LVIV – As Holly Palance neared her ancestral village of Ivane-Zolote in Ternopil Oblast on September 15, she couldn’t help noticing how much the lush green, hilly countryside resembled the rural coal-mining area of Pennsylvania where her father grew up and once worked, and where she would visit her grandparents on trips from Los Angeles.
“In those days, in the 1950s-1960s, in the mines [in rural Pennsylvania]… there were a lot of Ukrainians. It was a very different world,” she told The Ukrainian Weekly in Lviv on September 18, as she spoke of her Ukrainian ancestry.
To her surprise, standing at the entrance to the hamlet of 450 people, was the village head of Ivane-Zolote, educators from the local school and its pupils, who were eagerly awaiting her arrival. They were all dressed in traditional Ukrainian attire holding a ritual bread known as “korovai, nestled on an equally elaborate embroidered “rushnyk,” or ritual cloth.
It was a homecoming welcome that is afforded to highly esteemed guests and one which Ms. Palance, 67, hadn’t expected.
“I thought it was going to be, ‘in-and-out’,” said the daughter of Academy and Emmy award-winning actor Jack Palance, who was born Volodymyr Palahniuk to Ukraine-born parents in Lattimer, Pa.
Instead, she got what is the Ukrainian red-carpet treatment that also included a concert, a video presentation of her father’s illustrious life (the only factual error was that her father wasn’t buried in Kyiv – his remains were scattered at his California ranch and farm in Pennsylvania), a beautiful embroidered blouse, a five-course meal and access to church records about her family that were kept safely hidden during the times of oppressive Soviet rule.
“I think it was a display of pride of the whole town. That one of their own had a son who made it. Listen, to go from a coal miner to a movie star is a big deal,” Ms. Palance, a mother of two adult children age 30 and 28, said. “My father, he had the work ethic that Ukrainians have that I’ve witnessed here. Driving to and from the village, everybody is out in the fields. Even on the Saturday when we drove back, people on their own plots working on the weekends. I was so impressed.”
A former actress herself, Ms. Palance said she had no assumptions prior to visiting this part of her ancestry, located 144 miles south of Lviv. Her mother has English-Scottish roots.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve maintained an open mind. I was told I had a [distant] cousin, Lida [Palahniuk]. In the Oscar speech [on March 30, 1992, my father], he said my name is Volodymyr Palahniuk. The only time I took that in was in the village of Ivane-Zolote.”
She also gave an impromptu performance with her cousin Lida, who lives in nearby Zalishchyky, during the village visit. They sang two folk songs that Ms. Palance’s father had taught her: “Hrav by ya Banduru” (I’d Play a Bandura) and “Rozluka” (Separation).
Standing at six-feet, Ms. Palance also inherited her 6-foot-4 father’s protruding high cheekbones and wide, bright eyes. More shared attributes include the strong will, hard work ethic and humble attitude that Mr. Palance had.
“When I was a little girl I was aware that my father had Ukrainian ancestry because we – we lived in Los Angeles – but we would go to Pennsylvania to visit my grandparents,” Ms. Palance said. “[There] we ate different food… holubtsi (stuffed cabbage rolls) and varenyky (stuffed dumplings). And nanna [grandmother] was a fantastic cook.”
An indelible father-to-daughter lesson took place during the six years that she lived in Europe with her father starting in 1957 and included schooling in Lausanne (Switzerland), Berlin and Rome. Part of the reason they moved was that the actor was tired of being typecast in roles as a villain, or as Ms. Palance said, “No escape from the bad guy.”
They had been living in Switzerland near the family of Charlie Chaplin around the time of her upcoming seventh or eighth birthday, Ms. Palance said, when her father gave her a “beautiful doll in Ukrainian dress and then my father said: I have a bunch of these dolls. We’re going to the orphanage and we’re going to hand these out.”
The act had a profound effect on her, so much so that it featured prominently in a blog she wrote for Huffington Post on January 12, 2012, which was dedicated to her father.
“That had an amazing effect on me. Instilling the principle of giving to others. Instilling the emotional act of giving dolls with Ukrainian dress in Switzerland,” she told The Ukrainian Weekly.
The profundity of having Ukrainian heritage would strike once again when her father rejected the title of a “Russian People’s Choice Award” during a cultural festival in Los Angeles on June 11, 2004, that was supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin and sponsored by his country’s Ministry of Culture.
Although she hadn’t accompanied her father, “It wasn’t until he ‘won’ that award that I fully understood the passion he had for his heritage. I thought it was pretty great,” Ms. Palance recalled.
After being introduced, according to an account by the National Tribune (that appeared also in The Ukrainian Weekly), Mr. Palance said: “I feel I walked into the room by mistake… 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.”
Part of his four-person entourage was Peter Borisow, president of the Hollywood Trident Foundation, an advocacy group formed under Mr. Palance’s leadership.
Ms. Palance said, “There was dead silence, and it was a big theater and they had to walk all the way out.”
Still, her life “was formed from all the times I spent in Europe,” she said.
So when she turned 19, Ms. Palance announced that she would attend a three-year course at drama school in London. While there, her grandmother, Anna (Gramiak) Palahniuk, who hailed from the Lviv Oblast area, died. When Ms. Palance was 5, her grandfather, John (Ivan) Palahniuk, died in 1955 of lung disease after working 39 years in the mines, according to an Associated Press obituary of Jack Palance.
She went into acting after that with a notable role in the 1976 film “The Omen” as an ill-destined young nanny alongside Gregory Peck and Lee Remick.
Her most memorable role, however, was playing alongside Robin Williams in the 1986 comedy “The Best of Times.”
Playing Mr. Williams’ wife, she said: “He was the funniest man. And [after] a number of takes they had to say, ‘cut.’ I was laughing so hard. They had to re-write [the script at one point] and he said, ‘I will now do songs of Aretha Franklin as sung by Prince Charles.’ You could only imagine.”
She also fondly recalls conducting screen tests with Christopher Reeves for the 1978 movie “Superman” at the behest of director Richard Donner, who had directed her in “The Omen.”
She accepted the job, but also asked, “How come I can’t be Lois Lane?”
Given her strong-willed persona, the director replied, “Let me be honest with you, you’re a wonderful actress, but you don’t look like you need a Superman,” Ms. Palance recounted of the director’s reply referring to her lack of natural vulnerability.
Working with Mr. Reeves was rewarding, she said. Mr. Reeves and Mr. Williams were roommates at the Juilliard acting school, and they became best friends there in New York.
“Christopher was a great guy,” Ms. Palance recalled. “I met him one day on the set, and he was blonde. Then they took him away, and a half-hour later he had dark hair. He was a real actor. He wanted to work on the scene, he wanted to talk about motivation, music… a lovely guy – and we stayed friends.”
By the late 1980s, roles had become scarce. Ms. Palance’s last movie appearance was in the 1989 thriller “Cast the First Stone” – so she decided to switch careers and enter journalism.
“For me, in the year that I quit acting, I came in second on three major screen tests,” she said. “I just thought, if I’m not going to be at that level, then I would rather do something else. Writing and reading and journalism was a huge interest of mine, and I got married, I had two children… It just made sense to me.”
Around this time, she escorted her father to the Academy Awards ceremony on March 30, 1992. Mr. Palance had earned his third Oscar nomination for supporting actor – this time for playing the mythic cowboy Curly in “City Slickers” that featured the previous year.
That evening, Ms. Palance knocked on her father’s bedroom door to notify him that their car had arrived. Opening the door, he appeared in a silver suit and not in the customary tuxedo for such an event. His tuxedo jacket had a rip on the back vertical seam – a foreshadowing of what would happen later that night when he finally won the award – so off they went
His cast member in the movie, Billy Crystal, was hosting the Academy Awards that night.
After receiving the Oscar statuette, Mr. Palance, then 73 years old, dropped to the stage while doing one-armed push-ups, much to the astonishment of his daughter.
Always looking at him as a father first, Ms. Palance said, “I don’t know if I could handle this,” to actor Timothy Dalton, who had played James Bond and who was sitting in front of her.
“He was completely forgiven for that, but we all have fathers and mothers,” she said. “And when our parents do things that are out of the ordinary… I didn’t know he would do the push-ups… so, when his name was called… I said, ‘why can’t he be like a normal father.’ ”
Her friend, Mr. Dalton, turned around and said, “This is so fantastic. It’s only because he is your father, the rest of us love it,” she recalled. And awards host Mr. Crystal would make a running joke of the physical feat for rest of the night.
Not many know that Jack Palance “did calisthenics every day… until the end of his life,” his daughter said.
Her journalism work included heading the Santa Barbara Magazine and being the editor-in-chief of the L.A. Times’ lifestyle magazine, as well as a stint with Buzz magazine in that same city.
Now, married to Robert Wallace – a veteran journalist with Rolling Stone magazine, ESPN, ABC News and Rocky Mountain Magazine – for seven years, she has just finished the initial draft of her first play.
“What I really love to do now is writing and producing. I have a couple of deals, I have a couple of TV shows in development,” Ms. Palance said, adding that her husband also has several projects in the pipeline.
Visiting dad’s homeland
Late last year, PEN International, an association of writers that promotes freedom of expression and literature, announced it would hold its next yearly conference in Lviv.
Mr. Wallace is a member of PEN, and that was the impetus that Ms. Palance needed to visit her homeland. Also, she had recently watched the documentary “Breaking Point: The War for Democracy in Ukraine,” about the Euro-Maidan Revolution that led to the ouster of a corrupt pro-Russian president, triggering Moscow to invade Ukraine and foment a war in the far eastern region of the Donbas that continues to rumble to this day.
“Why now? Because I saw that documentary… that opened my eyes to the struggle in the country of my heritage. The timing of my husband’s involvement in the PEN conference was the perfect time to visit.”
Keeping in-line with what she calls a “pilgrimage, a journey of discovery … of who am I… what Ukraine is,” she also read Anna Reid’s “Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine,” considered by many a seminal historical account of the country.
Ms. Palance continued: “I have discovered that I am a daughter of Ukraine… and Ukraine is a great country that deserves immediate help and the respect of the world in its fight to become a self-determining democratic power.”
Part of the calculus for that to happen is the nation’s youth, something she witnessed while attending the school concert in Ivane-Zolote.
“It was a journey into the past when they [the schoolchildren] had folk clothes on and it was a preview into the future when [afterwards, they] put on their leggings and jackets, and dove into their phones,” she said.
Like her father, who “never forgot about Ukraine” and who visited Ukraine after the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster to help orphans, “It would be impossible to have been in that village school… and not believe that this is part of my heart and soul too. It was really something.”
Asked what kind of connection she may have with Ukraine, Holly Palance remained humble and joked, mentioning that her ancestral village has an opening for an English language schoolteacher. But she then mentioned that she had donated money for computer and other equipment for the village school after learning that what was used during her visit was borrowed from a nearby town.
In all sincerity, the former actress said she “would love to” incorporate Ukraine in her writing. “This is my first visit. My eyes are wide open.”
And it won’t be her last visit, she emphasized, adding that she wants to contribute to help Ukraine develop as a nation on a more “systemic” level, like helping get all rural schools equipped with computers and getting in touch with Ukrainian advocacy groups in North America.
“My father was a humble guy, I hope that I’m a humble person. I don’t presume to know in one visit what people want, or need, or where they are. What I see is that this land, this soil, could feed the world… I’m just learning. It’s important people don’t come one time and start spouting… I’m learning… this is just opening my eyes, that’s all.”