Monday, May 01, 2006

Dead Celebrity of the Month, May 2006: Jack Nance

Born in Boston and Raised in Dallas, Marvin John Nance (1943-1996) had an interest in acting from an early age. While in his 20's he traveled around the country appearing in local productions, children's theater, and later experimental films. At one point he was hired to play a 1920's style gangster for a week at a Nevada casino. The rules for him and his co-workers in the gig was that they where to remain in character at all times unless in their hotel rooms. Well Jack remained in character even in his hotel room, and when a reporter for a major magazine attempted to interview him, thinking he would do a major favor for the young actor by giving his name national exposure, Jack threatened him with a gang-land style death for his pestering and refused to give out his real name. Mr. Nance eventually landed a solid gig at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, he stayed there for eight years.

It was while traveling the country that Jack Nance first meet David Lynch while visiting Philadelphia where the later was attending art school. The two bonded over a mutual love of carpentry and eventually reconnected years later when David had a fellowship at the American Film Institute in southern California. Lynch gave Nance the lead role of Henry Spencer in his extremely odd film Eraserhead, a movie which was filmed over the coarse of five years in the back lot of AFI. Eraserhead eventually became a great hit in the mid-night movie circuit of the late 1970's, established Lynchs unique cinematic stylings and in a very real sense made his career. Nance however was not quite so lucky in getting his own film work, though his good friend Lynch did give him a role in every one of his subsequent films made during Jacks life time, with the exception of The Elephant Man which had an English setting.

Nances roles in the Lynch films were always small supporting parts often as henchmen such as in Dune, or crazy people like in Wild at Heart, or crazy henchmen as in Blue Velvet. It was on the set of Blue Velvet that Nance, inspired by actor Dennis Hoopers recent success at the Beatty Ford clinic, agreed to enter his own detoxt program for his crippling alcoholism, an addiction that was largely responsibility for the breakup of his marriage with Catherine Coulson (an actress and production assistant who later played 'the log lady' on Twin Peaks). Nances treatment proved to be a great success and he reentered acting, landing parts in minor films such as Motorama and Meatballs 4, as well as creating his now most famous characterization, that of soft-spoken but resolute lumber mill manager Pete Martell on the Lynch produced TV series Twin Peaks. It was also during this period that Jack meet and later married Kelly Van Dyke, daughter of actor Jerry Van Dyke. Kelly however had many major personal problems and the two had a rocky marriage, when Jack threatened to leave her she told him over the phone that she was going to commit suicide. Before Nance or the police could reach Kellys residence she had hung herself, an event that was emotionally devastating to Nance.

Only a few years after Kellys death Jack was diagnosed with cancer and relapsed into drinking. Having largely withdrawn from the rest of the world Jack hooked up with some mysterious new 'friends'. Then in December of 1996 he apparently got into some kind of a fight at a Winchell's donut shop, when a friend came to check on him the next day he reportedly found the actor dead in his apartment. The mysterious circumstances surrounding Nances death have left its cause in doubt, it can alternately be found listed as a heart attack and as a homicide. Jacks last days are investigated in the 2002 documentary I Don't Know Jack, which also covers the actors life and career. Jack Nances last film role was as an auto mechanic in David Lynchs Lost Highway, a film released after the actors death.


At 1:18 PM, Blogger Nate Dredge said...

Nances work as Pete on 'Twin Peaks' proves him to be (like Feburary's dead celebraty of the month Paul Eddington) one of the most underapricated comic performers of the 20th Century.


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