Curtis Armstrong: Growing up Nerd

Curtis Armstrong REVENGE OF THE NERDS (1984)

Curtis Armstrong is one of those writers who managed to write a profound book and a behind the scenes look at Hollywood at the same time. I’m not sure the actor, famous for playing Dudley Dawson AKA “Booger” in the 80’s Revenge of the Nerds franchise (and more recently as the angel/scribe of God, Metatron on the CW’s Supernatural) believes me when I say he has written a profound book but I submit, he has. Come back next week for part 2 where we’ll dig in to some of the best of the behind the scenes.

We conducted the interview over the phone and I have to admit, it was an odd feeling to hear his distinct voice. It was like talking to some of the most memorable movie and TV characters I’ve watched throughout my life. Knowing I normally publish or discuss political topics we quickly bonded over the feeling of astonishment and consternation at the current chaos in our political climate and our love for biographies. Biographies were a big part of his preparation for writing Revenge of the Nerd. He described reading the memoirs of his peers thusly in his own memoir, “…[Reading] these books was a humbling experience—not to mention expensive, and frankly a bit of a slog.” It served him well. His book is anything but a slog.

Curtis cites the question; “What is a nerd?” as his most frequently asked question. But, in the 1980’s when the movie franchise launched no one seemed to question what a nerd was or what to do with them. Everyone already knew. Armstrong writes, “They were picked on, put down, beat up and ostracized. They were often lonely.” Adding sincerely, “They were my people.”

Interspersed between his hilarious anecdotes the behind-the-scenes look at the happenings on set of his big screen 80’s movies and TV show, “Moonlighting,” Curtis tells the very profound story of how he became the thoughtful, well-read man that he is now. Curtis grew up as a bit of an outsider in Detroit, MI and Geneva, Switzerland (Swiss not Swedish). He describes his family home as having, “[T]his weird dichotomy, this sort of executive class WASP on one side and the Italian immigrant on the other.” Like it is in society today, the tension was largely felt in the older generation. “…there were difficulties between my both sets of grandparents whom I loved.”

Curtis explains, “It was very clear to me just from the parts [of town] that they lived in that these were very different people. I mean, my grandparents on my mother’s side lived off of eight mile road in East Detroit which was much more of a working class neighborhood,” he says. “As opposed to my grandparents on my father’s side who lived in Rosedale Park which was all these sort of mock Tudor houses. And you know shady streets and all of that kind of thing.”

Whether it was Christmas or some other holiday, Curtis would realize as an adult, “There was [never any] getting together in one house or another. It was not that kind of a family.” It opened his eyes to disparity that most Whites never see up close. “Years later,” he told me, “I started to make sense of the racial aspect of it, realizing the degree to which Italian immigrants were persecuted in Detroit you know, along with a lot of other immigrant groups.” Over and over again our conversation would come back to the importance of empathy and I could feel his sincerity when he added, “Obviously for African-Americans in Detroit it’s been a constant struggle. And so you know that’s, I think, why the city wound up in flux for so long. And I think it’s coming out of it. I still go back usually you know once at least once a year I still have relatives there and friends there. I work there occasionally. So I get to see it growing and coming out of that phase. But it’s been a slow and painful process for it. And God knows it’s all over the country in one form or another; that kind of intolerance and persecution. It’s our original sin.”

He recommends a wonderful book for those wanting to learn more about the Motor City: Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Mariniss. But for this part of the interview, I wanted to take him back to Geneva. “There was this moment,” I tell him, “where laughter became a saving grace. You were in a one sided fight with, ironically a big angry Russian boy. And suddenly laughter spared you. How did that happen and did you find being funny to be a cure for bullying?”

Curtis laughs at the memory, which you can read in greater detail in the book but he sets the scene, “The kid at the school in Geneva,” he begins. “It was one of those situations. I don’t even know how these things…how your brain works in a situation like that. The idea that every time this kid knocked me down I would do a prat fall which came from an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show back in the day, which I loved, and I think that there was some kind of instinctive reaction to.” While I can’t say for certain since this was a telephone interview, I could actually see him in my mind’s eye lifting his hand over his head in an effort to demonstrate how much taller the Russian was than he was. “This is obviously not someone I have a chance of fighting back,” he said, the consummate storyteller. “Even if I wanted to. There was no way that I would be able to really lay a glove on this kid. The only thing that I had: I’d always made people laugh…from the time I was very young I made people laugh. It was what I did.”

Anyone who watched Curtis in Revenge of the Nerds or Risky Business knows this to be true about him as an adult but he explains, “It was my [childhood] parlor trick in the family you know my aunt or my mother would play the piano and I was the comedian.”

In this case, as he describes in the book, his instinctive comedic skills saved him from what might have been a serious beating. “I wasn’t a class clown exactly,” he says, “but I was funny.” At that moment though, “I didn’t say to myself, as I was getting repeatedly knocked over by this kid, ‘Maybe if I was funny it would help,’ but it was it was my default position. If I’m funny it seems to work and so it did.”

There was an additional silver lining to the standoff with the Russian. Curtis had used the stylings of Dick Van Dyke when exaggerating his falls and years later he would get to tell that story to the man himself while working as an actor. I can hear his joy when I ask him about it. “I know! Isn’t that wonderful? I’m definitely one of the lucky ones. You know, not only does Dick van Dyke give me an out when I’m getting beat up as a child. But then I get to tell Dick van Dyke the story. I mean, how perfect is that?”

Bullying is a subtle theme throughout the first part of his book and I mention to him a case where in a moment of rage after getting smacked in the head with a textbook, he curled up his fist and punches a kid in the nose. Laughter, he says sadly, “doesn’t always [work] unfortunately. That other case where I struck a kid, which was again in self-defense out of just extreme provocation, you know, I couldn’t be funny anymore. It was one of those moments.” I found it profound. Some of the bullying he described was really long term abuse that he was dealing with.

”It was over a period of time in Geneva and in Detroit,” he explains. “You bringing that up is an interesting thing: you described me as an outsider in both places and I didn’t think of it that way necessarily but I really was. So it was just it was just a reaction to that, but my point in bringing it up was that, while I was able to use an innate ability to make people laugh to defuse a situation in one case, in the other case I couldn’t do that.”

Geneva Switzerland 1970 courtesy of

It’s at this point where I ask him about a girl that for the purpose of protecting her privacy, he calls Angela. “Okay,” I begin tentatively. “Beyond some of your direct experience with bullies, you actually talk about observing bullying too. You spoke about a girl named Angela. You say she was different and she lashed out to try to protect yourself from her bullies and how sometimes that would make matters worse.” This is a sensitive subject today. It comes down to how kids react to seeing others get bullied. He wrote, “I don’t know if this child had a single day without pain or humiliation during the entire time I knew her.”

His mother, upon hearing about the situation encouraged him to spend some time with Angela. And I ask him if this experience made him agree with some of the PSAs that run encouraging kids to intervene when they see someone being bullied. I’m especially skeptical about this considering the level of violence that can be involved and his answer seems to suggest he shares my concern.

“Well…it’s hard for me to be a spokesman for some of this because when all is said and done I did not have the challenges that some of these kids I talk about in the book did.” He takes his time, responding thoughtfully and deliberately. “The rest of the kids at the ‘spaz table’ (he talks about in the book) or Angela were people whose lives were tormented constantly. And I never had that. I was bullied but I didn’t have the severe, probably lifelong, problems that those other kids had. So it gave me a position from which to observe it. And the only thing that I can say about Angela was that I had empathy which was passed on to me by my parents.

“The degree to which I stood up, you know, it helped that we were in a very small community; the American kids who lived in Geneva in the early 60s, there weren’t a lot of us.” His voice is quiet now, “I was in class with her every day. I saw the things she did. Some of the things that I saw happen to her were so horrible I didn’t put them in the book because it was so it was just terrible. But I was lucky that I had the gift of empathy that I got from my parents. My mother was the one who suggested that maybe one day I could get together with Angela after school and we could you know see if we could just get together. And that was her idea but it was something that made sense to me. I don’t think it achieved anything particularly but having empathy is a great thing. And of course when you bring up the idea of what’s happening in schools where [today] kids are carrying knives or guns—you don’t know what they’ve got in school anymore, it becomes a lot more dangerous for kids to stand up .” Caution wins the day, “In places where there is genuine danger. Like life or death danger. It’s harder for kids to do that.” Schools and parents have to give kids the tools.

Reflecting on it now, he explains, “I was happy. I am, as an adult, happy that my mother made that suggestion. I am happy, as an adult, that I was given this gift of empathy that they gave without thinking, ‘Here, be empathetic.’ It was something that I learned from observation. And so I’m happy for that.”

We ended this part of the interview talking about a strange occurrence. While doing a theater apprentice program in high school, Curtis would come face to face with his middle school bully. “He was on the crew,” Curtis explained. He was in the cast just starting to discover his talent for acting. “It was really only a matter of three or four years between the time I’d known him in middle school [and the apprenticeship] but he didn’t remember me at all.” He quips, “Frankly I felt a little used because he spent so much time picking on me I figure the least you could do was remember me.”

I spent a lot of time thinking about that situation. The bully invested so much time in harassing him and yet he didn’t remember him or at least wouldn’t cop to it. Being bullied is a horrible thing to live through, I’ve been there. But parents, teachers, bus drivers even, need to be on the lookout. Both the bully and the bullied need help. Curtis reflected on it this strange circumstance this way, “It really does show a lack of humanity in a way, on small scale. But that scale becomes big. The lack of humanity in people who pick on people less powerful than they are to the degree that you don’t become a person at all you become something that a person picks on. Which is why I said it’s a transition…you’re not really even human, you’re just something that somebody hits when they’re walking down the hall.”

Empathy can be taught by example. Bullies and the bullied are in pain. It’s up to adults to reach out to both; to mediate, to care and to lead by example. That’s the danger in allowing adult bullies to occupy powerful positions. They provide the wrong example creating more and more bullies and more and more victims. We need a little more love, kindness, and respect. Curtis was incredibly generous with his time and next week’s interview will convince you that you need his book!

*I did not receive a review copy or any compensation for this article.*

Curtis Armstrong is an American actor, a producer and now an author. His book is Revenge of the Nerd and it’s available in bookstores everywhere.