Thousands of aspiring actors come to Hollywood each year hoping to find success as a glamorous TV or movie star.
Most of them fail to score the elusive big break, but Curtis Armstrong found a completely different means of building a thriving acting career — by embracing his quirky looks and self-described “nerd” personality to become one of the industry’s most unique character actors.
Best known for portraying the outrageously gross character Booger in the 1984 comedy “Revenge of the Nerds,” Armstrong also made an indelible impression as a second banana in the cult-classic 1980s films “Risky Business” and “Better Off Dead” and the hit TV series “Moonlighting.” He maintained humorous and insightful journals about his experiences on nearly 150 other roles in the decades since, resulting in the comic memoir “Revenge of the Nerd,” which he will discuss and sign Tuesday at Vroman’s Bookstore.
“When you’re a character actor, in a lot of ways you have the best of both worlds, because there’s a freedom that comes with less concern about age or appearance than with an ingénue or leading man or woman,” says Armstrong. “You can age and it makes no difference, especially in comedy work. That’s why it was easy for me to embrace, because a lot of the best roles are character ones. And if the movie is terrible, no one’s blaming it on you. That’s probably the best part of being a second banana.”
Armstrong developed a smart and sarcastic writing voice that matches the tone of many of his characters, and the result is a book packed with insider tales from those breakthrough roles, through his recent popular turns on “Supernatural,” “New Girl” and “American Dad!” His insights into Tom Cruise’s youthful shenanigans on the set of “Risky Business,” the surprising debauchery amid the making of “Nerds” and Bruce Willis’ battles with Cybill Shepherd on the set of “Moonlighting” make for witty, page-turning reading.
Yet Armstrong, 64, also digs deep in recounting his childhood days in Detroit as the product of a “mixed marriage” between his father, a full-fledged nerd, and his beautiful mother. He also shares his childhood obsessions with the classic movie musical “The Music Man” and Sherlock Holmes stories, leading to incredibly awkward high school years that were rescued when he became involved in drama classes.
While he aspired to be a serious theatrical actor after graduating from the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Rochester, Michigan, things changed in a big way when he landed the role of Miles in “Risky Business.” Making a splash as the friend who encourages Cruise’s nerdy character Joel to cut loose while his parents are away for the weekend, he was soon offered the role of Booger in “Nerds”— a part he initially begged his agent to turn down.
“None of us wanted to do the movie really because we were embarrassed by the title, and it was a pretty rough script too,” recalls Armstrong. “But for a week in Tucson before we shot, we’d improvise based on who we now thought the characters were and it ceased being just a stupid sex comedy and became something we could be proud of.
“The movie has held up over 30 years because in the end, it’s about tolerance and acceptance, not just the broad stuff like the nudity, panty raids, and nose picking,” he continues. “I just watched it all the way through with [co-star] Robert Carradine at a fan screening in Indianapolis, and it still brings a tear to my eye.”
Curtis Armstrong will discuss and sign “Revenge of the Nerd” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 449-5320 or visit vromansbookstore.com.