I Don’t Know Jack is a documentary about the troubled life and violent death of Jack Nance, the actor who starred as Henry Spencer in Eraserhead, played the lovable Pete Martell on Twin Peaks, and popped up in small parts in many of David Lynch’s other movies. Though you know what they say about small parts—he’s only onscreen in Wild at Heart for about a minute, but, for me, Nance steals the show in his turn as deranged Big Tuna resident OO Spool.
”My dog barks some.”
Nance’s life takes shape through interviews with Lynch, Nance’s brothers, Catherine Coulson (Twin Peaks’ Log Lady, who was married to Nance in the ‘70s), Dennis Hopper, and a number of Nance’s close friends and colleagues. Lynch recalls his first meeting with the actor for Eraserhead:
Jack came in and he had a bad attitude. He didn’t really want to be there, and it was a stupid student film, and it just didn’t go real smooth. And so, it was sorta polite, but not really great, and we ended the interview and I walked him out to the parking lot. And on the way through the parking lot, we passed this Volkswagen—‘59 Volkswagen with a roof rack, four-by-eight-foot roof rack. And Jack stopped and looked at this thing, and he said, “Man, that is a great rack!” And I said, “Thank you.” And he says, “Is that your rack?” and I say “Yeah.” And he says, “You build that?” And I say, “Yeah, my brother and I built that.” So we started talking about wood, and garbage, and getting stuff, and pretty soon I saw another whole side of Jack. And it changed right there, 180 degrees. And Jack went on to be the star of Eraserhead.
Produced (or “presented”) by Lynch, I Don’t Know Jack is full of fascinating glimpses of Nance’s early life. A gifted young stage actor from Texas, Nance moved to San Francisco to play the lead in a production of Tom Paine, whose director, David Lindeman, later recommended Nance to Lynch for Eraserhead. Nance just missed getting the parts that went to Robert Blake in In Cold Blood and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. He played twin brothers Benny and Tony Rebozo in the Doo Dah Gang, a performance group that staged 1920s-style gang fights at nontraditional venues. When one of his characters died, Nance spent three days lying in a coffin at the staged wake.
Jack Nance plays dead in the Doo Dah Gang
Nance seems to have spent much of the 1980s in a dark, down-and-out place, drinking hard, acting crazy, and studiously avoiding tenants as the manager of a Hollywood apartment building. Lynch describes an early morning he had to drive Nance, suffering from an alcoholic’s painfully distended stomach, to the emergency room, where the doctor gave him a bleak prognosis. Dennis Hopper talks about helping get Nance into recovery around the time Blue Velvet was filmed.
Nance’s wife, Kelly Van Dyke, committed suicide in November 1991 while the actor was filming Meatballs 4. According to the documentary, she had been on the phone with Nance immediately beforehand. Van Dyke threatened to kill herself if he hung up the phone, at which point a storm on Nance’s end cut the connection.
A few months later, I happened to notice the star of my favorite movie in a supermarket in Studio City, and I asked him: “Are you Jack Nance?”
“What’s left of him.”
I was twelve, and I had no idea what had happened, so I told him how much I loved Eraserhead and Twin Peaks. He was very kind.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Eraserhead Stories’: David Lynch looks back on his weirdest film