'City Slickers' at 30: Billy Crystal reveals which actor almost played Jack Palance's Oscar-winning role

·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·4-min read

Do you know what the secret of City Slickers is? Just one thing... and Billy Crystal is here to help you figure it out. In a recent interview with Yahoo Entertainment, the star of the comedy classic — which premiered in theaters 30 years ago on June 7, 1991 — revealed that another actor nearly played Curly, the iconic cowboy character that won Jack Palance a late-in-life Oscar. "Jack wasn't sure he could do the part," Crystal says. "He had a conflict with another movie that he couldn't get out of, and we had a start date and everything." (Watch our video interview, above.)

With the start of production looming, Crystal and the City Slickers creative team — including director Ron Underwood and writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel — started scouting potential replacements for the veteran of such vintage Westerns as Shane and Arrowhead. And they settled on a Hollywood legend who also had Old West bonafides: Charles Bronson. "We got a call from his agent that he was available, and we sent him the script," Crystal remembers. "We waited a day, because that's all we had to get an answer from him."

Jack Palance and Billy Crystal star in the 1991 comedy favorite, 'City Slickers,' which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year
Jack Palance and Billy Crystal star in the 1991 comedy favorite, "City Slickers," which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

While the early portion of Bronson's career were dominated by Westerns like Vera Cruz and Once Upon a Time in the West, by the early 1990s, he was more famous as the unkillable star of the Death Wish franchise. And as Crystal recalls, the actor had a specific objection to the part of Curly when they spoke on the phone. "He cursed me out!" Crystal says of his conversation with Bronson. "He said, 'I'm dead on page 53. How could you do this? Nobody kills Charles Bronson — didn't you see my Death Wish movies? I don't die!'" 

Shocked at Bronson's intense reaction, Crystal tried to explain the reason for Curly's death to his would-be co-star. In the script, the aged cowboy is the catalyst for the emotional journey that the film's main characters — best friends Mitch (Crystal), Phil (Daniel Stern) and Ed (Bruno Kirby) — go on when they sign up for a week-long cattle drive as a cure for their respective mid-life crises. "I said, 'That's the key part of the story: [Curly] has to die so the three guys can bring in the herd themselves. And you and I would have these really lovely scenes together.' He just said, 'Eff you, I'm dead,' and hung up." 

Charles Bronson in 1985's 'Death Wish 3.' He almost played the 'City Slickers' role that won Jack Palance an Oscar. (Photo: Cannon Films/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Charles Bronson in 1985's "Death Wish 3." He almost played the "City Slickers" role that won Jack Palance an Oscar. (Photo: Cannon Films/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Ultimately, Palance's scheduling conflict resolved itself and the actor played the role as intended. But that wasn't the end of Crystal's experience with Bronson. Flash-forward to the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, where City Slickers played out of competition and Palance was honored with a career tribute, and the actor saw a familiar face at the after-party. "Who do I see sitting on a couch, but Charles Bronson," Crystal recalls. "He was there with Sean Penn, and I just looked at him and nodded my head. He got up and walked out." (Bronson died in 2003; Palance passed away in 2006.) 

Thirty years later, it's hard to imagine anyone else playing Curly other than Palance. And Crystal says that acting opposite him was something of a full circle experience. "Jack was in the first movie I ever saw, which was Shane," he says. "I wanted to be in movies because of [that film]. So to act with him was really one of the high moments in my acting career. I've had the privilege to work with some really great people, but it was such a feeling of 'Wow, now I'm in this place,' working with Jack." 

Crystal and Palance in 'City Slickers' (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Crystal and Palance in "City Slickers" (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Palance didn't only steal City Slickers — he also stole that year's Oscar ceremony. While accepting his Best Supporting Actor statue at the 64th Academy Awards, the actor famously interrupted his speech to do some one-handed push-ups. He also took a loving dig at his co-star, who was hosting that year's telecast. "Billy Crystal: I crap bigger than him," Palance joked, referencing one of Curly's signature lines in the film. 

"People thought he was dissing me, but he meant it very affectionately," Crystal says, chuckling. "He said a couple of other things under his breath, and then did the one-armed push-ups. That gave us a chance to run jokes about him throughout the entire night." In other words, Crystal made sure he had the last laugh. 

City Slickers is currently streaming on HBO Max.

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