By Maximillian Potter
Premiere August 1997
Pages 92-95, 106-107
His role in David Lynch's "Eraserhead" made actor Jack Nance a cult-movie icon. His own life was as tortured and dark as that of the character he embodied; his death may be a mystery forever.
Jack Nance crossed the parking lot of Winchell's Doughnut House. Chances are he was drunk. Maybe still drunk, maybe already drunk. Once a recovering alcoholic, he had returned to drinking a few years earlier, hoping to numb his blood. Like his most famous film character, Henry Spencer, the man with perpetually surprised hair who cared for a not-quite-infant in David Lynch's Eraserhead, Nance watched the world and was troubled by it. He looked for happiness and meaning, but all he seemed to find was unspeakable tragedy and disappointment. Or rather, they seemed to find him.
During rush hour, the boulevard in front of Nance's nondescript lodgings in sleepy South Pasadena would clog with commuters waiting to enter the Hollywood Freeway. But at about 5 A.M. on that Sunday morning, Nance, who had recently come to rely on a real crutch as well as the emotional one, didn't need to worry about dodging traffic. Once in the parking lot of Winchell's, according to what he would tell friends, Nance, following the sweet, warm scent of fresh doughnuts, brushed by two young Hispanic men. As he was known to do when he thought someone a punk, he barked at them, something like "Why don't you two change out of those baggy clothes and go get a job?" Nance's voice always sounded low and rough, as if he gargled with ball bearings. The passerby heard the old man; neither knew him as a cult-film icon. But then, even the most die-hard cineast wouldn't have recognized him as Eraserhead. Now 53 years old, with bifocals and thinning hair matted on his head, Jack Nance looked like any other South-Pas senior. And although Nance had had roles in more than twenty movies since Eraserhead, appearing with such "kids" as Nicolas Cage and Sean Penn, under directors like Wim Wenders, Barbet Schroeder, and, of course, Lynch, those films were far from the popular mainstream; and his onscreen time in them could usually be measured in nanoseconds.
One of the men Nance had taunted slugged him in the face. His glasses went flying, he dropped his cane, and he crashed to the ground. He staggered back to his apartment and later that day - December 29, 1996 - lunched with two close friends, actress Catherine Case and screenwriter Leo Bulgarini. Case noticed the bad bruise under Nance's eye and asked what had happened.
They didn't quite believe his story. "No, really," Nance said, "That's what happened. I mouthed off and I got what I deserved."
"He wanted to make it look like he threw this kid on the ground," Bulgarini recalls. "But he didn't even have the energy to pick himself up. There's just no way he could throw a twenty-year-old on the ground. That same night, I went to the doughnut shop and I asked around and nobody knew anything." The next morning, when he returned to help Nance with his laundry, Bulgarini found the actor dead on his bathroom floor.
The coroner ruled Nance's death a homicide: subdural hematoma caused by blunt-force trauma, which was consistent with Nance's story and validated the case as murder. If Nance's attackers had no idea of who they had hit, investigator Jerome Beck did. As one might expect in Nance's Lynchian Hollywood, Beck, who looks more like a pirate behind his black eye patch than he does a detective, is also a member of the Writer's Guild He recognized Nance the moment he visited the dead actor's apartment. From the pictures on the oak-paneled wall, Beck knew this guy as Eraserhead, arguably the king of all cult characters; the face that launched the legitimately weird career of David Lynch. "Jack left me with a mystery," Beck says. "He would probably appreciate the shit out of that."
I swear to you it was fate," David Lynch says of his meeting Nance in the early ''70s and casting him in Eraserhead. "There was no rhyme or reason to it. It was just one of those beautiful things." But from the moment Nance embarked on his acting career, beautiful moments were rare. The eldest of Hoyt and Agnes Nance's three sons discovered acting while attending North Texas State University. He gave up his journalism major ' and dropped out of school in order to devote himself to the craft. "He always did things 100 percent," says his brother Richard. Nance, hooked up with the Dallas Theater Center, and, soon after, the twenty-year-old packed his dreams in a small suitcase and headed for the highly regarded Pasadena Playhouse.
When he arrived in California, he found that the Playhouse had shut down. "It wasn't like Jack to call ahead and confirm," a good friend remembers. He then moved to San Francisco. While in a stage adaptation of Kafka's Amerika at San Francisco State University, Nance met his future wife, Catherine E. Coulson. She was a student and Nance a "guest artist," recalls Coulson.
"I remember we had a friend of ours play the organ at the wedding," says Coulson. "He was going to play Bach preludes, and Jack snuck in the theme from Giant which was always kind of our joke because Jack was smaller than me. He used to say, 'If you can only get one woman, you might as well get the biggest one you can find.'"
Nance's stage career peaked in San Francisco with the title role in Tom Paine, the story of the American patriot. The production toured and enjoyed great critical success. When the play hit Los Angeles, Hollywood producers offered Nance commercials and a guest spot on Hawaii Five-O, but he refused to leave the production. At the time, he said he was Tom Paine. After Paine's run, Coulson recalls, Nance really wanted to go to Los Angeles. By the early '70s, however, the offers that seemed abundant while Paine was hot had subsided. Nance collected welfare checks, and his best acting gig was with an ensemble of struggling actors that called itself the Do-Da Gang. The troupe performed elaborate skits - essentially promotional stunts designed to get real acting jobs for its members. For one Gang performance, Nance lay in a coffin for three days. The Gang's founder, Bob Graham, remembers Nance bursting with pride when a newspaper reviewer wrongly described him as an actual dummy. I "He thought that was the greatest compliment," says Graham. Around the time Nance moved to Los Angeles, Tom Paine director David Lindemann moved to L.A. and began a fellowship at the American Film Institute. He developed a friendship with another AFI fellow named David Lynch, who was casting for his student film. Lindemann asked Nance to meet with the aspiring director.
At first the man who would be Eraserhead and the character's creator didn't much like each other. "I remember our first meeting like it was yesterday," says Lynch. "Jack had pretty long hair, it was kind of almost like an Afro. He was kind of bored. He thought the film was, like, a student thing, which it was, and he wasn't too excited about it. I picked up on this, so we had a fairly strange, uneasy meeting.
"I was walking him out to his car, and on the way we passed an old gray Volkswagen that had a wooden roof rack," Lynch says. "And Jack said, 'My God, that's a cool roof rack,' and I said, 'Well, thanks.' We started talking about wood and roof racks and I suddenly saw enthusiasm in Jack. That got us talking and before I knew it I'd invited Jack back to the house to meet my wife at the time [Peggy]. She gave me the thumbs-up when Jack wasn't looking. At that point, Jack was part of the family, and it never stopped for 25 years." Nance became a favored member of Lynch's ensemble, appearing in five of the director's seven features and as a semi regular in his short-lived TV cult item, Twin Peaks. Nance utters the first words spoken about the series' corpse of mystery, Laura Palmer: "She's dead. Wrapped in plastic." But Eraserhead was where Nance's career would begin and, in many ways, end.
In Eraserhead, Nance's Henry Spencer accepts responsibility for impregnating his girlfriend, Mary X. He welcomes his new wife and their "child" - a bizarre, discomfitting special effect - into his dingy one room apartment, and when the disfigured offspring repulses its own mother, Henry assumes the role of caregiver. Beyond that, it is impossible to offer a definitive synopsis. Henry dreams of a room in which his head pops off; a little boy picks up the head and takes it to an eraser manufacturer. At the end of the film, Henry, in a moment of impatience, mistakenly kills the creature, and then goes inside the radiator, to be united with the puffy-cheeked woman who has been serenading him from there.
Nance himself never knew, nor cared, exactly what Eraserhead meant. In an interview with the Peaks fanzine Wrapped in Plastic, Nance said: "You guys get way too deep over this business. I don't take it all that seriously. It's only a movie."
Principal photography began in May 1972, and it took almost five lean years for Lynch to finish making Eraserhead (Lynch had told Nance the project would last six weeks). Coulson was responsible for making sure her husband's hair maintained its unique look. "It required more and more grooming as his hair became thinner and thinner," Coulson says. "I would apologize and he would say, 'It could be spinach for all I care.'" Nance and Lynch each worked odd jobs to cover costs. At one point, they each had a Wall Street Journal paper route in West Los Angeles. "We picked up the papers at 11:30 P.M.," Lynch recalls. "And when I was nearly finished, Jack would still be sitting in his car, folding papers.
Lynch finally premiered Eraserhead at midnight on March 19, 1977. Variety skewered the film, calling it "a sickening bad-taste exercise." But Eraserhead piqued underground interest and the film became an almost instant cult classic. Nance's unnerving performance as Spencer is largely why the film endures and why his black-and-white image - eyes widened, expression dour but empty, hair seemingly trying to escape his scalp, framed by blackness and floating dust - is lodged in the subconscious of every connoisseur of fantastic cinema. "Early during rehearsals," Lynch recalls, "Jack was doing too much. I said, 'Jack, just give me a total blank.' And as soon as he gave the total blank, it was Henry." What made Nance the perfect Henry was the fact that Nance was Henry. He too smelled fear and anxiety in the air and preferred to hibernate in a dark room; he too assumed the role of caregiver and would be crushed by it.
Lynch rode the Eraserhead momentum to directing The Elephant Man, a major Hollywood production. He wanted Nance for the title character. "But it just wasn't in the cards," Lynch says; the role went to John Hurt. The director went to England to shoot the picture; Nance moved on to a divorce. "We were just too young," is all Coulson will say.
No one remembers when Nance began to drink. The bottle was there in San Francisco, there with the Do-Da Gang, and a couple of times during Eraserhead Lynch sent Nance back to his dressing room to sleep off the booze. Gin wound up his favorite flavor. He'd get drunk in Hollywood and sometimes end up sleeping in vacant lots. For a while his home was the same kind of shadowy room you would expect Henry to have. His roommate was a big street rat that he named John Henry. If a director wanted Nance, he or she had to find him. "He was completely unmotivated," says Lynch. "He was there in his house, ready and willing, if someone came and got him to do some work. I always had to call him." An old friend from his San Francisco days, Francis Ford Coppola, called on Nance for a supporting role in Wim Wenders's 1982 Hammett. Nance also stumbled into some bit parts, in Johnny Dangerously, City Heat, and Ghoulies. In 1984, Lynch dusted him off, and, in Nance's words, had him play a "doorstop" in the unfortunate Dune. Then a drunken, disgusted Nance hopped a train to Dallas. He later told a reporter that he had wanted "to get the hell out of L.A. forever." He wandered around his hometown like a lost puppy until Lynch tugged his leash for Blue Velvet. "I was in very bad shape, very sick," Nance once said, remembering the conversation. "I told Lynch, 'I can't not drink, but I can do the movie.'" On Blue Velvet, Nance made a decision that probably added ten years to his life.
In his costar Dennis Hopper, Nance saw someone who had battled the same demons and won. Toward the end of the shoot, during a night at the hotel bar, Nance asked Hopper to help him.
"I thought he was kidding me," Hopper recalls. "I thought he was putting me on. Then he said, 'If you don't help me, I'm going up to my room and jumping out the window.' I made some calls to Los Angeles, to a group called Studio 12, out in the Valley." Hopper got on the plane with Nance, and, as instructed, kept pouring drinks into him - anything to keep Nance happy. When Nance left Studio 12, he was sober for the first time in memory and had a new friend, Kelly Jean Van Dyke, the daughter of actor Jerry Van Dyke, best known for his role on the television series Coach. Young and rebellious, Kelly Jean was in rehab because of a substance-abuse problem.
After leaving Studio 12, Nance began acting again, returning with a character role in Barb; Hopper, now directing, found a place for Nance in Colors. To pay the bills, Nance worked as a hotel clerk, and was twice robbed at gunpoint. In 1989, his old friend Lynch cast him in Wild at Heart (which won Cannes' Palme d'or in 1990) and Twin Peaks. With his professional career on the upswing, Nance wed Van Dyke in May 1991.
The two had been romantically involved for some time. For as long as he could, Nance loved his new wife unconditionally. But she started to use again. Van Dyke also began getting work in the lower depths of the porn industry - one posthumous release was titled The Coaches [sic] Daughter as a slap in the face to her sitcom-star dad. Nance stuck by her through her slips back into substance abuse, even though being around drugs and alcohol was torture for him. "He gave her everything and tried so hard to help her," says one of Nance's close friends. After less than a year of marriage, Nance was ready to say enough.
IT HAPPENED WHILE Nance was on a lake near Yosemite, for Meatballs 4. That few can even recall the Meatballs 2 and 3 that preceded it says a good deal about the picture. But then, Nance's role was a lead; he played a grandfather trying to save his summer camp for his granddaughter.
It was November 17,1991. Nance had been considering leaving Van Dyke for a while. A rainy day on the shoot lent him more time to think. He got on the phone and told her that things were getting to the point where if he stayed around the drinking and the drugs, she might unintentionally unleash his sickness. "Don't do this to me, Jack," Van Dyke pleaded. "Don't do this. I've got to be with you. I want to be with you." He told her to stop being silly. He said he was going to hang up. "If you hang up on me, I'm going to kill myself," she said. At that instant, the storm that had been raging outside killed the phone line.
"I opened the door and there's Jack," says Bob Logan, the film's director. "He looked me straight in the face and without cracking any expression whatsoever he goes, 'I think my wife just committed suicide.' I thought he was kidding, so I said, 'Well, being married to you, Jack, who could blame her?' As soon as I said that, a tear trickles down out of his eye. He wanted to use my phone."
All of the camp phones were dead, so the two drove to the nearest police station. The lone officer on duty called the LAPD, who said they would go check out the apartment. "We sat there and waited for what seemed like an eternity," Logan says. "I had my arm around him for what turned out to be fifteen minutes or so. It's just me, Jack, and this cop on the other side of the counter. Jack was venting, crying, telling me how he felt guilty." The phone rang. "Jack was looking at the ground," Logan says. "I looked at the cop and the cop nodded sadly. He hung up the phone, walked around the counter, and he walked right in front of Jack. 'Jack,' he said. Jack looked up at him. 'She didn't make it, Jack.'"
Kelly Jean Van Dyke had hung herself.
"As soon as [he said that], I felt, I felt the life drain out of him," Logan says. "He started sobbing like a baby." A production assistant drove Nance back to L.A. Nance took his family, along with Van Dyke's father and family, out on a boat. He scattered some of her ashes on the ocean, and months later took some back to a home he had bought for his parents in Dallas. He put those remaining ashes in a room that became a shrine to his wife.
Five days after he sprinkled his wife's ashes on the Pacific, Nance returned to the set of Meatballs 4. He didn't want to leave the production hanging, Logan says; that would have been unprofessional. The first scene waiting for Nance required him to tell his granddaughter in the film how sorry he was for letting her down, for not being there when she needed him most. Logan, who had scripted the movie months before, had named the granddaughter after his own daughter, Kelly.
NANCE REMAINED SOBER for about two years after his wife's death. Then, out of the blue, he gave up. "He called me up one day and said, 'It's funny, I woke up and I knew I had to drink again. And there was no stopping me,'" says Frank Wyman, a friend of Nance's since the Do-Da Gang days.
Someone asked Hopper to intervene for a second time. Nance told his onetime savior that there was nothing he could do. He drank through two strokes and more lame parts in more lame movies. He drank through his last Lynch movie, Lost Highway, which he never got to see. As recently as last year, a director sent him home after only one day of shooting. "He was drunk when I picked him up at ll A.M.," says the producer of Joyride. "He couldn't get his seat beft fastened."
Two weeks before Nance died, Wyman went to see his broken friend. Nance started to talk about Van Dyke again, and Wyman said, "Well, Jack, you've got to start thinking about something else." And Nance blurted out, "But you know, she was four months pregnant." (Because Van Dyke's death was ruled a suicide, the coroner's office did not run tests that would have indicated whether or not she was in fact pregnant.) Wyman tried to appeal to Nance's strong belief in God to get him to stop drinking. "If you believe so much, why are you sinning so badly?" he asked. "God will forgive me," Nance replied.
AT THE TIME OF his death, Nance was working on an autobiographical screenplay called A Derelict on All Fours. According to his brother Richard, the story began by focusing on a Chihuahua named Daisy. Richard had found Daisy while he was driving by a car wreck in Oklahoma. Daisy, the lone survivor of the wreck, stood shivering in the snow. For about a year after Van Dyke's death, Jack lived with his brother and his family in Orange County, and grew incredibly attached to the dog. "Daisy was calm and gentle and had a habit of resting her head on you," Richard says. "It didn't bark, didn't spring on you. "A couple of years ago, a coyote killed it. Jack immediately began writing this thing."
"Jack was like a stray dog," says Wyman. "He liked that image of himself. Anybody that knew Jack could never get mad at him. He was just like this little puppy dog that you had to put your arm around and try to rescue."
THE CASE OF JACK NANCE's death remains open, and is likely to for quite a long time. There were no witnesses. There are no suspects. To his friends, Nance painted himself as the victim of an act of random violence. After months of investigation, one of the two officers on the case is said to be unsure that such an act even occurred.
The coroner's report indicates that Nance's blood-alcohol level was .24 percent at the time of death. His liver had been ravaged. According to a police source, an investigator on the case thinks it is more likely that Nance just got drunk and banged his head.
"Jack was a storyteller, but his stories took a long time to tell," Lynch recalls. "And many people would think he was finished before he was finished and interrupt. And Jack would never let on that he had more to say. And I always thought it was very sad because his stories were so great. The world was just a little too fast for him." To those who would characterize Jack Nance's death as "Lynchian," the man whose name inspired the term can only scoff, "Oh, that's just baloney. It's really Nanceian."
Maximillian Potter is a staffwriter at PREMIERE.
Copyright 1997 Premiere Magazine
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