Obituary: Jack Nance

Few images in contemporary cinema resonate as does the startling poster for the director David Lynch's equally startling feature debut, the 1977 film Eraserhead. Back-lit, hair resembling an uncontrollable lavatory brush inadvertently merged with a black-and-white aurora borealis, one eye staring upwards (naturally), the other eye shaded, the pupil alone barely visible, this was the face of Jack Nance, playing Lynch's creation Henry Spencer, the truly disturbed father of a monstrous, ill-formed mutated baby, a child who wreaks terrible, awesome revenge on Henry for causing it to be born.

A synopsis could never do justice to Lynch's deeply deranged surreal fantasy, which is rooted in a doubly disturbing narrative cine-reality by two things: the remarkable sound editing of Alan Splet, and the unique performance (or, to be accurate, non-performance) of Nance, who achieved both cult status and apotheosis in this single film alone.

Nance's role itself was not made easy by the fact that Lynch starting filming Eraserhead as a funded short for the American Film Institute, but the shooting was protracted over six years, and Lynch is on record as describing the main problem of his production as "maintaining such a singular hair-style over such a long period. It just stayed up in the air - it was so tall that the first night none of us could believe that we could ever film something like this."

In a television interview, Nance remembered that it was sometimes not just days, but months, and even years, between takes. Nevertheless, the resultant cohesive fantasy became one of the most deeply, and fundamentally, disturbing, and disturbed of all cinema, a personal exploration on being and a terrifyingly unsettling vision of birth. (And deeply influential, notably on the 1986 film Alien.)

Jack Nance, Eraserhead himself, grew up in Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas, and studied under the famed founder of the Dallas Theater Center, Paul Baker. Nance headed for California in the 1960s and worked for a brief while at the Pasadena Playhouse, followed by a period at the Circus theatre company in San Francisco.

David Lynch has described Nance as "a zero-motivated actor, content to stay at home, not even watching television, just sitting, thinking in his chair, wearing his little slippers". This eccentricity endeared Nance to Lynch, himself no slouch in the eccentric stakes, and this mutuality is reflected in Nance's subsequent film work which, with few exceptions, like the low-budget shocker Ghoulies (1985) or Barfly (1987), has been exclusively in the province of Lynch, though never again did Nance play a leading role.

Lynch cast him in his grandiose and seriously underrated box office catastrophe Dune (1984) and again in his two prestigious features Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild At Heart (1990). Nance also played a prominent role in Lynch's notorious television series Twin Peaks, in which he memorably essayed a lumber-mill foreman, fish-loving Pete Martell, married to actress Piper Laurie, who was responsible for discovering the body of the murdered Laura Palmer. The director and actor Dennis Hopper also cast Nance in a small role in the gang warfare movie Colors in 1988, almost certainly as a homage to Lynch, to whom Hopper has referred as "the first American surrealist director".

At the very tip end of 1996, Jack Nance had a violent argument with two Hispanic men in a doughnut shop across the road from his home in South Pasadena. On 30 December a friend checked in to see how he was, and found him dead. Los Angeles County Sheriff Sergeant Noel Lanier confirmed that Nance had blunt force trauma to his head, indicating that one of the men had hit Nance on the head with his fist.

"I considered Jack one of my best friends," said David Lynch when the news was revealed. "I'll miss his dry absurdist humour, his stories and his friendship. I'll miss all the characters he would have played." Jack Nance's last role was for Lynch, as a garage mechanic in Lost Highway, due to be released this coming spring.

Marvin John Nance, actor: born Dallas, Texas 1943; died South Pasadena, California 30 December 1996.