Few images in contemporary cinema resonate as the startling poster for the director David Lynch’s equally startling feature debut, the 1977 film Eraserhead. Back-lit, hair resembling an uncontrollable lavatory brush inadvertently merged with a black-and-white aurora borealis, one eye staring upwards (naturally), the other eye shaded, the pupil alone barely visible, this was the face of Jack Nance, playing Lynch’s creation Henry Spencer, the truly disturbed father of a monstrous, ill-formed mutated baby, a child who wreaks terrible, awesome revenge on Henry for causing it to be born.
Nance’s role itself was not made easy by the fact that Lynch filmed Eraserhead over six years. Lynch is on record as describing the main problem of his production as “maintaining such a singular hair-style over such a long period. It just stayed up in the air – it was so tall that the first night none of us could believe that we could ever film something like this.” In a television interview, Nance remembered that it was sometimes not just days, but months, and even years, between takes. Nevertheless, the resultant cohesive fantasy became one of the most deeply, and fundamentally, disturbing, and disturbed of all cinema.
For a generation of cult-movie fans, Jack Nance’s towering hair and woebegone gaze made him the Elvis of alienation. For Nance it wasn’t much of a stretch to play the movie’s gloomy antihero, who was beset by panic and hallucinations. Nance, who grew up in Dallas, was never comfortable with the kind of convention represented by his parents—Hoyt Nance, 73, a former Neiman Marcus executive, and Agnes, 72, a homemaker. The oldest of three boys, Jack took up acting at North Texas State University in the early 1960s and liked it so much he quit school and moved to California to study at the Pasadena Playhouse, a local theatre.
David Lynch described Nance as “a zero-motivated actor, content to stay at home, not even watching television, just sitting, thinking in his chair, wearing his little slippers”. This eccentricity endeared Nance to Lynch, himself no slouch in the eccentric stakes and this mutuality is reflected in Nance’s subsequent film work which, with few exceptions, like the low-budget shocker ‘Ghoulies’ or ‘Barfly’, has been exclusively in the province of Lynch.
Lynch cast him in his grandiose and seriously underrated box office catastrophe Dune (1984) and again in his more prestigious features Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and Lost Highway. Nance also played a prominent role in Lynch’s legendary television series Twin Peaks, in which he memorably essayed a lumber-mill foreman, fish-loving Pete Martell. 20 million American households tuned in to watch him step out of his front door, fishing rod and flask in hand, a lonesome foghorn blowing in the distance. Moments later he was back in his kitchen, frantically dialling the sheriff. “She’s dead,” he stammered. “Wrapped in plastic.”
The Twin Peaks pilot had been shot in Washington State amid blizzards and freezing fogs the previous winter; the assembled cast had been blown away by the script, but none believed it would get picked up because it seemed so incomprehensible, so contrary to the currents of a decade defined in TV terms by the likes of Dallas and Dynasty. In the end, it was exactly this sense of otherness that turned the show into a phenomenon: by the summer of 1990, David Lynch’s face was gazing back from the front of Time magazine, Kyle MacLachlan was guest hosting Saturday Night Live, and the female leads were lining up for the cover of Rolling Stone. It was a golden age for Jack, who was playing the part of his life with Pete Martell – a character perfectly channelling the warmth and dry humour of Nance himself, and stealing plenty of the show’s most memorable lines.
Off-screen the actor was a nonconformist—a bit of a loner with a sometimes abrasive attitude.
He had a dry, self-deprecating sense of humour; he was a singer and a storyteller, and was constantly playing practical jokes on set. But like so many actors, Jack was adrift when he wasn’t acting, and when he was adrift he was usually drunk.
“He fought it hard,” says Catherine Coulson– Nance’s first wife, most often remembered as the Log Lady in Twin Peaks -, “and he would go sober for long periods of time, but he would always break down eventually because his body was craving alcohol. We were married for eight years, half of which we spent on Eraserhead, and I think that became a distraction of sorts from the reality of what was going on in our personal lives. I truly loved that man, but alcoholism is a disease, and in the end the disease got in the way.’
That self-destructive element finally got the better of Jack at the very end of 1996. He had a violent argument with two Hispanic men in a doughnut shop across the road from his home in South Pasadena. On 30 December a friend checked in to see how he was, and found him dead. Los Angeles County Sheriff Sergeant Noel Lanier confirmed that Nance had blunt force trauma to his head, indicating that one of the men had hit Nance on the head with his fist.
“There was just this certain thing that Jack had,” says Lynch, “and since he passed away I haven’t found a single actor that could give the same feeling. It was just the most beautiful fate to find Jack, and to be able to work with him. I love him like a brother and he’s really, truly missed.”
Jack Nance’s story is told through interviews with his family, friends and colleagues, in Chris Leavens’ documentary ‘I don’t know Jack’. The film is interspersed with clips from many of his films, some of which are more well-known than others. What emerges is a portrait of a complicated man whose self-destructive tendencies sometimes outweighed his creative gifts. It’s also frequently funny, as the interview subjects recount some of the more outlandish stories of his life, right up to the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. It’s a fitting tribute to an underrated and under-appreciated actor and is a must for all fans of David Lynch and Jack Nance.