But good choices made all the difference, and music was one of them.
Palance sings in six languages and in genres as varied as rock, country and show tunes. But he made his mark in opera.
"I've been called everything from the American Boccelli to opera dude," he said.
Palance says he found his voice as a child, growing up in a tough neighborhood in the Crenshaw District.
"I remember hearing myself speak like a gangster and I said to myself, 'Do I really want this?' And it's really a do or die situation. You go the wrong way past the age of 12 and you're stuck in that world," he said.
Palance now takes his act on the road. He'll be at the Pala Casino in northern San Diego County next weekend.
"It's going to be a beautiful concert, with opera -- a little bit of opera, I'd say about a quarter opera. The rest of it's going to be standards," he said.
Palance is also using his voice to help the homeless. He's been working with drummer Ron Whittaker to put on a big concert with big names in music. They just need a big L.A. venue to make it happen.
"Hope for the Homeless is looking to raise millions of dollars and get some more low-income housing in downtown, clean up skid row and then actually take that on tour and do this in every city that has a problem with homeless and, you know, with the economy the way it is, it's pretty much the whole country," he said.
Palance says they're hoping to make the concert happen in late fall. His July 14 concert at Pala is called "Under the Tuscan Stars."