Amy Ryan
November 10, 2006 AT 12:00 PM EST

Jack Palance, who died of natural causes today at age 87, may have turned himself into a sly running joke in his later years, but for nearly five decades, he was one of the scariest men in movies. The rough-hewn virility so eminently on display when the 72-year-old did three one-armed push-ups at the 1992 Oscar ceremony was a hallmark of his lengthy gallery of movie villains, from the plague-infected thug he played in his first film, Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950), to the crass movie producer he played in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), to the cool crime-lord he played in Batman (1989). He often played black-hatted gunslingers in Westerns, most unforgettably in Shane (1953), which earned him the second of his Oscar nominations. He spent 40 years as a top character actor, assaying variations on that role, until his comic twist on the archetype in 1991’s City Slickers finally won him the gold — and a chance to celebrate with his memorable feat of calisthenics. The rest of his career may have been spent in a similarly self-parodic mode in forgettable movies, but Palance didn’t seem to care; he’d made his point and become a beloved national institution. Besides, it’s not like he ever had an illusion about his body of work. “I don’t see the movies I make. Most of them stink. What do I want to watch those for?” he once told EW. “I probably won’t read this article either — unless it’s really sweet.” You can still hear his menacing whisper, can’t you?

addCredit(“Jack Palance: Jim Smeal/”)

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