Even after 40 years and dozens of film and TV roles, actor Curtis Armstrong remains known to most as “Booger,” the gross out misfit from “Revenge Of The Nerds.” That’s fine by him. After all, he is still working as an actor after 40 years. West Coast Bureau chief Keith Valcourt caught up with Curtis over pastrami sandwiches at Armstrong’s favorite Hollywood haunt Victor’s Square Restaurant to talk about his life as “Booger,” time with Tom Cruise on “Risky Business,” and John Cusack in “Better Off Dead” as well as his new TBS reality show, with Robert Carradine, “King Of the Nerds.”
Rocker: Why do you think “Booger” and “Revenge Of the Nerds” has lasted 30 years?
Curtis: The performance has lasted because it’s funny and good but what makes it really memorable in the larger context of that character. Of course, he’s not a nerd in any definition of the word that we understand now, he’s a sociopath. He’s just a disgusting guy. He’s giving drugs to children. He picks his nose. He belches and says horribly misogynistic things. He’s not any kind of nerd that we can identify. What happened to him – through a fluke of circumstance is he winds up being one of the people that gets thrown out, and is not accepted into the fraternity system. And the nerds, without questioning it, without blinking, they say “He’s with us.” All the rejects are together and no one questions it.
The cast of “Nerds” was at “SketchFest” for a 30th anniversary screening of “Revenge Of the Nerds.” They reunited as much of the cast as will admit that they were in the movie. Which really leaves out only one person. Since we did that first movie in 1984 we have all remained amazingly tight.
Rocker: Why do new generations continue to discover the film?
Curtis: Outsiders, that is who the main fans are. Those who didn’t have a large circle of friends, the lonely and huddled masses who wanted a place to belong really relate to the films. They are in there with a group of people, all of which are the same as them. They are the nerds looking for a place to fit in.
Rocker: You mentioned one person who would not admit to being in the film, that is obviously Anthony Edwards. Why do you think he doesn’t admit to being in the film that launched his career? Too much “E.R.” money?
Curtis: He would probably disagree that “Nerds” launched his career. I don’t think I can really come up for an explanation for it. It doesn’t bother me particularly. I like Anthony. I mean I haven’t seen him in twenty plus years. I did like Anthony. I never had a problem with him. We worked together after “Nerds” as did Bobby (Robert Carradine). Robert and I are older than everybody else in the “Nerds” cast. I think there was a type of philosophy with young actors in the eighties, and I worked with a lot of them, where they don’t look back. I don’t know if I should say this because I don’t know how his mind works. It could be he doesn’t like to look back. I don’t think it’s that he didn’t like the movie. Maybe he thinks of it as an early part of his a career before he became known for more adult things. They would rather not go back to that. I know John Cusack is that way. They say, “I don’t want to talk about that. It is what I did. The past is the past.” The thing about me is I tend to be nostalgic. I tend to look back with great fondness on moments in my life that may have even been hellish at that time. So me the closeness of that group, combined with the aura the film has attained since for other people, makes me say “What would it hurt to celebrate the past?” But not everyone feels that way.
Rocker: You and Robert Carradine seem to be having a blast hosting your new reality show “King Of The Nerds.”
Curtis: I think the reason is we started with the idea that this show was going to be a comedy show as much as it is a competition reality show. The emphasis on humor is really important. Our co-executive producers are people who understood that totally, and encouraged it, and helped the show evolve. They knew a lot about reality shows, they do “Survivor” and “Biggest Loser,” so it’s really their thing. They know what all the tricks and dangers are. Most of the time the hosts of reality shows are pretty straightforward, but with us you get an “anything goes” attitude. The producers like to dress me in drag, and I am literally game for anything. Dressing Bobby and me up is part of the deal. It makes the nerds happy, and it keeps the show on that comedic level which we prize almost above all things.
Rocker: Nerds are more popular than ever. Why?
Curtis: Much of it has to do with technology and the internet. The Nerds created someone that benefits nerds worldwide in the long run. As a kid, I was a nerd by definition, and back then there was really nowhere to go to be with other nerds, that is, until the Star Trek Conventions started. I went to the first one in Detroit. Until the convention you didn’t have mass groups of people getting together to celebrate something that we now know to be classic nerd culture. There were the early comic book conventions but they was nothing like ComicCon. It was just boxes of comics in the basement of a church. When the internet start everybody found these little niche areas where they could congregate, even if it was just virtually. That naturally lead to people wanting to do actual gatherings. So the tribes suddenly had access to each other. That’s why it became so popular. And when there is anything like that is where there is potential money involved. It gets picked up and exploited by other people, and used for their purposes. Bobby points out the prevalence of nerds today in commercials and on TV. Shows like “Big Bang Theory,” all of that is a result of nerd culture becoming part of a larger culture and has spread countrywide. It just keeps going and the nerd culture has now blended into the popular and general culture so that people who would not consider themselves nerds now enjoy elements of nerd culture. Whether it is going to Comic Con or watching the Star Trek movies, they have been opened up to elements of nerd culture where they say “Oh that’s kind of cool.”
Rocker: Lets look back on some of your career highlights and you tell me some stories. “Risky Business” was your first major film role. How did you land that gig?
Curtis: “Risky Business” was my first film but I had been working eight years at that point on stage as an actor. Which was what I thought I was gonna do for the rest of my life. At that point I considered it a fluke. In fact I kept a journal when I was on the “Risky Business” set every day because I wanted to remember what making the process of making a movie was. Because I was sure I would never make another one. When I did “Risky Business” it was all new and strange. I had nothing to compare it to except stage work. I think it’s a great movie. I saw it recently again at a screening with Paul Brickman, who wrote and directed it. I was amazed again at how good it is and how little it dates itself. At the same time I am looking at me as a very young actor and I see things that make me cringe. It was a fantastic experience and I could write a book about it. It was such a good cast.
Rocker: >Was Tom Cruise standoffish because he was the star?
Curtis: He was not a star when we were making it. He had done “Endless Love,” “Taps,” and “Outsiders,” but they had been filmed and not yet released. This was the film that was going to turn him into a big star. The film release got delayed because David Geffen, who produced it, hated the original ending, which was really dark. Geffen told Brickman he was not going to release it in that form. Brickman fought that. The producers fought. But Geffen said, “Re-shoot or it does not come out.” So they went back and re-shot the happy ending. At the recent screening with Paul there was a break in the film right towards the end. I thought, “Oh the print is burning.” But then the film continued and it was not like I remembered it. They had put together, just for the screening, the original ending. To see it the way Brickman envisioned it was awesome.
Rocker: You followed that film with “Better Off Dead” with John Cusack. Any memories from that?
Curtis: Only the happiest. Unlike John. John for some reason hates that movie and won’t discuss it in public. I loved Savage (Writer/Director Savage Steve Holland) and the cast. At that point I started to think maybe I was going to be doing this for a while. “Risky Business”, “Better Off Dead” and “Revenge Of The Nerds” plus there is another one in there no one talks about “Clan Of The Cave Bear.” Those movies along with “Moonlighting” are the cornerstones of my career.
Rocker: Lets’ talk about “Clan Of The Cave Bear.”
Curtis: There is a sentence I have never heard. Ever. (Laughs)
Rocker: It’s such a bad film. Did you know it was when you were making it?
Curtis: No. The thing about bad movies, sometimes how the movie turns out is secondary to the experience.
Rocker: Was the language which seemed like a collection of grunts, clicks and groans, written on script?
Curtis: No the language that had been written was colloquial English in the script. That was what they wanted. But that was ridiculous because we all had different regional accents. It wouldn’t be believable to see these people in this incredible makeup and wardrobe talking like you and I are talking here. The other thing they did before we started filming is threw out the entire script so Michael Chapman and his son Matthew started working on constructing the film and this unknown language that would be clear enough that audience would be able to understand it, and in the scenes where they wouldn’t they would put in subtitles. There was a big discussion about subtitles. It was originally going to be a mini-series, which would have been the way to do it. Then they debated over whether or not there would be nudity. Then just nudity for the European version. So we re-shot a bunch of scenes with the woman all topless.
Rocker: Do you have a favorite film from your body of work?
Curtis: It changes and it is all for different reasons. I don’t have a favorite, but one of my favorites is a little independent film that almost no one has seen. It’s called “Route 30” directed by John Putch. We filmed in Pennsylvania in an area where I used to do theater. I don’t have a huge part in it and am not crazy about my work in it but it is such a lovely little film.
Rocker: Any roles you wanted but didn’t get due to typecasting?
Curtis: Whether it was typecasting or a just didn’t get them, the main one was “Amadeus.” I was up for the role of Amadeus. I was working on the stage in New York in an off-Broadway play that had done well and got good reviews. I started getting Broadway auditions. I went in and read for Peter Schaffer to replace Tim Curry in the Broadway production. I read for him on the stage of “Amadeus” on Broadway. It was one of the most memorable experiences ever. It was the Broadhurst Theatre and I’m on the stage. I had seen the production three times. It’s just Schaffer there midway up in the audience. I read for him then he comes down and sits on the stage. Tells me about Mozart and the research he had done. Then I try it again. He was wonderful. Didn’t get it. Then the movie comes along. Because I had auditioned for the play they somehow got me an audition for the film.
I went to Milos Forman’s apartment on Central Park South for the reading, again just one on one with Forman. I’m sitting in his apartment while he is finishing up a phone call, looking around at the autograph print of James Cagney from “Ragtime” on the wall. It was just an amazing thing. We spent an hour going over the material. It went really well and he liked it. He had me come in the following week and do a screen test with Christine Ebersole. We dd a whole afternoon in wardrobe and I didn’t get it. That was the one that got away for me. I would have loved it.
Rocker: What else are you working on?
Curtis: Right now I’m doing Zooey Deschanel’s show “New Girl.” I’m shooting another episode later this week actually. I’m also recurring on “Supernatural” which has been really a scream. Both of these shows have been so fun because they are so different and each give me an opportunity to do drastically different characters. To play this articulate evil character in one show and this hapless idiot principal in another show is really a luxury. And to have “King Of The Nerds” at the same time and “American Dad” continuing… The combination of all these things happening now at sixty years old is great! A sixty year old character actor who is till working forty years in? I must be doing something right.