The Death of Jack Palance and “The One Thing”

As reported in TV Squad Jack Palance has died at the age of 87. Joel Keller of the Squad writes:

Jack Palance is one of those actors who has been around for so long and has been seen in so many varied projects, that when he dies, every type of entertainment publication feels compelled to run his obituary. Palance died today of natural causes in his California home. He was 87. Palance is probably best known for his long career playing tough-guy roles in movies like Shane and City Slickers (for which he won an Oscar and did those one-handed pushups at the ceremony). But TV fans will likely remember him as the host of the show Ripley’s Believe It or Not, which ran from 1982-1986 on ABC. God, was it creepy when he ended one of those segments about someone with two noses or some other equally freaky subject by slowly saying in his calm, low tone, “Believe it… (inhale) or not.” Gave the teenaged me the willies. But I tuned in each and every week. Gonna miss the guy.

As for me, when I lived in Tamaqua, PA, I was often told of how people would run into Palance on the streets of Hazleton, PA (about 10 miles north of Tamaqua, and supposedly his hometown). Every story spoke of how down-to-earth and friendly Palance was. I never met the man myself, but I will always think of him in connection with his role as Curly in City Slickers. In particular, I remember the conversation he had with Mitch, played by Billy Crystal, as they rode through the western countryside.

Mitch and two of his New York buddies have come to northern New Mexico to work through their mutual mid-life crises by driving cattle up to Colorado. But Curly can only shake his head at their angst. “You city folk! You spend 50 weeks a year getting knots in your rope,” Curly uncomprehendingly observes. “Then you think two weeks up here will straighten it out.” The horses pause beneath them. “Do you know what the secret of life is?” Curly asks Mitch.

“No, what?” Mitch asks eagerly.

“This,” Curly answers holding up one gloved index finger.

“Your finger?” Mitch asks, thrown off a little.

“One thing,” Curly answers. “It is just one thing. You stick to this and anything else don’t mean beans.”

“That’s great,” Mitch enthuses, “but what’s the one thing?”

“That is what you got to figure out,” Curly cryptically responds before
riding away.

It’s a memorable scene, and not just because it’s good filmmaking. One person has called this conversation “an ink-blot of cowboy spirituality. Curly is the Zen master of the old west. You read anything you want into it.” But this still leaves us asking, “So what is the one thing?” Is it low carbs in your diet? Is it a blockbuster Eagles or 76er or Phillies trade? Is it getting your kids into the best schools?

Just to demonstrate something that some of you already know – that my mind operates in weird ways – this scene from City Slickers reminds me of something a friend once shared with me from the 19th century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard begins his book Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing with a prayer.

“Father in heaven!
What is a man without Thee!
What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be,
but a chipped fragment if he does not know Thee!
What is all his striving, could it even encompass a world,
but a half-finished work, if he does not know Thee:
Thee the One, who art one thing and who art all!
So may Thou give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing;
to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding;
to the will, purity that wills only one thing.
In prosperity may Thou grant perseverance to will one thing;
amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing;
in suffering, patience to will one thing.
give to the young man the resolution to will one thing.
And as the day wanes,
give to the old man a renewed remembrance of his first resolution,
that the first might be like the last, the last like the first,
in possession of a life that has willed only one thing.”

I don’t know if Palance possessed “a life that willed only one thing,” but I do know that one scene in City Slickers has helped me over the years to focus on what that idea might mean for me in my life. For that, I am grateful, and I wish Mr. Palance “God Speed,” and I pray that he might find rest in the arms and love of God.

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