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David Lynch as Actor: How His Onscreen Persona Has Evolved From ‘The Cleveland Show’ to ‘Lucky’

His latest performance comes alongside his friend Harry Dean Stanton's last.

Here’s a strange thought: David Lynch has been in front of the camera more often in the last 10 years than he’s been behind it. Though rarely thought of as an actor in the same manner as other on-camera directors, Lynch has appeared not only in several of his own projects — most recently the “Twin Peaks” revival, in which his Gordon Cole became one of the main characters — but an expectedly far-flung range of others as well. Though he only lends his voice to some of them, he imbues each role with his nonpareil essence.

Lynch made no feature-length films or TV series in the 11 long years between the release of “Inland Empire” and this new “Twin Peaks,” but he did grace us with his presence onscreen several times. Most prominently — and weirdly, and hilariously — that includes a 20-episode stint on “The Cleveland Show,” a “Family Guy” spinoff on which the director of “Eraserhead” and “Mulholland Drive” voiced a bartender named Gus. (Lynch has also made two appearance on “Family Guy,” once as himself and once again as Gus.)

Gus is friendly but terrible at his job, and Lynch feels oddly at home in this animated milieu — the cartoon’s humor, like that of the one it’s based on, is heavy on non-sequiturs, after all. Raised by his sister after his father killed his mother and then himself, Gus claims to be 117 years old and once made a “Body by Gus” exercise video that consisted of him chasing a terrified woman slasher-style and yelling, “Run faster! You don’t want me to catch you!”

Lynch also lent his voice to “Girlfriend’s Day” earlier this year, narrating the Netflix film starring Bob Odenkirk for reasons that remain unclear. He recites facts about the American greeting-card industry (“It’s a thriving industry where it’s often said the right card can make the day”) and does what he always does when he speaks: makes otherwise normal comments seem funny and even vaguely sinister. (Just watch his AFI Fest intro from 2010, which is still fondly discussed at the festival every year.)

Elsewhere on the small screen, he also made two guest appearances on “Louie” as Jack Dahl, the kind of TV executive Lynch himself probably loathes dealing with. He makes the fictionalized Louis CK audition to be David Letterman’s “Late Show” replacement by reading cue cards. “It took you one minute and 12 seconds to tell one joke. That’s too long,” he says. “Comedy is about timing, son. Timing. You gotta get ’em, you gotta tell ’em.” As ever, his delivery is so stone-faced and sincere that it can be difficult to tell whether he’s in on the joke.

As a writer/director, Lynch is famous for vacillating between the oneiric and the quirky. As an actor, he tends toward the latter — he’s the out-there uncle whom no one fully understands but everyone enjoys being around because hey, that’s just the way he is. Fittingly for a filmmaker who dreams of dark and disturbing things, this only underscores how unsettling his movies are. Clowns wouldn’t be as scary if they weren’t smiling.  

It seems telling that Lynch’s onscreen role in “Twin Peaks” expanded so much from the original series to the revival. He directed all 18 episodes, co-wrote them all with Mark Frost, and successfully prevented anyone involved from revealing any plot details or other salient information about the production. Becoming one of the main characters felt like yet another way that Lynch retook control of the series, whose maligned second season he had little to do with; after 10 years since his last feature-length project, it only makes sense that he would want to exert as much control over it as possible.

“Twin Peaks” isn’t the only one of his projects that Lynch has appeared in. He also has uncredited cameos in both “The Elephant Man” and his ill-fated “Dune” adaptation, voices Bucky J in “Inland Empire,” and plays the morgue attendant in a deleted scene from “Lost Highway.” Of his 23 acting credits on IMDb, nearly half are from his own movies and shorts — including “The Amputee,” an unnerving project he made prior to “Eraserhead” alongside Catherine Coulson (best known as the Log Lady on “Twin Peaks”).

As fate would have it, Lynch’s most recent performance comes in the same movie as his friend and frequent collaborator Harry Dean Stanton’s last. Lynch directed Stanton several times, most recently in the newest season of “Twin Peaks,” and co-stars in “Lucky” as a man who, among other things, dearly loves his missing pet tortoise (whose name is President Roosevelt, because of course it is).

“A tortoise is an amazing creature, Lucky,” he says of his beloved pet. “They’re as noble as a king and as kindhearted as a grandmother. I miss my friend, his company. I miss his personality.” Stanton’s response is perfect: “He’s not missing, Howard. He’s just not here.” Lynch might say the same about his longtime friend.

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