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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #262: Curly Washburn

"That's not a knife...this is a knife."

Billy Crystal has been involved in some of the funniest, most durably iconic movies of the last few decades - think When Harry Met Sally and The Princess Bride. While 1991's City Slickers is probably a rung below those films, it contains some great sequences, most of these featuring Jack Palance's intimidating, larger-than life cowboy, Curly Washburn. Crystal's Mitch Robbins is a standard-fare near-forty New Yorker undergoing a midlife crisis, heading west with some equally angsty friends in search of his missing smile. He finds the adventure he's looking for, and with it an unlikely life coach in Curly. With a face like a leather saddle and a voice like a knife on whetstone, Curly is a creature from another age, a real-life Marlboro Man, and he scares the bejeezus out of Mitch with his growled instructions and generally surly presence. When asked if he'd killed anyone that day, Curly famously and perfectly replies, "Day ain't over yet". Remember, he's crapped bigger than you.

Eventually, alone on the prairie, Mitch shows a little backbone, playing his harmonica by the campfire over Curly's objections. This seems to impress the guy, and he warms to Mitch sufficiently to drop some hard-earned wisdom on the woeful city slicker. Turns out Curly is a romantic, still in love with a woman he only saw once from afar, and he counsels Mitch that what he needs, in essence, is purpose. That the secret of life is one thing - just one thing - and it's up to each of us to figure out. It's a philosophy simple yet filling, like trail food.

Curly dies, of course, as the aging mentor does in film, and Mitch has to channel his inner Curly to bring a herd of cows in to the ranch, helping him rediscover his faith in himself. The best line in the film belongs to Cookie, when asked to speak at Curly's burial: "Lord, we give you Curly. Try not to piss him off."

It was a great role performed to perfection by Palance, earning him his only Academy Award, and leading to a bit of a career resurgence for the Hollywood veteran. He was 72 at the time. Day ain't over yet, indeed.

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