‘Who goes for donuts at four o’clock in the morning?’ | The Erasure of Jack Nance

The latest in our series on mysterious Hollywood deaths. What happened to David Lynch’s favourite actor?

«What happened to you, Jack Nance?» Catherine asks at lunch and I don’t know what to say. It’s embarrassing. Who goes for donuts at four o’clock in the morning? I know, but I’d been drinking. And let’s face it how many stories do I have that start, «I’d been drinking...» «Well» I start but then Leo comes in and he’s carrying the food, all the plates up his arm, like he’s waiting tables in a busy restaurant and we’re all supposed to be impressed and I guess I am, but then he clocks the shiner and says, «Hey slugger! What gives with the black eye?» And Catherine and Leo are both concerned but the food is getting cold and though I’m not actually hungry, it’s rude not to eat when they go to so much effort. I might not have much but I have friends. I do have those. Some anyways.

Jack Nance
Jack Nance is Henry Spencer in Eraserhead

«So what happened to you? Are you going to tell us or not?» Catherine insists on an answer. «Look at you Jack Nance. You’re falling to pieces for crying out loud». And she’s not wrong. I’ve got my cane I’ve been using since I dinked my knee in the accident this Fall. My liver is shot to pieces. My hands shake. And now my eye is blackened and my head hurts like someone is in there trying to get out with an ax. What happened to me? Well, I’ll tell you. Did you know they wanted me, Jack Nance, to play the lead in The Graduate? Did you know that? I put crushed beer cans in my shoes to make me a little taller and then they went with that goddamned midget Dustin Hoffman. He was thirty years old and I was 24 but they went with him to play a 21 year old. They were all over me for those roles but I stayed true to the theater. I stayed true. And then when the show closed and I came back to Los Angeles they wouldn’t return my calls. That’s what they were like. A bunch of knuckleheads in my book. Not worth the warmth off your piss. I’ll write it all down in my book. They’ll see.

Jack Nance
Jack Nance on set with David Lynch

«I’d hate to see the other fellow», says Leo, before clapping his hands. «Who’s for dessert?» I take another drink of the wine I brought. And pour some in Catherine’s glass though she says she doesn’t want any. «Jack Nance», she says, shaking her head. «Aren’t you going to tell me about it?» «I would», I tell her, «But I feel so god darned foolish». Twenty five minutes in the car if I was still driving and I could get to Greystone Mansion where David Lynch shot Eraserhead. I played Henry. I didn’t think David was up to snuff at first, but David listens and he’s kind. Those are two things you don’t often come across. Of course, I was in love as well. Life was good, but I could get angry. There was always this anger. «There were these Mexicans outside Winchell’s».

Jack Nance
Jack Nance in a pic from Twin Peaks

«Winchell’s? The Donut place?» Leo said. «That’s why you’ve not got much appetite. Still room for ice cream though. Am I right?» David wanted me to play John Merrick in The Elephant Man but they weren’t having any of that. He tried. He certainly did. I was in Dune, but there was nothing to do but stand around and try not to fall over. I was drinking pretty heavily. I was in Mexico for months with nothing to do. «What were they doing?» «Who?» «The Mexicans?» «Oh, you know, just there. Standing in the way and not letting me pass. And I bump into one of them and I say to them: why don’t you lose the stupid clothes, cut your hair and get a job!?».

Jack Nance
Jack Nance is Nefud in Dune

«Did they appreciate the advice?» Who appreciates advice? I certainly never did. People tried. Tried to help me. But then I had to find the low point myself. There was no other way. I saw Dennis Hopper at the hotel and I said to him, I said: «Dennis either you help me right now, you help me get clean and sober the way you did right now, or I’m going to go to my room and jump out of the fucking window». He told me if he could do it anyone could. He told me they’d give me booze at Studio 21. Wean me off it slowly or something. It was a crock but it got me there and it got me sober and it got me married again, this time to the most most beautiful and wonderful woman I ever knew: Kelly Jean. She was as lost as I was and yet together we found each other. At least for a time.

Jack Nance
Jack Nance and Theresa Russell in Whore

«I go inside and get myself some donuts and I’m coming out and they’re there waiting for me and this one cracks me, oh Lord Almighty he hits me plum in the face». «Oh Jack!» says Catherine. «What did you do?» says Leo. «I fell on my ass» I tell them. «Like the fool I am». I hit my head on the way down and boy are my ears ringing. «How do you get into such scrapes?» Catherine says and she’s right. I can be ornery at times, always have been. Never a fighter, but always picking fights. An inferiority complex, Kelly Jean would say. Oh, Kelly Jean. She couldn’t stay off the drugs. I had got an acting job, some piece of … Meatballs 4. Have you seen Meatballs 2 or 3? No? Neither has anyone else, but it was a job and I wasn’t going to get anywhere if I kept turning up drunk so I did it.

Jack Nance
Jack Nance in a scene from The Hot Spot

And we were all the way up north when she phoned. We’d finished filming for the day and I was back at the hotel as the rain came in over the mountains and the lake. «I can’t be with you if you’re going to be like this Kelly», I told her. And we were both weeping and hollering. And she tells me: «If you hang up I’m going to kill myself». BOOM goes the thunder, and lights go and the phone goes and I’m in darkness. Real darkness. I get Bob and we rush over to the police and they radio through to LA and send a car round and break down the door and they say «We’re sorry Jack. She didn’t make it».

The last movie: Lost Highway.

«I didn’t make it» I say. «What’s that Jack?» Catherine says. «You’re mumbling again Jack», says Leo. «Oh my head hurts, I think I’m going to head on home and see if I can’t sleep it off» I tell them. I’ve got an appointment with bottle of gin and some painkillers, I do believe. Catherine drives me round to my place, though I said I’d walk. She takes one look in the front room and sniffs: «I’ll send Leo round tomorrow to help you with the laundry. There’s no excuse for this Jack». «No?» I say. I give her my sweetest smile. It’s still there somewhere. Under the booze and anger and grief. BOOM. The pain in my head goes. Like someone knocking on the lid, wanting to get out. ‘Get out,’ I say. And I wish I hadn’t. It’s no way to say goodbye to a friend. I don’t have that many left.

Jack Nance was found dead in his bathroom the next day by Leo and his death was ruled a homicide. The killer was never identified. 

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