Catherine E. Coulson, actress and cult icon, died Monday morning of cancer at age 71, her rep confirmed to EW. Coulson rose to cultural prominence in the early ’90s, as the Log Lady on Twin Peaks.
But her Twin Peaks story began in the ’70s, when she spent about four years working on David Lynch’s directorial debut Eraserhead. Officially, Coulson is credited as the movie’s assistant director. She also worked as a waitress and donated her income to the movie’s perpetually vanishing budget. And she was married to Eraserhead star Jack Nance. (The marriage ended in 1976, one year before the movie finally arrived.)
Somewhere in the middle of Eraserhead, Lynch produced The Amputee, a short one-shot film about a woman with no legs writing a letter while a nurse cleans her stumps. The woman is Catherine E. Coulson; the nurse is David Lynch. Coulson caught Lynch’s eye, no question. At some point, he had a vision of her, holding a log.
Time passed. Coulson worked as as a camera assistant on The Killing of the Chinese Bookie, a second assistant camera on Youngblood, a first assistant camera on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. She remarried, had a daughter, moved back home to Ashland, Oregon, where she would have a long stage career. Lynch called Coulson; he still had that vision, the lady with the log; he wondered if she would like to take a part in his new ABC show.
So much about Twin Peaks became shorthand for cult weirdness, but the Log Lady holds a special elevated place in the show’s history. Her first appearance could just be a non sequitur joke. (“Who’s the lady with the log?” asks Special Agent Cooper. “We call her the Log Lady,” says Sheriff Truman.) But Twin Peaks quickly built up to the notion of the Log Lady as a key figure, able to communicate with the deep dark forces circling in the woods surrounding Twin Peaks (and in the hearts of the citizens.)
She is a monastic figure, but Coulson plays her with a fussy drollness. There’s a great scene in the second episode of Twin Peaks, when she tells Cooper about the evening of Laura Palmer’s death. “My log saw something that night,” she says. Cooper: “What did it see?” Log Lady: “Ask it.” Cooper has no idea what do to. The Log Lady says, simply: “I thought so,” and walks away.
The Log Lady became a cult figure, partially because it’s hard to say how important she actually was to the show. She doesn’t do very much, but she seems to know everything: In Lynch’s cosmology, this might make her God, the Devil, or something more powerful. In a recent interview, Coulson described the Log Lady as “the only sane person in Twin Peaks.” That sounds right, too.
Maybe that’s why Lynch liked Coulson so much, why that vision of her maintained for the long years between Eraserhead and Twin Peaks: She could make “talking to a supernatural log” look odd, normal, and oddly normal. When the show entered reruns on Bravo, Lynch recorded introductions for every episode featuring the Log Lady. Typical line: “To introduce this story, let me just say: It encompasses the all.”
Coulson played the Log Lady in the Twin Peaks movie; she parodied the character on Psych; and she was slated to return for the show’s 2017 revival. The show — and the weird, wonderful world she helped to create — will not be the same without her.
“Today I lost one of my dearest friends, Catherine Coulson,” Lynch said in a statement to EW. “Catherine was solid gold. She was always there for her friends. She was filled with love for all people — for her family, for her work. She was a tireless worker. She had a great sense of humor — she loved to laugh and make people laugh. She was a spiritual person — a longtime TM meditator. She was the Log Lady.”