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Lost Highway: Jack Nance Remembered By David Lynch & Others
Cyrus Shahrad , July 15th, 2013 05:00

In a piece originally written to mark the 15th anniversary of Jack Nance's death, Cyrus Shahrad looks back over the actor's life and work and talks to those close to him, including Catherine Coulson and David Lynch

There’s something vaguely Lynchian about the envelope that drops through the letterbox a few days before the 15th anniversary of Jack Nance’s death. It bears the Oregon return address of Catherine Coulson – Nance’s first wife, most often remembered as the Log Lady in Twin Peaks – and contains scanned black and white photographs of Jack in his theatrical heyday, a handful of brooding publicity shots conveying something of the intensity that made him so irresistible to his peers, Coulson included.

It was an intensity that would also make him a staple in the films of David Lynch. The pair first met in 1972, when Lynch was a fellow at the American Film Institute embarking on Eraserhead, then scheduled to be a 20-minute short allotted $10,000 of AFI money and filmed in a cottage on its Beverly Hills estate. Jack had recently come tantalisingly close to landing the lead in both In Cold Blood and The Graduate (Catherine recalls him attending the casting of the latter with crushed beer cans in his shoes to bolster his 5’8” frame), and he met Lynch at a point when his dreams of playing conventional star roles were being eclipsed by a greater talent for channelling unusual characters.

“The whole Hollywood system wasn’t made for Jack,” says Lynch. “When I met him it was like he was changing from a leading man into something way more interesting, and that ‘way more interesting’ is something I’ve never found anywhere else. Jack was the first person I looked at for Eraserhead, but even if I’d gone on to look at ten million others I would always have come back to Jack.”

Nance took on the role of Henry Spencer, setting out on a shoot that turned into an experiential artwork in its own right. Eraserhead’s production is littered with legends: Henry’s caricatured flat-top, which Catherine had to backcomb into being on a daily basis; the catalogue of crazed props (a dead cat, human umbilical cords, drawers filled with vanilla pudding and peas); and the communal promise to keep the secrets of filming safe from the prying eyes of AFI executives constantly poking their heads in to find out where their money was going.

“To outsiders it must have seemed completely crazy,” says Charlotte Stewart, who was starring in episodes of Little House On The Prairie by day before playing Henry’s love interest Mary X by night. “But to us it became a sort of normal, everyday life. The baby was an example. We had a pact that we would never talk about the baby – the college guys kept coming down to try and grab a peep of him, and David would be constantly sending them away. And to me, after a while, that baby became absolutely real. He cried and coughed, he mewed and moved around. So that strange, surreal world became a reality for the people involved in it.”

Not that it was always an easy reality to inhabit. The shoot that Charlotte had expected to last for a week drew out over four years, and took place under a constant threat of the set being dismantled by AFI executives no longer seeing the funny side – all the more worrying after Lynch split from his first wife and began sleeping in Henry’s room. Money was so tight that shooting had to stop for an hour each night while David embarked on a paper round, and he ended up turning to meditation to deal with the stress, a practice that remains with him to this day. Yet one thing was never in doubt throughout the years of filming: Jack Nance was Henry Spencer.

“I just love every single part of Henry that came alive in Jack,” says Lynch. “I don’t know how to put into words what Jack had, but it was a combination of things. He was a deep thinker, for one. He had a way of revealing the absurdities of life, for another. Yet he also seemed outside of life in a way, and you felt he carried a lot in the interior.”

Nance had a dry, self-deprecating sense of humour; he was a singer and a storyteller, and was constantly playing practical jokes on set. But when it came to his craft, Lynch calls Nance an “actor’s actor” – from the bib he wore while applying his makeup to his ability to sit patiently for hours between takes. Yet it wasn’t just a love for his art that Nance had picked up during his days as a travelling player; 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, “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 of our relationship.”

Jack and Catherine had divorced by the time Eraserhead began its slow climb towards cult status. Lynch went on to direct The Elephant Man – the producers had insisted on meeting David after seeing his empathic portrayal of Eraserhead’s own scarred and socially displaced hero – after which he turned his hand to adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune. Knowing that Jack was drinking excessively in LA, Lynch handed him the largely incidental character of Nefud and invited him to Mexico City.

With its $45 million budget, star-studded cast and sprawling desert sets, Dune was light years away from Eraserhead’s familial shoot. Yet the film endured a delivery that was arguably more painful, the gears of its Hollywood juggernaut slowly clogging with sand, its frame buckling under the dual responsibilities of catering to mainstream audiences and remaining faithful to the complexities of the novel. George Godwin had been invited to document the production process on video, and he spent much of that summer drinking with Jack Nance.

“He’d look around at the vastness of it all and just shake his head,” says George. “He said that his character was essentially a doorknob – a little extra decoration on set. And that was the double-edged sword of Lynch giving Jack work on Dune. Jack was basically adrift in Mexico; he’s not in the film very much, so he had an awful lot of time on his hands, and in that environment he did slip back into fairly heavy drinking. And he could be a lot of fun when he was like that, but he could also get very confrontational, often with people that were a lot bigger than him. I guess with any alcoholic there’s always a self-destructive element involved.”

That self-destructive element finally got the better of Jack in North Carolina in 1986, when he was playing a hoodlum in Lynch’s Blue Velvet. In his hotel room one night Nance told newly sober co-star Dennis Hopper that he was going to jump out the window if Hopper didn’t help him. Hopper responded by putting Jack on a plane and flying with him to LA, plying him with liquor the whole way and telling him white lies about miracle pills and how alcoholics could be ‘weaned off’ one drink at a time. Once there, he checked Jack into a rehabilitation centre; Nance went cold turkey, and Hopper flew back to North Carolina to finish the film.

Nance emerged sober and began getting his life in order. Desperate for something more sustainable than an actor’s salary, he took a night course in hotel management and began working as a clerk at the Hotel Hollywood. Charlotte Stewart, at whose house he stayed and who drove him to work at 4am each morning, recalls how seriously he took the job: how much he loved getting dressed in his suit and tie each day, and how he even turned down the occasional acting part so he could concentrate on his new vocation.

But if Jack had hopes for a career in hospitality then they were laid to rest on April 8 1990, when 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 sober and 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. He was making good money and appearing in major films, and winning back the respect of friends, family members and industry insiders he’d alienated with his drinking over the years.

He was also in love again. It was in rehab that Nance had first met Kelly Van Dyke – niece of Dick and daughter of Coach star Jerry Van Dyke. She had been battling drug and alcohol problems of her own, and trying to shed nefarious connections to the porn industry in which she had dabbled under the name Nancee Kelley. Jack was convinced he could help her stay clean, and the pair married in May 1991.

On November 17 that same year, Nance was holed up in the isolated waterside retreat of Bass Lake filming teen comedy Meatballs 4. Shooting had been postponed by a ferocious storm that had forced cast and crew back to their cabins, and it was there that Jack had his fateful last phone conversation with Kelly, who had slipped back into drinking and drug taking, and was making porn to fund her addictions. He told her that he couldn’t go on watching her destroy herself, that he wanted out of the relationship; she told him she was going to kill herself if he hung up on her. Moments later the storm took out the line and the phone went dead.

Nance rushed to the cabin of director Bobby Logan and explained the situation. The pair ran to Bobby’s rental car and began a frantic haul along rain-lashed Yosemite roads in search of a working phone. The lines were down in the local bar, and the nearby fire station was deserted; eventually they reached the nearest town and raced into the sheriff’s office, settling into a corner while the officer on duty phoned the LAPD.

“For about fifteen minutes I was sitting there with my arm around Jack,” says Bobby, “listening while he poured his heart out about the situation with Kelly, none of which I knew until that point. Then the cop got a phone call. He listened for maybe fifteen seconds, then turned to me – Jack was looking at his feet at this point – and shook his head. He spoke for another minute, then walked over, stood right in front of us and said: ‘I’m sorry Jack, she didn’t make it. She hung herself.’ I’m not a religious guy, but it was like his soul left his body at that moment. The life just drained out of him, and he started sobbing.”

Against the odds, Nance’s sobriety weathered Kelly’s suicide. He even returned to Bass Lake following the funeral to shoot his final scenes, including an uncanny moment in which his character tearfully begs the forgiveness of his granddaughter, whose name is also Kelly (“there wasn’t a dry eye on the set,” says Logan).

Finally, however, the self-destructive element overwhelmed Jack once more. He seems to have woken up one day not with a good reason to resume drinking so much as no good reason not to. Over the years that followed he drank heavily, lived largely in a hotel (until he was thrown out for firing a gun at the TV), and starred in a handful of unmemorable movies. His last appearance for Lynch was as a maladjusted car mechanic in Lost Highway; he appears bleary eyed and bloated, but manages to steal the screen with just a few words of dialogue.

Jack’s end came soon after. On November 29 1996, Nance was caught in a drunken pre-dawn punch-up outside a branch of Winchell’s Donuts near the modest Pasadena apartment he had taken to renting. Police details on the event were sketchy – staff in the restaurant claimed to have seen nothing, and his attackers were never found – but Jack told friends that he’d mouthed off at a group of bums loitering outside and that they’d been waiting for him when he came out.

“Jack always told me,” says Lynch, “that he’d be real easy to kill. And that phrase stuck with me after what happened. He wasn’t a fighter, he wasn’t strong in the physical sense, but he was surly, and he would say things to get a reaction. And he said something to these guys, and one of them hit him so hard that it broke his glasses, and he developed an excruciating headache the next day. I think if he’d gone to hospital they could have found out what was happening and relieved the pressure, but instead it was allowed to build and build.”

Jack met a friend for lunch that afternoon sporting a black eye; he retired to his apartment that evening and died in the night of a subdural haematoma caused by the blow to his head. The coroner ruled a verdict of homicide due to blunt force trauma. Nance was 53 years old.

The news of Jack’s death came as a great surprise to Catherine Coulson, who had last seen him during the making of a documentary about Lynch that reunited the Eraserhead crew on the AFI estate almost 25 years after filming began. Jack had looked out of shape and was walking with a cane due to a recent car accident; he was sober, but she recalls a sadness in him and a poignancy to their final parting that she couldn’t help replaying after learning of his death.

“I’m just so happy to have had those years with him,” she says. “He was a very kind man, even though he was very dry in his sense of humour. He was very sweet, very pulled inward – he kept his feelings to himself. And part of what was delicious about loving him was that occasionally I felt privy to some of the secret parts of Jack. Just not very often.”

Lynch was devastated by the news, and says he kicks himself for not having visited Jack in person during those final months. But he is thankful that their worlds collided; Jack may have been a character actor through and through, but when it came to Lynch’s transformation from an insecure student to an internationally renowned director, Jack played a leading role.

“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.”