An instant cult celebrity as the star of David Lynch's nightmarish directorial debut "Eraserhead" (1977), Jack Nance lived a life every bit as bizarre as any scenario Lynch ever lensed. An alcoholic for much of his life, he recognized in Dennis Hopper on the set of Lynch's "Blue Velvet" (1986) a man who had battled and defeated similar demons and asked for his help. Hopper personally took him to the rehab center Studio 12, out in the valley, and when he emerged he was sober for the first time in memory and had a new friend, Kelly Jean Van Dyke, the troubled daughter of actor Jerry Van Dyke, best known for his role on the television series "Coach".
Nance wed Van Dyke in May 1991 and stuck by her when she slipped back into substance abuse, even though being around drugs and alcohol was torture for the recovering alcoholic. It was November 17, 1991, and Nance called his wife from the lake near Yosemite where he was filming a leading role in the forgettable "Meatballs 4". He had been thinking of leaving his wife and expressed his concern that the close proximity to her drinking and drugging might unleash his sickness. "Don't do this to me," Van Dyke had pleaded. "I've got to be with you," and later she said, "If you hang up on me, I'm going to kill myself," just as the storm that had been raging outside killed the phone line in some cruel, almost Lynchian twist of fate. His wife of six months hung herself, and Jack Nance would never be the same, although he would remain sober for another two years before giving up and crawling back inside the bottle for good.
Nance was a committed theater performer who had attracted his greatest attention in the title role of "Tom Paine" director David Lindemann introduced him to Lynch in the early 70s. Lynch cast him in his notorious student film "Eraserhead", telling him it would take six weeks, but the reality was almost five years would pass before its completion. Described by English horror specialist Kim Newman as "an Oliver Hardy lookalike with a 'Bride of Frankenstein' coif", Nance's Henry Spencer was a hapless nebbish sucked into a shadowy and surreal dream world of dark and terrible things after submitting to the advances of a creepy seductress. His committed performance in "Eraserhead" is nearly as expressionistic as Lynch's mise-en-scene, and Lynch rewarded the actor by making him part of his stock company. Nance had roles in every Lynch feature except "The Elephant Man" (1980), though the director fought unsuccessfully for him in the title role. (John Hurt would eventually win that honor.)
In addition to his roles in the Lynch movies "Dune" (1985), "Blue Velvet", "Wild at Heart" (1990) and "Lost Highway" (1997, released after his death), Nance was a regular in Lynch's cult mystery soap "Twin Peaks" (ABC, 1990-91) as Pete Martell, the fish-loving husband of Piper Laurie. He appeared on TV in several guest shots and telefilms and had done character work in a number of features including two helmed by Dennis Hopper ("Colors" 1988; "The Hot Spot" 1990). He had also completed "Joyride" (1997) which had not been released at the time of his death.
In a final twist worthy of Nance's weird life, the circumstances surrounding his death were questionable, and the LAPD case remains open. Whether his demise was a result of blows suffered in a brawl outside Winchell's Donut House the night before he died or from a drunken fall, may never be known for sure, but the autopsy revealed a blood alcohol level of .24 at the time of his death, not to mention a ravaged liver. To those who would characterize Jack Nance's death as "Lynchian", the man whose name inspired the term can only scoff, "Oh, that's baloney. It's really Nanceian."