Palance came onto the stage, he declared that he had nothing to do with Russia, nor with Russian film. "I feel like I walked into the wrong room by mistake," he said. "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."

He and his guests left. For the organizers, the rejection of this award by a Hollywood Oscar-winner was a shock.

When Peter Borisow called me from California, I dared to ask him a question, knowing Palance's principled position on the "Ukrainian question." I wanted to know what motivated Jack when he spoiled the awards ceremony at the Russian film festival—was it PR, as they say these days, or was it the Ukrainian spirit, which had always lived in his soul, and became his essence in old age?

"Ten days ago, I went to visit Jack with my family," he said. "He was lying in bed. For the last few months, he had been sick. He did not have any terrible diagnoses, but it was clear that his body was wearing out—he was 87 years old, after all. But Jack was in a good mood, his memory was sharp, and as always, he was smiling and making jokes. Bandura music was playing quietly in the room."

"Do you know the song Vziav by ya banduru?" Jack asked suddenly, referring to the well-known Ukrainian folk song about bandura music.

"I do," Borisow replied.

"Then let's sing together," he said.

"And we started singing. But at the second stanza, we stopped. Neither Jack nor I knew the words past that point," Borisow continued.

"That night I wrote an e-mail to the Ukrainian film director Oles Sanin asking that he send along the words of this song. I immediately passed them on to Jack," said Borisow.

"Jack and I knew each other for 18 years," he continued. "He told me stories about his father Ivan, who worked very hard in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. Every week when the local Ukrainian-language newspaper came, he sat his children down around him and read it aloud from start to finish."

Clearly, Jack was an American. But the Ukrainian spirit lived within him from that early age all the way to his death.

He was a very deep man, interested in Ukrainian history, and he belonged to that group of people who are interested in getting to the deeper truths in life. He valued and respected Ukrainian film directors Dovzhenko, Paradzhanov, Illienko, and Sanin. Among strangers, we often spoke to each other in Ukrainian.

Jack Palance had an unusual biography. Maybe it could be no other way in such a unique individual. After beginning his adult life in a coal mine, he gained fame as a professional boxer. In the 1930s, America was entranced by the exploits of Jack Brazzo.

This was the pseudonym of Volodymyr Palahniuk, the son of Ukrainian immigrants. Other boxing stars felt the fury of his fists. At that time he even broke the record for longest string of victories by knockout.

Jack finished his boxing career when World War II broke out, joining the United States Air Force. During one of his training runs, his B-24 bomber caught fire. He was able to escape with a parachute. Even though his life was saved, his face was badly burned. Jack had to go through plastic surgery, skin grafts, and a long recovery. The scars on his face, which gave his characters an extra dose of masculinity, remained with him forever.

Unlike many of his Hollywood colleagues, many of whom never finished secondary school, Palance got an excellent education. He took life seriously. In 1947, he finished acting school at Stanford University, one of the most prestigious schools in the United States.

Soon after earning his degree, he debuted on Broadway in the wonderful play A Streetcar Named Desire. A film role would soon follow in Panic in the Streets.

Jack Palance was nominated for an Oscar three times. But he finally received the coveted statuette only in March of 1992 for his portrayal of a cowboy in City Slickers.

"Most of his roles were ferocious criminals, grim cowboys, monsters, or outlaws," Peter Borisow explained. "Although, in life, he was an exceptionally gentle, sensitive, and sentimental person. In Hollywood, with all of its intrigues and jealousies, everyone liked Jack."

He was a person who was talented in everything he tried. He had a keen appreciation of poetry, and published his own collection, The Forest of Love. He also loved painting, and frequently painted landscapes.

Miner, boxer, air force pilot, actor, poet, painter, Jack Palance played many roles. But he never played the role of the famous Hollywood actor who is full of himself. To the end of his days, he remained modest and approachable. He never bragged or puffed himself up.

In many respects, he always set himself apart with his unorthodox ideas and behavior. He never became a tired old man without a twinkle in his eye, remaining macho and somewhat of an eccentric—in the best sense of the word—into his 80s.

"I remember one day after his Oscar," Peter Borisow said, "Jack and I were walking down the streets of New York. Suddenly, we hear someone's brakes screech. We thought it was some kind of accident. We look over, and it's a garbage truck that stopped. A guy comes running out of it holding a piece of a plastic bag, so that he could get Jack's autograph."

Without a second thought, Jack wrote a few warm words, signed the bag, and shook his fan's hand. He never divided people into aristocrats and garbage-men.

He loved life and women. He was married twice. He lived with his first wife—theater actress Virginia Baker—for 20 years, and together they raised three children: daughters Holly and Brooke, and son Cody, who was also an actor and died from malignant melanoma in 1998.

He married his second wife, Elaine Rogers in May 1987. It was she who was with Jack when his final moment arrived, and God called him back.

"Jack loved to tell jokes," Borisow said. "He used to say that women adored him, and that in this field, he had no competitors."

He used to say the reason for this was that his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was just across the street from Frederick of Hollywood, a famous store that specializes in lingerie.

In his temperament, Jack was an American "city slicker," but he lived out his last years on his farms in California and Pennsylvania and very much wanted to play his final role in a Ukrainian movie.

It was to be that he would play the lead role in Oles Sanin's "Kobzari."

It was to be the role of a person, who returns to Ukraine from American, and goes through suffering, misery, separation, despair, disappointment, and then redemption. Filming was set to begin filming this year.

But fate and the Almighty gave Volodymyr Palahniuk a different final role. May a heavenly star shine on his grave.