On December 30th, 1996, actor Jack Nance was found dead – lying on the bathroom floor of his apartment in South Pasadena, California. His autopsy found that he had a blood alcohol level of 0.24%. He had been suffering from a severe headache and this had led to a subdural hematoma.
But how did this come to be? What were the circumstances that led to Jack Nance’s untimely death at the age of 53?
Jack Nance was a unique actor who had a varied career in film and television. He was a versatile character actor who brought us some of the most interesting, haunting, and bizarre characters we’ve ever seen – often, thanks to filmmaker David Lynch.
But how did he get his start and what was life like for this unique actor?
Let’s learn about Jack Nance’s fascinating life and career and his mysterious death…
Jack Nance was born as Marvin John Nance on December 21st, 1943, in Boston, Massachusetts. He was raised in Dallas, Texas, and began acting at a young age. He began touring around the United States partaking in children’s theater.
As an adult, he was involved with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco for close to a decade. He focused on acting on stage for much of his early career. He would later meet filmmaker David Lynch while working in theater in Philadelphia.
David Lynch would offer Jack Nance many acting opportunities in his projects in the coming years. Most of Jack Nance’s memorable roles are in David Lynch’s film and TV projects. In fact, it was through his unique characters in David Lynch’s surreal works that most of us know Jack Nance.
But few people know about Jack Nance outside of his acting career. Behind his incredible acting, he sadly lived a troubled and difficult life.
Jack’s Marriage Life
He was an alcoholic for much of his adult life and this caused troubles with his relationships. His first marriage from 1968 to 1976 was to actress Catherine Coulston, who also worked often with David Lynch. Their marriage ended in a divorce – much of it resulting from Jack’s unfortunate alcohol addiction.
Meanwhile, 1976 wasn’t such a bad year for Jack Nance as this was also the year that he began working on the film Eraserhead. Which would launch him to stardom among fans of “midnight movies.”
Nevertheless, his alcohol addiction persisted and took its toll on his life. In later years he had to ask his Blue Velvet co-star Dennis Hopper to help him while he was feeling depressed due to his alcohol addiction. He eventually had to visit a rehabilitation center to fight his addiction.
JACK’S SECOND MARRIAGE
Jack’s other major trouble came from his second marriage. In 1991, he married Kelly Jean Van Dyke – the daughter of actor Jerry Van Dyke and niece of actor Dick Van Dyke. Kelly Jean had a short-lived acting career, appearing in a couple episodes of the TV shows My Mother the Car and Accidental Family. She later turned to acting in pornographic films, under the stage name Nancee Kelly and she also had her own mental instability and sadly, Jack was never able to help her. On one night in November, six months after their wedding, Jack received a call from Kelly Jean.
She was on the phone to Jack, who was in Bass Lake, California working on the film Meatballs 4. She was hysterical and threatened to commit suicide. Jack tried to console her and hoped to prevent her from attempting suicide. Unfortunately, a freak lightning storm knocked out the phone and power lines in Bass Lake.
Jack and the film’s director Bobby Logan searched frantically for a sheriff to help them reach Kelly Jean. They eventually broke into the apartment and found that she had hung herself…
Such was the tragedy of Jack Nance’s life. But how did he become a favorite among cult film fans?
Before we tell you more about Jack Nance and his fascinating life and mysterious death, why not “like” this video and subscribe to FactsVerse for more current news and interesting stories. Now, let’s learn about how Jack Nance began his acting career…
Jack’s first film role was as a Hippie in a 1970 independent film called Fools which starred Jason Robards and Katharine Ross. The following year, he had a supporting role in the 1971 action film Jump starring Tom Ligon and Logan Ramsey.
But the film that made Jack Nance one of the stars of independent cinema, was his role as Henry Spencer in David Lynch’s film Eraserhead that released in 1977. The film was one of the several ‘midnight movies’ that played in independent cinemas and appealed to a niche audience.
Yet, this niche audience was enough to recognize Jack Nance’s incredible talent. The film Eraserhead has an eerie atmosphere and Jack Nance’s performance is truly one of the most unusual acting performances in the history of American cinema.
After his role in Eraserhead, he continued to get work in independent films. His notable film roles included work in Breaker! Breaker!, Hammett, Ghoulies, City Heat, Johnny Dangerously, Barfly, Colors, The Blob, Whore, Meatballs 4, Love and a .45, The Demolitionist, Voodoo, The Secret Agent Club, and Little Witches.
JACK’S ACTING COLLABORATION
A separate mention should be made of his collaborations with filmmaker David Lynch. After working on Eraserhead, Jack Nance had a role in David Lynch’s mainstream film Dune. His other roles in David Lynch films included roles in Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Lost Highway – which was his final film role.
He had a few bit parts on popular TV shows and acted in the TV movie The Bet early on in his career. But his best-known TV work was as Pete Martell in David Lynch’s iconic show Twin Peaks.
He even appeared in an adult film entitled Old Fashioned Spankings – released in 1991. Jack clearly loved acting and experimented with surrealist films, drama, action, and adult content. He had a versatile career on stage, in film, and on television.
We can see that Jack Nance had a professional career that would invite envy and a personal life that would invite empathy.
He managed to somehow fight his personal battles off-camera. With the help of Dennis Hopper, who had just sobered up, Jack was able to check into a rehabilitation center to fight his alcohol addiction. Later, Dennis Hopper would cast Jack in his film Colors.
But the suicide of his wife Kelly Jean clearly must have haunted Jack till his death. The 90s were a troubled time for Jack. While it was arguably the decade where he did his best and most mainstream work, it must have also been the decade that took its toll on him emotionally.
Two years after his wife’s suicide, he began drinking again. This time, he felt that he couldn’t stop and even Dennis Hopper wouldn’t be able to save him.
On December 29, 1996, Jack went to lunch with his friends Leo Bulgarini and Catherine Case. His friends noticed that Jack had a bruise beneath one his eyes. Also when they pressed him on how he received this bruise, he told them that he was involved with a brawl outside a donut shop earlier that day.
He later excused himself and told his friends he had to go home and rest as he had a massive headache.
This headache is what seems to have led to his succumbing to subdural hematoma. He found dead in his apartment the next day.
He was 53 years old. His death remains a mystery, however, as the police weren’t able to find much evidence about whether a brawl did indeed occur and if it did, why Jack was involved in it…
JACK NANCE’S LEGACY
Luckily, Jack Nance’s legacy is defined by his incredible acting and his great film and television work. While he had a few forgettable roles in forgettable B-movies, his career remains defined by his best works – particularly his work with David Lynch.
To this day, his role as Henry Spencer in Eraserhead is a performance that’s hard to describe – as is the film itself. Jack Nance is a favorite actor of any cinephile who loves “midnight movies” and surrealist works.
He appeared in David Lynch’s best works and had a major role on Twin Peaks – which remains one of the most thrilling American TV shows of all time. His friends and colleagues remember him fondly. Despite his troubled personal life, it seems that he was a consummate professional and was a joy to work with.
His death was untimely, and one wishes we could see more of Jack Nance. Much of his personal life remains unknown to the average filmgoer. But for cult film fans, Jack Nance’s legacy will live on.
Part 17 of Twin Peaks: The Return is dedicated to the memory of Jack Nance. A documentary about his life entitled I Don’t Know Jack was released in 2002.
For those of us who love seeing unique actors, watching the films and TV performances of Jack Nance is a must. We can hope that his work will continue to be discovered for years to come!
Are you a fan of Jack Nance’s? What do you think was his best performance?
In conclusion, why don’t you comment your response. We’d like to know:
Do you think that Jack Nance has received his due as a great character actor? Or is he grossly underrated and deserving of more attention?
We look forward to reading your comments!
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