He stares at us now, from the cover of boxes in the cult-film aisle at the video store, from the pages of nearly any article ever about cult movies, from late-night cable broadcasts and from the posters outside theaters in the hipper parts of the hippest towns; his face is frozen in an eternal expression somewhere between horror and utter nothingness, his Don King hairdo towering resplendent atop his head. His name is hardly a household word across the nation, but in the apartments and dorms and other hovels where the freakfolk dwell, Jack Nance is a much-beloved presence still, seven years after his death and a couple of decades past his signature role. Nance was so unforgettably, wonderfully strange in the role of Henry Spencer—the hapless hero of David Lynch's almost peerlessly disturbing 1977 arthouse sensation, Eraserhead—that it's a safe bet he will never be forgotten, even if almost everything else he appeared in was such utter crap.
Jack Nance was what we might call a troubled soul. The kind of troubled soul who is both a hell of a good time and a hell of a pain in the ass, the kind who drinks a lot and does a lot of really stupid things and ends up spending a lot of late nights in emergency rooms. He was the kind of friend who would bring your whole life to ruin if you followed him far enough, and yet you could never cut him off for good because you loved the son of a bitch too much. Mad, bad and dangerous to know, Nance left behind a lot of friends and lovers who are angry at him, love him and grieve for him still.
The documentary I Don't Know Jack (which enjoyed a brief run at this year's Newport Beach Film Festival) tells Nance's tale from his rollicking youth all the way up to his rollicking demise, and Nance proves himself to have been every bit as fascinating a character in real life as he was onscreen. Through the recollections of people like Lynch, Dennis Hopper and a host of lesser-known if no less articulate comrades and co-conspirators, Nance comes across simultaneously as a larger-than-life personality and also as an overgrown boy who was just too fragile and moody for this mean ol' world.
While Eraserhead is dealt with in the film (as is Nance's other signature part from Lynch's Twin Peaks TV series), I Don't Know Jack is much more concerned with Nance the man than Nance the icon, and as a result, some of the most fascinating stuff comes from anecdotes spun by people you've never heard of about events that transpired on the sets of films you never would have imagined you'd want to see. The director of Meatballs 4, for instance, tells a tale of personal tragedy in Nance's life that brings a terrible poignancy to a clip of Nance's performance in this instantly disposable teen comedy.
After decades of struggling with his career and with his alcoholism, Nance was gunned down in a doughnut shop in 1996, an ending as tragic as it was, well, downright Lynchian. As an actor, Nance had arguably peaked in 1977, but as a world-class carouser, he surely could have kept going for decades. Our mean ol' world is the poorer for his passing—and the richer for his having passed through.