The genial actor and now memoirist talks rock ‘n’ roll, forgotten screenplays, David Foster Wallace and, yes, Booger
Despite a 40-year career that encompasses tons of theater, film and TV roles, most people know Curtis Armstrong from his supporting parts in three movies released from 1983-85: Risky Business, Revenge of the Nerds and Better Off Dead.
He’s OK with that, though: Not only did he title his recent memoir Revenge of the Nerd [see short review below] he devotes long, revealing chapters to those films and their now-famous stars. He also writes extensively about his own “nerdy” passions: music, books and, of course, his family. (His daughter, Lily Armstrong, is a London-based music journalist.)
On a particularly anxious Election Day — “I’m just trying to make it through the day, basically, before I start drinking,” he joked — Armstrong, 65, was happy to chat about everything from Booger to the Beatles:
PKM: You were in Detroit in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, so I kept thinking MC5 and The Stooges were going to pop up in your book. Did those bands land on your radar at all as a teenager?
Curtis Armstrong: Not really, because unfortunately, my exposure to live music was limited. For me, what was significant was not being in Detroit in ‘71, but being in Geneva in ‘64, ’65, ‘66, because being in Europe meant you were able to have access to all these great records. I would take the train in — we were outside in this village called Chambesy — and go to the Maison du Disque or Grand Passage, where they had a big record shop, and it was just heaven. I found all sorts of bands that I’d never heard of, and I was reading what magazines I could find at the time, which created a desire for knowledge about rock ‘n’ roll. So the Beatles, then the Animals and the Kinks, the Rolling Stones — that became where my musical focus was. It was as much about the music as it was about finding out about the music, and I haven’t changed at all.
PKM: Do you still seek out new music, or does your daughter introduce you to a lot?
Curtis Armstrong: It’s flipped completely. It started out with me introducing her to everything, and now she introduces me. (My wife) Elaine and I went and saw St. Vincent the other night. It was fabulous, but I started listening to St. Vincent because of Lily, not because I had any awareness of it at all.
PKM: I think there’s a lot of overlap between the punk scene and people who call themselves geeks or nerds.
Curtis Armstrong: Yeah, definitely. As it was for me, being essentially lonely and an outsider, music certainly became more than it was for my parents’ generation. I think that sort of started happening in the ‘50s. By the ‘60s, the culture and the community became almost as important as the music itself. The Beatles really codified that.
Before the Beatles, I had no one older than me to teach me about music. I was in a complete zone of my own, and my parents, God bless them, were ’50s people. There were some musicians and singers they were into that I did get into, like Sinatra or Louis Armstrong, but nothing was even close. … Then the Beatles come, and everything gets shattered. Then we move to Geneva, and now I realize all these other things are happening. It was like the scene in The Wizard of Oz when she opens the door of the house after it’s been carried off by the tornado, and everything’s suddenly in Technicolor.
PKM: I’m amazed that you had the presence of mind in your 20s to keep detailed journals on movie sets. Did you always do that?
Curtis Armstrong: No, I never had the discipline. The first detailed journal I ever kept was when I was doing my first movie, which was Risky Business. But the only reason I kept that journal was because I had been a stage actor for five years, and that had been my goal. When this movie came along, I thought it was a weird fluke, so I remember making the decision that I was gonna keep a journal. After that experience, I continued to make movies and I kept journals, but I never kept a diary as detailed as the Risky Business one.
Curtis Armstrong plays Miles Dalby, high school friend to Tom Cruise’s Joel Goodson:
PKM: Another thing in your book that struck me was that 20th Century Fox briefly had a “no sequels” policy in the ’80s.
Curtis Armstrong: And when Leonard Goldberg came in, the first thing he did was say, “Hey, that was interesting, but we’re gonna go back to sequels!” The first one they greenlighted was Revenge of the Nerds 2.
PKM: Now almost every box-office success is a sequel or part of a big franchise.
Curtis Armstrong: Well, I can tell you, having worked as a writer at Disney — which I did back in the ’90s — they’re planning the sequel before the first movie is made.
PKM: As someone who has been in both independent productions and box-office hits, what are your thoughts on that?
Curtis Armstrong: It’s something that you can’t fight. On the one hand, there are advantages … the only one that was ever a sequel for me was Nerds. But then if you look back with any kind of objectivity, nothing would’ve really suffered by having only one Revenge of the Nerds movie. I mean, a lot of people love Nerds 2 better than Nerds 1.
Curtis Armstrong: Yeah. I’ve never understood it, but it’s really true. When I do conventions or comic-cons now, that’s one of the many things I hear. When people talk about Revenge of the Nerds, they’ll say something that makes me realize they’re talking about the second one.
But I mean, (a sequel) gives people work. That’s fine. My basic thing at 65 is, I don’t really care about art anymore. Someone was asking me the other day if I had anything upcoming that I was particularly excited about. I don’t really have anything that I’m ever excited about. I’m excited when I get a job at this point, you know? I’ve always been sort of an independent, low-budget kind of actor. … So whether people are doing sequels or original work or whether it’s theatrical or cable or network, it ultimately doesn’t mean anything to me. I get the part, I do the job, I get paid and start looking for another job.
PKM: For me, sometimes it’s enough to just work with great people.
Curtis Armstrong: There have been times in my career when I’ve found myself working with people and just thinking, I cannot believe I’m working with this man. Alan Arkin was one. Or Jason Robards. Or Colleen Dewhurst. That tended to be people who came out of the previous generation. On the other hand, I worked with Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis and John Cusack, and I certainly didn’t think of them as stars. So, it’s all your perspective, you know?
PKM: Some successful people — I think Tom Cruise is kind of like this — they never really want to look back, but it seems like you’ve always been happy to reflect on your career. Was there ever a time when you weren’t?
Curtis Armstrong: There never really was. I think I’ve always looked at it a bit from the nerd perspective, in that (as a fan), I hadn’t met a lot of people who I admired. There were people I would’ve loved to have met and told how much their movies meant to me. Sometimes I meet people now, and I can tell whether it’s one of those “Oh, you’re that guy” conversations or it’s “Can I tell you about the first time I saw One Crazy Summer?” Or “You know what I really loved of yours was Akeelah and the Bee.” When people get into the minutiae and are interested in expressing what that movie meant to them, I know what it would’ve meant to me.
I remember Leonard Nimoy going through a long stage where he didn’t want to talk about Spock, because it’s all people wanted to talk about. In a lot of ways, that’s what Booger is like for me. I’ve pretty much always been of the opinion that Booger and Revenge of the Nerds and Risky Business was the basis of my whole career. You can even extend it to Better Off Dead. … Now, mind you, except for the sequels, I never played a character even remotely like Booger again. I never felt trapped by Booger. I know that it’s what has led to over 40 years’ worth of a career, my memories of it are fond, I’m still friends with all those people. So why wouldn’t I wanna talk about it?
PKM: I gotta say, out of all the people you mention in your book, the one who comes out seeming the coolest is Bronson Pinchot.
Curtis Armstrong: (Laughs) Bronson and I were brought together because we were both trained as stage actors and were surrounded by movie actors. But the other part of it was he had studied art at Yale University and in the theater program there. He was very into classical literature, particularly Charles Dickens. And my big thing was also 19th-century literature: Washington Irving, Dickens, Sherlock Holmes, Thomas Hardy. The two of us wound up traveling together through the UK, and in every place we went to we would find used bookstores. This was when he was on Perfect Strangers and I was on Moonlighting, but what drew us together was the fact that we made each other laugh ridiculously hard and we loved the same 19th-century literature.
When I started working on the book, I hadn’t seen him in ages. I tracked him down, and we went out to dinner one night in Pasadena. We cleared the restaurant; all we did was scream with laughter. And when Bronson laughs, it’s terrifying. He actually screams! He sounds like something from Hell.
PKM: So now that the book is done, you’ve donated your archives to Oakland University?
Curtis Armstrong: Yeah, there’s virtually nothing left here, because I really wanted to get rid of that stuff. There’s 16 boxes or something of everything: letters, scripts, journals, diaries, pictures, contracts. And then my whole writing period as well, from a script that we did for David Foster Wallace for Infinite Jest …
PKM: Wait, I didn’t know you did that!
Curtis Armstrong: Well, nobody knows that. (Laughs) A guy named John Doolittle and I became writing partners, and in 1985 or ’86, we started by selling a script we’d written based on a P.G. Wodehouse story called Honeysuckle Cottage. They hired Christopher Guest to direct it. We were going through this whole process of rewriting with Chris — they cast Val Kilmer and Penelope Ann Miller — then the production company lost its money, and the thing fell apart.
But we wound up doing lots of stuff after that: We worked for Rob Reiner at Castle Rock doing a rewrite of a script, and then we did a big rewrite for Robert Altman for The Player. We worked with cool people, we sold a lot of scripts, but it was not what I wanted to do. We’d get paid, but then the movie wouldn’t get made. The only thing we ever actually got credit for was a Disney movie called A Goofy Movie, but that’s buried so deep in my CV that nobody would ever be aware of it.
PKM: So how did the David Foster Wallace thing happen?
Curtis Armstrong: (An executive) had read something that we’d written and, for some reason, he thought we would be the perfect people for it. We went in to meet at HBO, and we had done all of this work. John was able to figure out a way that we could do a chronology of events, which is really difficult in that book, because there are no dates. That impressed me, because I thought, Fuck, this is undoable.
Wallace wrote a letter basically giving us his blessing, but saying at the same time, “I don’t believe for a second this is actually going to happen.” He really thought he had created a book that was unadaptable, and to this day it remains so. We worked on it for a long time, handed it in, and that was the end of it. That’s just the way it goes. They went through their guaranteed number of passes and they paid us, and it never got made.
PKM: So what have you been working on lately?
Curtis Armstrong: I’m doing two new series: One is with Adam Pally and Sam Richardson, and it’s called Champaign ILL. It was fun, because they hired me to play (Adam’s) father, and then they hired (Curtis’ Moonlighting co-star) Allyce Beasley to play his mother. And the funny thing was, they decided midway through that they were going to name us Agnes and Bert.
The other thing that I’m doing is a recurring part on Happy!, which is a wonderfully odd, bizarre, dark comedy that’s on Syfy with Chris Meloni. It’s one of the most challenging parts I’ve had in a long time. It’s good getting that kind of exercise.
PKM: Curtis, it’s been a pleasure. Maybe one day I’ll have the pleasure of making Bronson Pinchot laugh.
Curtis Armstrong: Prepare yourself!
Revenge of the Nerd: Or the Singular Adventures of the Man Who Would Be Booger (Thomas Dunne Books), 352 pages.
Subtitled “The Singular Adventures of the Man Who Would Be Booger,” Curtis Armstrong’s memoir offers a lot of what his ’80s-era fans wanna hear — like, for instance, whether cast members engaged in drunken, naughty antics during the filming of Revenge of the Nerds (they did); whether Moonlighting stars Bruce and Cybill really couldn’t stand to be in the same room together (also true); and whether his part on Risky Business led to a lifelong bromance with Tom Cruise (nope).
But amidst the sordid hotel rooms, practical jokes and Better Off Dead references, the book tells the more personal, and relatable, story of a lonely kid who found solace and inspiration in literature and rock ‘n’ roll. It couples the wondrous highs of career success with the disappointments of failed relationships and dreams that never quite panned out.
To quote one of Armstrong’s most-famous lines, “Sometimes you gotta say, ‘What the fuck?’ Make your move.” Armstrong does so here, and ultimately, he hits notes most of today’s big-budget films never quite reach.