Jack Nance Biography

The iconic wild-haired "Henry Spencer" in the 1977 David Lynch directed cult classic Eraserhead, Nance led a darkly tortured life more troubled than any of the off beat film characters he played during a career spanning over 25 years. Born Marvin John Nance in Boston, Massachusetts on December 21, 1943, he majored in journalism at North Texas State University, but dropped out after he discovered acting. Nance began his acting career with Paul Baker, founder of the Dallas Theater Center, but at 20 impetuously relocated to Los Angeles to perform at the prestigious Pasadena Community Playhouse. Surprised to discover that the Playhouse was no longer in operation, Nance moved north to San Francisco and took up residence as a "guest artist" at San Francisco State University. At SFSU, he met his future wife, acting student Catherine E. Coulson, while both performed in a stage adaptation of Franz Kafka's Amerika. In the late 1960s, director David Lindemann cast Nance in the title role of the radical stage play Tom Paine. The show was a hit on the San Francisco stage and Nance turned down some potentially lucrative television commercials and series guest shots in Hollywood to travel with the production. After the show's run, however, the actor returned to Los Angeles to discover casting directors were no longer interested. Unable to find work, Nance drew unemployment and joined the Do-Da Gang, an ensemble of struggling fellow- actors. The troupe of performance artists staged various skits to draw attention to their acting skills with Nance once lying motionless in a coffin for three days. In 1971, the actor made his film debut in the forgettable racing picture Jump. Nance's career was going nowhere fast when David Lindemann, the director of Tom Paine, recommended to David Lynch, a fellow-student at the American Film Institute's Center for Ad - vanced Film Studies, that he talk to the actor about appearing in his student film, Eraserhead. At their initial meeting in 1972, Nance was unimpressed with Lynch's script and not interested in taking the perceived backward career step of appearing in a student film. Lynch then showed him a 35-minute, 16mm animation-live-action short called The Grandmother that he had made with a $5,000 AFI grant. In the film about a kid who plants a seed that grows into his grandmother, Nance would later tell interviewers that he recognized in Lynch a "mad little genius at work." When principal photography began on Eraserhead in May 1972 Lynch informed Nance that the shoot would last only "six weeks." Instead, production on the film dragged on for nearly five years. At one point, both men supported themselves by delivering the Wall Street Journal around West Los Angeles. Eraserhead, Lynch's directorial debut, premiered at a midnight showing on March 19, 1977. Although the mainstream press almost universally panned the surreal film that featured Nance as the weird haired zombie-like misfit "Henry Spencer," the underground embraced the movie as a cult classic. Lynch achieved main - stream status in 1980 with his next film, The Elephant Man, but was unsuccessful in convincing the film's producers to cast his friend. Nance, however, became an inseparable part of Lynch's subsequent career appearing in four of his films (Dune, 1985; Blue Velvet, 1986; Wild at Heart, 1990; Lost Highway, 1997) as well as in Lynch's short-lived cult television hit, Twin Peaks (1990– 1991), as the semi-regular character "Pete Martell." A lifelong drinker, Nance's alcoholism ad - versely affected his career. Lynch reported that during the shooting of Eraserhead the actor was often unable to make his set calls. At times the actor was so drunk that he passed out and woke up in vacant lots. Unmotivated, Nance had to be sought out by directors before he would work. Francis Ford Coppola, a friend from the San Francisco days, got Nance a small role in director Wim Wenders' Hammett (1982). After Nance appeared in bit parts in Johnny Dangerously (1984), City Heat (1984), and Ghoulies (1985), he was con - tacted by Lynch in 1986 for a role in Blue Velvet starring Dennis Hopper as the sadistic drug dealer "Frank Booth." During shooting, Nance told Hopper (no stranger to substance abuse problems) that if he did not help him stop drinking he would commit suicide. Hopper took Nance to Studio 12, a rehab clinic in Los Angeles, where the actor eventually got sober. The lifesaving action forged a bond between the two men and, whenever possible, Hopper used Nance in the films he directed (Colors, 1988; The Hot Spot, 1990). While at the facility, Nance met Kelly Jean Van Dyke, the junkie daughter of Jerry Van Dyke, brother of Dick, and co-star of the popular television series Coach. Sober and with his career on the upswing, Nance (since divorced from first wife Coulson), married Van Dyke in May 1991. The marriage quickly soured, however, when Van Dyke started using drugs again and began performing in the porn industry under the name "Nancee Kellee." Nance tried desperately to support his wife, but fearful that her drug-fueled lifestyle would endanger his own sobriety, wanted out of the marriage in less than a year. On November 17, 1991, the actor was filming a rare leading role in Meatballs 4 on a remote location in Madera County, California, near Yosemite when he phoned Van Dyke at her apartment in North Hollywood to inform her that her abuse problems were driving him away. Van Dyke pleaded with her husband not to leave her, warning him that "If you hang up on me, I'm going to kill myself." As if on cue, an electrical storm in Madera County knocked out the connection disabling all the phones in the camp. A concerned Nance drove to a nearby police station where the duty officer called the Los Angeles Police Department. Minutes later, Nance was informed by authorities that Van Dyke, 33, had committed suicide by hanging herself from a rope plant hanger in the bedroom of their apartment. The actor never forgave himself for his wife's death, but managed to stay sober for another two years before giving up the struggle. In 1993, Nance phoned a friend to announce, "It's funny, I woke up and I knew I had to drink again. And there was no stopping me." Dennis Hopper again tried to intervene, but Nance told him not to bother, there was nothing he could do. The actor continued to drink through two strokes and bit parts in increasingly weaker films (Voodoo, 1995; The Secret Agent Club, 1996). The producer of Joyride (unreleased at the time of the actor's death) observed that Nance was so drunk when he picked him up at 11:00 A.M. that the actor could not fasten his seat belt. Nance would not live to see his final performance in old friend David Lynch's Lost Highway released in 1997. By late 1996, the 53-year-old actor was living in a modest home in South Pasadena and when not working, which was most of the time, stayed drunk. Around 5:00 A.M. on Sunday, December 29, 1996, Nance left his house and walked to nearby Winchell's Doughnut House at 424 S. Fair Oaks Avenue. As he was walking across the parking lot of the doughnut place he was brushed into by two young Hispanic men walking in the opposite direction. Friends of the irascible actor were well aware of his ill-advised habit of "popping off " to young people in the street whose appearance or attitude did not meet with his approval. Nance evidently said something to the men like, "Why don't you two change out of those baggy clothes and go get a job?" prompting one of them to punch him in the face knocking the actor to the pavement. Nance stumbled back to his home and later recounted the incident over lunch to friends, actress Catherine Case and screenwriter Leo Bulgarini. The actor, pointing to a black eye, admitted that "I mouthed off and got what I deserved," then possibly embellished the story by adding that during the altercation he wrestled one of the men to the ground. Bulgarini, doubtful of the frail alcoholic's account of the tussle, talked to people at the doughnut shop, but none had witnessed the incident. The next day, Bulgarini returned to Nance's home to help him with his laundry and found his friend dead on the bathroom floor. An autopsy ruled that Nance died from an acute subdural hematoma caused by blunt force trauma consistent with his story of being punched. The actor's blood alcohol was an astounding .24 percent and the autopsy revealed his liver to be in an advanced state of cirrhosis. Although the Los Angeles County Coroner's office officially ruled the death a homicide, given the lack of eyewitnesses and the victim's lifestyle investigators could not rule out that Nance's death might have resulted from a drunken fall. At the time of his death, the actor was working on an autobiographical screenplay, A Derelict on All Fours, suggested by his Chihuahua dog, Daisy. In 2001, Nance was the subject of the film documentary, I Don't Know Jack, directed by Chris Leavens. Perhaps fittingly, around Halloween 2001 Nance was posthumously recognized by Filmfest Kansas City with a best actor award for his work in the documentary. To date, Nance's homicide remains open with little real hope that it will ever be solved.

Tags: USA, Actor, 1940-1949