A Mysterious End

updated 02/10/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/10/1997 01:00AM

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 fiancé, 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 on acting."

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 wife."

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."

KYLE SMITH
LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles

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