Twenty years ago, Jack Nance met a fledgling young director attending the American Film Institute named David Lynch and the rest, as they say, is history.

For his AFI project “Eraserhead,” Lynch cast Nance as Henry Spencer, a zombie-like misfit with mile-high Buckwheat hair whose spastic girlfriend gives birth to a half-human baby. It originally was to be a short film that would only take six weeks to make. Instead, it took nearly five years and became a cult hit on the midnight movie circuit.

“It just went on and on and on,” said the 46-year-old Nance. “It just turned into this monster we couldn’t finish. It was a killer, but Lynch wouldn’t give it up. We couldn’t give it up. We had almost all of the script, but we couldn’t put any of it together. So we kept shooting.”

Lynch also kept going broke. “It took a year and half to walk through the door,” Nance recalled. “I was sitting at the edge of the bed, and I got up and went through the door in one scene, and it was a year and half later before I walked out the other side.”


Nance and Lynch have worked together several other times since “Eraserhead"--in Lynch’s features “Dune” and “Blue Velvet” and the upcoming “Wild In Heart” and in his critically acclaimed TV series “Twin Peaks,” which airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.

In the surprise hit, Nance plays Pete Martell, the genial foreman of the lumber mill who found the body of murdered homecoming queen Laura Palmer.

The off-beat drama allows Nance such lines as: “Fellas, don’t drink that coffee. You’d never guess; there was a fish in my percolator. Sorry.”

The Dallas-born Nance was sitting in a corner booth at the Columbia Bar and Grill in Hollywood, lunching on a dish of warm seafood pasta. Gray-haired, bespectacled and speaking slowly and methodically in a Texas drawl, it was hard to believe Nance was the same man who played the freakish Henry in “Eraserhead.”

“People don’t recognize me from ‘Eraserhead,’ ” he said. “They haven’t for a long time. People write all this stuff about ‘Eraserhead,’ and they get real psychological about it and write about all of this imagery. They never talk about the performance, because a lot of people think that Henry was a real character that Lynch found somewhere and put in the movie. I have had people doing things like this (interviews), and they say, ‘Oh, I was expecting to see the hair.’ I sort of disappeared into the role.”

And now he disappears into the role of Pete Martell. “I have looked at this guy (Pete) a couple of times in looping (dubbing) sessions and in the episodes, and Pete is a goony character,” he said, bursting into laughter. “I looked at this guy and said, ‘Is this guy really that far gone?’ He’s a weird joker.

“It bothered me, you know, because there is this whole school of acting where you are supposed to just be yourself and be natural, and so I have just been trying to go in and be myself. And I looked at this guy and said, ‘God, am I really this weird? Wow, man. Is that really me’ ”?

Since “Twin Peaks” debuted April 8, Nance has heard from long-forgotten friends and family, even relatives from Boston whom he hasn’t seen since he was a child.

“Television is strange,” said Nance. “It’s such a social phenomenon. Television has always been a whole different racket. When we were putting together the pilot for the show, someone asked me, ‘Have you got network approval yet?’ I had never heard the term before. I said, ‘No wonder I never got any television before. I didn’t know I had to get network approval.’ I thought I was washed up. I was having anxiety attacks. But I just had to go in and say ‘Hello’ to five or six people.”

Before starting “Twin Peaks,” Nance decided he wouldn’t read the scripts, save for his part. “I don’t even know what’s going to happen next week,” he said. “I mean I sort of wanted to watch the show. I mean I read the scripts to kind of get a thread of the plot. Besides, we really didn’t know from week to week what we were going to be getting into. Some people were bothered by that. If they told me I was playing the Prince of Wales one day, I would have taken a shot at it.”

Even after working with Lynch for two decades, Nance says he’s still surprised by the director.

“Here’s how he’ll work,” said Nance. “You have a scene, and there’s a moment when the cameras are rolling, but the director hasn’t called TAction.’ You are still yourself, you are the actor, but you are not committed to the scene yet. That’s the moment David will use the most. He will talk to you and give you little things to say. I don’t know how much in the pilot, if any, was written. We would be waiting to go, and he would come up and say, TSay, “Wrapped in plastic,"U and the cameras would be rolling. He would give you this great stuff to say. It’s real neat.”