LOS ANGELES – In a true Hollywood fashion, a bigger-than-life poster of Jack Palance greeted guests upon their arrival at the Ukrainian Culture Center on Sunday, March 3. The 250 southern Californians of Ukrainian descent as well as non-Ukrainians came to celebrate the life and career of the legendary Ukrainian American actor on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Several members of the Ukrainian Art Center of Los Angeles, which sponsored this extravaganza, welcomed the guests and encouraged them to pose in front of the poster for a photo op before walking the red carpet into the hall towards the lavish hors d’oeuvres and delicate pastries set up on film-related stands.
As the guests mingled with friends and acquaintances in the Ukrainian Center decorated for an Oscar event, they also had the opportunity to check out the silent auction offerings as well as displays of Palance’s artwork, bandura and various family photographs. Perhaps a few guests stopped to listen to the background sounds of Jack singing his country-western compositions that were recorded in the 1970s by Warner Records.
And then it was time to start the show. Actor and producer George Wyhinny, who served as the master of ceremonies, stepped up to the podium and asked everyone to be seated at the elegantly decorated tables featuring mini-Oscars as centerpieces. After welcoming everyone, Mr. Wyhinny invited Daria Chaikovsky, president of the Ukrainian Art Center, to say a few words.
Mrs. Chaikovsky commented on the many aspects of Palance’s talents – a great actor, an accomplished painter whose works were shown several times by the Art Center of which he was a member, and also a poet, a song writer and a singer. Palance had been a boxer, a football player and an aviator during World War II. He was a patriot and a very generous and giving family man. Mrs. Chaikovsky concluded by thanking everyone for their generous contributions which would go towards the creation of a Ukrainian Museum in Los Angeles.
As everyone enjoyed cocktails or coffee, the dancers of Chervona Kalyna stepped up to entertain the guests with two lively dances. The first dance, which was performed by the young men, was called “The Shoemakers,” and the second number, a Ukrainian folk dance titled “Vykhyliasy” was performed by the entire ensemble. Next, Oksana Kvitka, a rich contralto, sang two lyrical Ukrainian folk songs, “The Grey Geese” and “Oh, How Pretty Am I.” Both the dancers and Ms. Kvitka received well-deserved applause from the guests, many of whom were enjoying Ukrainian-style dancing and singing for the first time.
The audience was then treated to a video clip from a 1955 TV Quiz Show “What’s My Line,” which featured Palance as the guest artist and where he proclaimed: “I was born Volodymyr Palahniuk.” This evoked curious questions from the panel as to the origins of the Palahniuk name, which, Palance responded, was Ukrainian. This was followed by a rare find, a video of Palance performing “Vziav by ya Banduru” accompanied by the Bandurist Chorus of Toronto in 1957. Astonished at hearing Palance’s mellow baritone voice, the audience gave an enthusiastic round of applause as the song ended.
Mr. Wyhinny returned to the podium to introduce the guest of honor, John Palance, the youngest of the five children born to John and Anna Palahniuk in the town of Lattimer Mines, Pa. Mr. Palance was welcomed by a round of applause as he made his way to the podium. Although elderly, he addressed everyone in a strong and clear voice and introduced his lovely daughter, Ivanna, who works in the motion picture industry as did her father and famous uncle.
As pictures of family members, their home in Pennsylvania and abroad streamed on the screen behind him, Mr. Palance mesmerized the audience with little-known facts about the Palahniuk family. It seems that the history of the Palahniuks can be traced back to Vasyl Palahniuk, who was born in 1819 in the Village of Ivane-Zolote, located just outside the city of Zalishchyky in the Ternopil Region of Ukraine. Vasyl never imagined that his great, great grandson, Ivan Palahniuk, would leave the village to find his fortune in the far-off land of America.
Ivan and his brother, Fedir, arrived in New York in the early part of the 20th century, prior to World War I. While Fedir stayed in New York, Ivan went to Canada, where he worked as a lumberjack. After satisfying himself that he had enough money, Ivan returned to New York, determined to catch the next ship back to Ukraine. But it was not to be. While waiting for the ship, Ivan went to visit his brother Fedir, who had established himself in New York and owned a small café. There, Ivan met Anna Gramiak, a recent arrival from Ukraine, who served as the chief cook and bottle washer at the café. Plans to return to Ukraine were abandoned as John and Anna were smitten by the love bug. The courtship was short and John and Anna left for Lattimer Mines. They were married at St. Michael Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in the nearby town of Hazleton. John found employment in the coal mines, and Anna became a homemaker and mother to five children – Mary, Ann, Jack and Leo, and 11 years later, John.
Mr. Palance went on to say that the family was very close-knit and loving. Not once did his father, Ivan, raise his hand to his children. Apparently an arched eyebrow was always enough. Mr. Palance reminded the audience that this was the time of the “melting pot” in America and, although Ukrainian was spoken at home, John remembers telling his mother “Mom, speak English, we are in America.” However, the family attended the Ukrainian Catholic church where Ivan, nicknamed “Big John” was on the parish council and also acted in the local Ukrainian community theater. Apparently, when Jack was very young, his father would read plays to him and act out each character. That was Jack’s first exposure to “performing.”
After elementary school, Jack attended the local high school, where he excelled in sports. He won a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina. His parents were thrilled, but disappointed when two years later Jack left the university to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps. This was during World War II.
On one of his training missions, Jack’s plane lost one prop and took a nosedive into the ground. He suffered tremendous injuries, which required extensive operations on his face and head. He was unconscious for quite a long while, and had amnesia for several months. Jack had no knowledge of his name or who he was.
After a yearlong recovery period, at which time the war came to an end, Jack continued his education on a G.I. Bill at Stanford University, majoring in journalism. While at the university Jack got a part in a comedy play. The famous actress, Helen Hayes, attended the opening night and took note of Jack. Afterwards she met with him and told him how much she enjoyed his acting and said, “you are going to go far.”
Eventually Jack went to New York, where he studied with Michael Chekhov and method acting with Stella Adler. He auditioned for “Streetcar Named Desire” and got to understudy Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn. Jack was given the part of Stanley Kowalski in the Chicago production. After Brando was unable to continue performing due to an accident, Jack took his place in New York. He went on to act in other Broadway productions as well.
While in New York, Jack met his future wife, New York actress Virginia Baker. John, who was only 14 years old at the time, remembers getting a phone call in 1949 from Jack, who asked that he meet him on Saturday at a certain time on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 29th Street, across from a chapel in New York. He did not tell John why.
John took a train to New York and walked to the corner, where he waited outside. A beautiful young woman approached John and asked him if he was waiting for Jack. It was Virginia Baker. To John’s surprise, he was there to be best man at Jack’s wedding. Eventually, Jack and Virginia had three children, Holly, Brooke and Cody.
In 1950 Elia Kazan, who had directed “A Streetcar Named Desire,” left New York to go to Hollywood to direct “Panic in the Streets” starring Richard Widmark. Mr. Kazan cast Jack Palance as “Blackie,” a menacing criminal carrying the bubonic plague. The picture received an Academy Award for best writing. In 1952, Palance was cast opposite Joan Crawford in “Sudden Fear.” He played the part of a gold-digging actor-husband who scared the hell out of Ms. Crawford as he plotted to kill her. He received his first Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor.
Palance was again nominated for Best Supporting Actor in the Alan Ladd starrer “Shane,” where he was cast as a notoriously skilled gunfighter named Jack Wilson. Although Palance did not win an Oscar for his role, “Shane” did set him up as a star, and he ended up doing more than 10 films in Hollywood in the 1950s. In 1957 he received an Emmy for Best Actor in the Playhouse 90 production of “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” In 1958 Palance went to Europe, where he played the hero in “The Man Inside” and made a number of movies, including a film with French actress Brigitte Bardot.
Palance returned to Hollywood in 1963 to star in the TV series “The Greatest Show on Earth.” He alternated his TV shows with films, including “The Man from UNCLE” and the western adventure “The Professionals” opposite Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster. Now an international star, Palance continued to make films in the U.S. and abroad into the 1970s. In 1973 he made a highly acclaimed British TV movie “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and in the U.S., he starred in the TV series “Bronk.”
Mr. Palance continued by informing us that his older brother was always employed as an actor in films here and abroad. John Palance, on the other hand, was in Rome where he made his home with his wife, Rita, while producing documentaries for Warner Bros. in Europe and Israel. During this time he was introduced to the Ukrainian patriarch, Josyf Slipyj, who was living in the Vatican. John and the patriarch became close friends, and John had a standing invitation to have dinner with him every Tuesday, which he did. In 1979, John and Rita welcomed their daughter, Ivanna, who was baptized by Patriarch Josyf. Nine years later, John Palance had the opportunity to film Cardinal Slipyj at St. Peter’s celebrating the liturgy marking Ukraine’s millennium of Christianity while thousands of Ukrainians from around the world were in attendance.
John Palance went back and forth from Los Angeles to Rome and other European cities while working for several studios. He was also involved in making a film with Jack Palance in Israel. John continued to visit Patriarch Josyf during his time in Rome. While on a production in Europe, Jack Palance came to see John and was introduced to the patriarch during a dinner. The meeting was jovial, and Jack promised the cardinal he would send him a cow from his ranch in Kern County in California. That became a standing joke in future meetings.
Finally, in 1991, Jack Palance got the chance to do a comedy. He was cast as cowboy Curly Washburn in “City Slickers.” We all remember Palance stepping on the stage to accept his Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1992 from his co-star and M.C., Billy Crystal. And who can forget his feat of dropping to the floor at age 73 to do one-handed push-ups! The audience went wild and we cheered at home. In 1994 Palance filmed “City Slickers II,” playing Curly’s brother. With renewed fame, came more parts in film and TV.
Jack Palance was also very active in various charities, such as those supporting M.S. research and helping veterans. In 1996 he was asked by the U.S. government to go to Kyiv to promote and help with the distribution of much-needed supplies to the victims of the Chornobyl disaster. He returned to Ukraine in 1998 to shoot “Marco Polo” in Crimea. Back on his ranch in California, he welcomed the Los Angeles Plast scouts to camp out at his Tehachapi ranch. Palance made frequent visits to his Pennsylvania farm, and was always willing to help those in need. He took part in various Ukrainian festivals and acknowledged his Ukrainian heritage.
John Palance reminded the audience that Jack was the author of “The Forest of Love,” a popular book of poetry. A recording was played of Palance reading some of his poems, and Elizabeth Zaharkiv-Yemetz continued reading excerpts for everyone’s enjoyment.
Several fond memories were offered by John Palance. After their father died in 1955 of lung cancer and one by one the children were leaving the family home, their mother made them promise that they would always come home for the Ukrainian holidays. And they did, up until their mother passed away in 1973.
As Jack Palance’s health started to decline in mid-2005, he went to live with his daughter Holly in Montecito, Calif. The family would often visit him there. On November 10, 2006, Ivanna Palance received a call from Holly asking them to come and say their good-byes to her father. Jack was unconscious as John cradled him in his arms and spoke softly to him. Just before he died, Jack opened his eyes, looked at John and whispered tenderly “Yanko.” Choking up with emotion, John told the guests: “Jack was not only my brother, he was my best friend.”
After the applause died down, Mr. Wyhinny came back to the podium to remind everyone of the 2004 Russian Film Festival in Hollywood. At the festival, Jack Palance was introduced and asked to accept his award. Mr. Palance stood and 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.” Mr. Palance had been awarded the title of “People’s Artist” by President Vladimir Putin, of Russia; however, Mr. Palance refused the title there and in private, and he and his entourage left the venue.
Mr. Wyhinny concluded by noting that, although Jack Palance is widely remembered for playing ruthless and despicable characters, those who intimately knew him remember him as “a generous, family man.” In addition to being an actor, Jack had other talents as well. For, unlike Stanley Kowalski, Jack was always “a contender.” He loved and embraced his Ukrainian heritage and fought for his home, America.
Mr. Wyhinny continued by pointing out that, today, in this hall, we have several young Ukrainian soldiers who are fighting for the land of our fathers. Let’s not forget them and our roots. Since Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution of 2014, we honor our young men and women who have fought and continue to fight for Ukraine’s freedom: “Glory to Ukraine! To the Heroes Glory!” For, as Jack said, “My parents were born in Ukraine. I am Ukrainian.”
May Jack Palance’s memory be eternal.