Millions around the world know Curtis Armstrong as a fictional character. And he’s played a Rolodex of memorable characters. It may simply depend on your age as to which character you recognize first. He recently released a memoir that tracks his path from Detroit to Geneva back to 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 Curtis knew who he was and even writes about a crazy almost-encounter with the prolific 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.”
The 62 year old King of the Nerds producer and host was kind enough to join me on the phone for chat. 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.” In fact, I felt so strongly about how profound are the parts of the book about his childhood experiences, we discussed them in detail in an interview for the special we did for bullying prevention month. But he also talked with me about is eclectic career on stage, film and TV.
For me, seeing Curtis triggers memories of the sloppily dressed, belching, college student in the 1980’s Revenge of the Nerds franchise. In that series he played Dudley Dawson, aka Booger. Curtis writes, “I hated him on sight,” only to explain that he thought he was reading for Gilbert Lowe which would later be played by E.R.’s Anthony Edwards. (Which means he starred alongside of Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards who would later become Maverick and Goose in Top Gun right as they were gaining altitude.) The discussion between him and his BFF at the time, Bronson Pinchot, about whether or not he would accept the role of Booger, if it was offered to him is 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 evev 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.
As a young stage actor, Curtis-who cofounded his own theatre company right out of school, had never planned on becoming a film actor. So he was surprised to find himself auditioning for a movie role in what would become his breakout role as a character actor in Risky Business (1983). The movie famously launched the career of Tom Cruise but it also launched Curtis Armstrong’s 40 year career with iconic moments like Curtis putting his arm around Tom and bestowing the life lesson, “Sometimes you’ve gotta say, what the fuck.” He still hears from fans about that line. And his perilous escape from a murderous pimp named Guido, played by Joe Pantoliano (The Soprano’s)
Curtis gives all the credit for those iconic moments to Paul Brickman. “The dialogue just flowed. We had to change almost nothing once we finally got in front of the camera. Everything was just so.” His ability to deliver the line (which sounds as if it could’ve been an adlib 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 would accept an invitation from Brickman for a screening of Risky Business. This gave Curtis the opportunity to reveal 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.
He was a series-regular on Moonlighting with Bruce Willis and Cybil Sheppard’s. 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. You discover 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 loved 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 50s early 60s. 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 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. 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 pallet cleanser. However, politics isn’t completely absent from the memoir. Curtis’ belief in feminism is mentioned and some behind-the-scenes 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 and at times heartbreaking and at others hilarious. The next time your 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.