Millions of viewers from around the world know Curtis Armstrong as one fictional character or another. And he’s played a Rolodex of memorable characters: Miles Dalby—sidekick to Tom Cruise—famously teaching the wonderkid that “Sometimes you just have to say, what the fuck” in Risky Business, the crude but lovable “Booger” in the Revenge of the Nerds franchise, and more recently, Metatron—the Scribe of God—an angel on the CW’s Supernatural. It may simply depend on your age as to which character you recognize him as, but his real-life self ended up being the most complex character of them all. He recently released a memoir that tracks his path from Detroit to Geneva, Switzerland and back again before living in both New York City and Hollywood. He went from being a classically trained stage actor to becoming “the new Michael J. Pollard.” (I didn’t remember him by name either but Google him and you’ll see.) Curtis Armstrong got the reference and knew that it wasn’t far from the mark. And living the extraordinary life he did, he has gathered a lot of stories. One of them that stood out was the night he almost met his fellow character actor in a convenience store.
“One night about twenty years ago I walked into a Mayfair Market in Hollywood at about one in the morning. It appeared completely deserted, but as I turned into an aisle I saw a man about halfway down standing very still, looking intently at the can he was holding. He wasn’t just not moving, there was an aura of otherworldly stillness about the guy that was a little disconcerting. He was dressed in a green, shapeless coat, maybe an old army jacket. He had on dark trousers, battered shoes and a tangled mess of hair and I knew the second I saw him that it was Michael J. Pollard…I don’t know what Michael was looking at so intently that night. It looked to me like a large can of Campbell’s Tomato Juice, but…he certainly never saw me; the moment passed and I moved away. If there’s a moral to the story it’s that character actors are a resilient race. Michael J. Pollard is still around. And so am I.”
It was because of stories like that and the time(s) Bruce Willis managed to share something of an inspiring moment only to later prove it was a dress rehearsal, the time he was part of an all-star cast in a movie where they were almost all wearing so much make-up as to be unrecognizable (The Clan of the Cave Bear), or the excitement of playing a role he had waited his whole life to play—the cagey angel, Metatron, in Supernatural with Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki that I just had to talk to him about this refreshingly fun and deeply moving project. The 62 year-old King of the Nerds producer and host was kind enough to accept my invitation for a telephone interview. Like everyone else who speaks with him, I found him to be humble and self deprecating but what is seldom talked about is how well read he is and how he was a classically trained stage actor before becoming a character actor with a body of work spanning 40 years. Ultra aware that his readers might want to skip over his personal life, he invites them to do just that. But, as he says in the book, “I spend some time on it.” I also spent some time on it and included much of our discussion in a separate interview.
For me, seeing Curtis immediately triggers memories of the sloppily dressed, belching, college student in the 1980’s Revenge of the Nerds franchise that made me laugh hysterically. Curtis wrote about his alter ego, “I hated him on sight.” He quickly explained, that this wasn’t entirely true because his first impression was ambivalence—he thought he was reading for Gilbert Lowe who would eventually be played by E.R.’s Anthony Edwards. (Which means he starred alongside of both Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Goose (Anthony Edwards) before they ever gained altitude in the classic Top Gun.) His discussion with his BFF (Bronson Pinchot who also read for Nerds but was passed over) after discovering he was being considered for the role of Booger, was worthy of a scene in any 80’s comedy.
Bronson: “Curtie,” [he] screamed, “it’s inhuman! It’s humiliating!! They can’t offer you that (Booger)!! You’re a cultured individual!!”
Curtis: “Bronnie,” I said, and my voice was even and strangely calm, “if they offer me that part, I’m going to say no.”
-moments later Curtis’ agent calls to tell him that they offered him the role of Booger.
Curtis: “Okay. I’ll take it.
Curtis, needn’t have worried. It turned out that Revenge of the Nerds would eclipse his first appearance on the big screen in Risky Business with Tom Cruise. And lead to being joyously accosted by fans calling him, Booger, for the better part of four decades and lifelong friendships; including one with Robert Carradine that led to the pair producing a reality show together.
But the book takes you on the journey of a nerd (in the 80’s definition of a nerd) going through his young life experiencing the world and discovering theatre as his ticket out of the “Spaz table.” His first acting attempt came in his youth where he attempted in vain to put together a production of The Music Man in his basement, to co-founding Meadow Brook Theatre/Roadside Attractions to becoming a prolific character actor on the big and small screen. But coming from that theatre background, becoming a film actor was never a particular goal. So he was surprised at age 29 to find himself auditioning for a movie role in what would become his breakout role: Risky Business (1983). The movie famously launched the career of Tom Cruise but it also launched Curtis Armstrong’s career with iconic moments like Curtis putting his arm around Tom and bestowing these timeless words of wisdom, “Sometimes you’ve gotta say, what the fuck.” He still hears that line recited back to him by fans.
Discussing this pivotal moment in his career, Curtis gives much of the credit for those iconic moments to Paul Brickman. “The dialogue just flowed,” he told me, “We had to change almost nothing once we finally got in front of the camera. Everything was just so.” His ability to deliver the famous line (which sounds as if it could’ve been an ad lib but was in the script) with such great consistency, he says went to his theater training. “That’s an actor’s job.”
Years later, Curtis explained, he would accept an invitation from Brickman for a screening of Risky Business. This gave Curtis the opportunity to talk with me (and write in the book) about some of the inner workings of Hollywood. “Paul [Brickman] had asked me to come up to Santa Barbara where he lives because he was doing a screening of Risky Business at the college there. And John Avnet (producer—Black Swan and Fried Green Tomatoes) was coming up…he wanted to get some of us up there and then we would do a panel. And I went up to see it and of course, you know, I don’t sit around all the time watching my old movies so it had been a long time since I’d seen it. And I was watching it and you know there came this moment where towards the end of the movie where suddenly the whole movie, as I remembered it, shifted and changed and…I realized that for this screening he had assembled the director’s cut, meaning with the original ending to the movie which had been taken away from him. He’d been forced to re-shoot the ending by David Geffen and I was seeing, for the first time, the way the movie ended in the director’s version in his interpretation of what he wanted for his movie.”
Brickman’s vision of the movie, Curtis explained, “…was definitely an allegory. It was a condemnation of the Reagan years. You know the Reagan youth…the young capitalists. His whole point in Risky Business was that corruption has consequences, greed has consequences and the original ending made that very clear.” Brickman would be forced to shoot a new, happier ending for the film ten months after the project wrapped. Creating that ‘happy ending’ must have been painful for Brickman who poured so much of himself into the project.
Curtis included quite a bit of time on his stint as a series-regular on Moonlighting with Bruce Willis and Cybil Sheppard. More recently, he played Metatron the Angel/Scribe of God in the CW’s huge hit series, Supernatural. He played Principal Foster on New Girl and was the voice the character named “Snot” on the American Dad animated series. This is only a small sample of his tremendous body of work that all began with his desire to be a stage actor. Armstrong’s Revenge of the Nerd is full of these interesting stories and anecdotes. Some of the wilder side of Hollywood is touched on. Armstrong reveals a surprising element of the Nerds’ story: everyone seemed to love Revenge of the Nerds except the film company that owned it. That movie broke down some barriers and may have been the first time the social outcasts were shown getting the upper hand on the elite. The final scene proclaiming that the nerds were proud to be who they were was momentous though it was never intended to be profound—it was just supposed to be funny.
For those who know him as the scheming angel, Metatron, from Supernatural, Curtis doesn’t disappoint. He offers up a whole chapter on his time playing opposite Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. “I did really love being on Supernatural… It was just a great experience for four seasons. To have a place to go where they created this wonderful character and I was working with good people. It’s hard to imagine a better place to be especially, you know, when you’re in your late 50’s, early 60’s. You’ve been doing this for a long time. And then someone throws Metatron your way and you just go, ‘Well this is what I’ve been working for.’ This is why you go through the long periods of time where you know you don’t have work or you’re doing shitty jobs and all that kind of thing. You know you’re feeding the meter at that time. We’re feeding the slot machine. You know you keep putting quarters in and getting nothing and then suddenly you know it’s silver dollars are pouring into your hat. And that’s kind of how it felt with Supernatural.”
The book gives you a real look behind the curtain. To get all of the inflection, I highly recommend the audiobook, read by Armstrong. There are a lot of names you will recognize and some really juicy details of how personality can really be the driving force for good or for ill in the workplace. In the current political climate, it’s an excellent palate cleanser. However, politics isn’t completely absent from the memoir. Curtis’ belief in feminism is mentioned and some behind-the-scenes looks on how big stars like Bruce Willis used politics for publicity, and for Willis specifically, there’s a great story of him using Curtis as a soundboard for some political thought only to repeat the words verbatim while grandstanding for a group of eager canvassers. If you grew up on the 80’s and 90’s like I did, I especially hope you’ll give this book a chance. I not only enjoyed it, but his childhood in Detroit and Sweden provided him with a unique perspective. The writing was compelling, at times heartbreaking and at other times, hilarious. The next time you’re at a bookstore looking for a pop culture memoir, consider picking Booger’s. 🙂
Curtis Armstrong was born in Michigan in 1953. He divided his early years between Detroit—a town apparently so nerdy that the word “nerd” was coined there in 1949—and Geneva, Switzerland, which by comparison, wasn’t nerdy at all. Following a childhood spent mainly between the covers of books, Armstrong discovered the theatre. He studied at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Rochester, Michigan, which led to a forty-plus year acting career that shows no signs of slowing. After eight years of stage work in New York and around the country, Armstrong was cast in his first film, Risky Business, starring Tom Cruise. It was the beginning of a string of classic comedy films and television shows, including Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer, TV’s Moonlighting and, most significantly, Revenge of the Nerds, in which he played the iconic role of Booger. Since then Armstrong, a nerd icon himself, has appeared in dozens of films and TV shows including, recently, Supernatural and The New Girl. He co-created and co-hosted the hit comedy-reality show King of the Nerds, which brought his nerd narrative full circle. He is married to writer Elaine Aronson, and has one daughter, Lily.
*bio from Amazon.com **A book was purchased for this review.
-Adam James is the editor-in-chief of Majority 60 and a political scientist. Before founding “M60” as a place for Democratic movers and shakers to meet and discuss important topics, he traveled the United States while earning his MBA and later his MA in political science. He now lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife. Follow him on Twitter @adamjamesm60 Majority 60 was founded in 2016.