The Tragic 1996 Death Of Jack Nance

Hollywood is enshrouded by mysterious deaths, many of which are never fully explained. Rumors are common whenever a celebrity dies, and these are oftentimes fueled by inconclusive reports from medical examiners or contradicting statements from witnesses. Whether it's what really happened to Marilyn Monroe in the hours before her overdose or who really killed "Hogan's Heroes" actor Bob Crane, some people sure seem to enjoy drawing their own conclusions.

In the case of actor Jack Nance, it wasn't the cause of death that was so mysterious. Rather, it was who was behind it. Shortly before his death on December 30, 1996, Nance told his friend Catherine Case that he had been involved in a minor altercation while intoxicated. A day afterward, Nance was found dead in his apartment.

During his final known conversation, Nance told Case, "I guess I got what I deserved," pointing to his swollen eye (per People). The black eye could have been a bit symbolic of the tragedies that had befallen the beloved actor throughout his career, marking one last blow before his life came to a sudden and tragic end.

Nance died from blunt force trauma

Early on December 29, 1996, Jack Nance staggered into Winchell's Donut House in Pasadena. He would later tell Catherine Case that he began to argue with a group of young men outside the shop, leading to a scuffle. The punch he sustained to his face had blackened his eye and been strong enough to break his eyeglasses. To top it off, he also suffered from an incredible headache from the blow (via Film Daily). 

After his meeting with Case, Nance went back to his apartment. The following day, Case's fiancee stopped by to check on him and found him dead. The coroner determined that he died the evening before from a subdural hematoma and that the punch to his face created the hematoma. The official cause of death was blunt force trauma to the brain. Authorities treated it as a homicide (though some sources say the death was officially listed as "undetermined").

Nance had struggled with alcoholism for much of his life. He told Case that he was intoxicated when he started the fight at Winchell's. When his body was discovered, an autopsy revealed that his blood alcohol content was 0.24% (via Pasadena Weekly).

The low-rent apartment where Nance's body was found was the final chapter in a life that was as beset by tragedy as it was by success.

David Lynch helped make Nance's career

Jack Nance had just begun acting in the early 1970s when he met director David Lynch. He had just two film credits to his name at that point. Lynch began to work on his feature film debut "Eraserhead" that year. He cast Nance in the lead role, cementing a friendship between the two as well as getting Nance a needed push in his career.

Over the next two decades, Lynch cast Nance in other films. He filled the role of Paul in the 1986 thriller "Blue Velvet," and was stellar in Lynch's 1990 dramedy "Wild at Heart." In what might be his most memorable role, Nance co-starred as Pete Martell in the creepy ABC series "Twin Peaks." From 1989 until its conclusion in 1991, Nance stole many of the scenes he was in. It was he who discovered the body of Laura Palmer in the season opener, establishing the tone for the show and setting up its murder mystery. In the series finale, Pete is caught in a bomb blast that destroys Twin Peaks National Bank and presumably kills him, as the character was not mentioned in Twin Peaks' 2017 revival.

Roles for Nance did exist outside the universes that Lynch created. He played bit parts throughout his film career, with the occasional supporting role. He can be seen in the 1985 horror comedy "Ghoulies," the 1994 low-budget comedy "Meatballs 4," and an assortment of other films (per IMDb).

Nance married and divorced his Eraserhead co-star

Jack Nance studied acting at North Texas State University after graduating high school in 1961 (per People). The outlet reports that his passion for the stage led him to drop out of school and head to California. It was here that he began getting work in various stage plays, eventually leading him to some small film roles.

Nance married soon after he left college, taking actress and fellow "Eraserhead" cast member Catherine Coulson as his bride. The two wed in 1968 but were not together long, according to Film Daily. He and Coulson divorced in 1976. Divorce wasn't the end of their relationship, however. The two maintained a friendship and co-starred in "Twin Peaks" together. Coulson played the role of the mysterious and quirky Margaret Lanterman, better known as the Log Lady, appearing in 12 episodes of the original series and five of the 2017 revival. 

After he and Coulson called it quits on their marriage, Nance would eventually find love and marriage again. Unfortunately, the wedded bliss in this relationship ended in one of the most tragic ways possible.

Nance's new love met a tragic end in 1991

Jack Nance met Kelly Van Dyke while both were in rehab in the late 1980s. Van Dyke was a moderately known adult film actress at the time, and the daughter of "Coach" actor Jerry Van Dyke. Nance and his new love interest hit it off and were married in 1991. Van Dyke soon relapsed and began abusing alcohol again, however. Her ongoing battle with addiction created a sizable rift in her marriage to Nance and the two of them separated.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Van Dyke was distraught over their failing marriage and took her own life. The outlet tells us that she hung herself on November 17, 1991. According to Pasadena Weekly, Nance was on the telephone with Van Dyke, who was threatening suicide. At that moment, an electrical storm disconnected the line. It's estimated that she hung herself shortly after.

The death of Van Dyke was taken hard by Nance. He soon began using alcohol again, an addiction that would plague him until he died in 1996. People Magazine reports that, according to Nance's brother, Nance "never did get over the death of his wife."

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Nance's death was a loss for Lynch

The untimely death of Nance also had a profound impact on the director who helped pave his way into Hollywood. David Lynch had cast Nance in several of his projects and had just completed filming his part in the 1997 film "Lost Highway." The Associated Press reported that Lynch had these touching words about Nance after he was told of his death. "I consider Jack one of my best friends. I'll miss his dry absurdist humor, his stories, and his friendship. I'll miss all the characters he would have played." 

The Los Angeles Times tells us that though Lynch felt that Nance could be abrasive and sometimes difficult to work with, the two had a solid relationship. Had Nance not died on that December day, he might well have been cast in subsequent Lynch projects. It might make you wonder where his face would have popped up in "Mulholland Drive" or "Inland Empire."

The case is now long cold, so it's hard to imagine anyone ever knowing who it was that struck the blow that lead to Nance's tragic death. The mystery around it is almost worthy of a plot in one of the many Lynch projects in which he was cast.