His name was less celebrated than his mane, but for a generation
of cult-movie fans, Jack Nance's towering hair and woebegone
gaze in David Lynch's bizarre first feature, Eraserhead (1978),
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) when his girlfriend presented him
with a slimy reptilian "baby." Offscreen the actor was a
nonconformist--a bit of a loner with a sometimes abrasive
attitude. Director Lynch told reporters on Jan. 3 that Nance had
a bad temper and used to say that, given his poor physical
condition, he "wouldn't be too hard to kill."
That grim prophecy may have come true. At 5 a.m. on Dec. 29,
according to friends, Nance brawled with two men outside
Winchell's Donut House across the street from his inexpensive
South Pasadena, Calif., apartment. Actress Catherine Case and
her fiance, screenwriter Leo Bulgarini, met him that afternoon
at another coffee shop in the neighborhood and saw he had a
black eye. "'I told off some kid,'" she says Nance told her. "'I
guess I got what I deserved.'" Maybe he got more. Looking for
Nance the next day, Bulgarini went to the actor's apartment and
found him crumpled on the bathroom floor. Police later said that
Nance, 53, probably died of "blunt-force trauma" to the head.
Police have left open the possibility that Nance, who suffered
two minor strokes in the past 18 months, might have died from a
fall. But given the nature of the injury and the fight ("At
least one suspect hit Mr. Nance in the head with his fist," a
police report says), they launched a murder investigation,
reviewing security videotapes from the strip mall where the
fight occurred and interviewing workers at the doughnut shop.
Four weeks later they had still found no leads. "I can't imagine
what happened," says actress Catherine E. Coulson, another
veteran of the Eraserhead cast and Nance's wife from 1968 to
1976. "It's incredibly sad because he was really gifted--as much
a character in real life as he was on the screen and stage."
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 theater. Then, as always, "he cared very
little for money and material things," says his brother Richard
Nance, 48, a software firm executive. "He was incredibly focused
Nance made a living in small film and theater roles, but he
never flirted with mainstream fame. Cult status was another
matter, thanks to Lynch, who, after Eraserhead, cast Nance as
Pete Martell in his short-lived TV series Twin Peaks and also
used him in the movies Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990)
and the upcoming release Lost Highway, due Feb. 21.
But steady work wasn't Nance's only worry. In 1991 his second
wife, Kelly Jean Van Dyke-Nance, the daughter of Jerry (Coach)
Van Dyke and niece of Dick Van Dyke, hanged herself just six
months after the wedding. Her father said Kelly Jean, a
secretary, had abused alcohol and prescription drugs, popping
Quaaludes from age 13. "One way or the other, drugs will kill
you," Jerry Van Dyke told reporters at the time. Nance,
according to his brother, "never did get over the death of his
Richard says Nance also battled alcoholism and had been in a
recovery group for 10 years. He was fired from the film Joyride
last year after showing up on the set drunk. "He was a nice guy
and very funny," says the movie's executive producer Laurent
Zilber, "but it's tough to work when someone's drunk all day."
Later, Nance acted in the TV movie Little Witches, but on the
final day of the shoot, his car was in a six-car pileup. "He got
beat up and injured his knee," says Richard Nance. "He was
walking with a cane."
On Thanksgiving Day, Richard Nance went to see his brother, who
had moved to a South Pasadena neighborhood where rents were low.
"'I'm right back where I started,'" Richard Nance says his
brother told him, referring to his days in the local playhouse.
But he had found a new passion: writing. Before he died, Nance
was working on a screenplay with Bulgarini called Tics and
Bruises, a quirky tale of two crooks who get conned, and writing
a novel. "The title was Derelict on All Fours," says Richard
Nance. "It was somewhat autobiographical--an angry piece of work."