Hollywood history is cluttered with Spocks and Screeches, characters that wholly overshadow the careers of the actors who portrayed them. Somehow, Curtis Armstrong has both escaped and not escaped this fate.
In 1984, Armstrong reluctantly accepted his second-ever movie role. He would play Dudley “Booger” Dawson in Revenge of the Nerds. After he initially objected to the part, the filmmakers tweaked the script just enough that Armstrong wasn’t completely repulsed by his character. Little did he know that the movie would go on to become a favorite of slobs-vs-snobs cinema (not to mention, by today’s standards, very problematic) , and that his face would be synonymous with the word, Booger. Permanently. But while that role was followed by years of typecasting, and remains his most famous turn to date, it hasn’t exactly defined him. Newer generations know him as Metatron on Supernatural or Principal Foster on The New Girl, recent roles he played for years. If the entire world only knows him as Booger, someone forgot to inform several casting agents.
This duality, the chameleon everyone already knows as the Geiko iguana, is one of several unlikely aspects of Armstrong’s remarkable career, which he explores in depth in his just-released memoir Revenge of the Nerd: Or, the Singular Adventures of the Man Who Would Be Booger. As you may notice from the title, or the fact that his Twitter handle is “CurtisIsBooger,” Armstrong has grown to embrace not only his essential nerdiness, but his fans’ fascination with the role he almost turned down. Over the course of the book, Armstrong charmingly recounts how he arrived at becoming Booger, and how he wriggled out from beneath that character’s long shadow. (Mostly.)
In the lead-up to the book’s release, Fast Company caught up with the actor and found out a lot we did not know, from his stint as a screenwriter, to who is considered his doppelgänger, and why he once turned down an audition with Quentin Tarantino.
The Accidental Movie Star
“I didn’t really plan on any of this,” Armstrong says. “My intention was never to do movies or television. I was just thinking of plays. But as I was doing plays that got more attention in New York, I started to get auditions for films. I went on them expecting I wouldn’t get them–and until Risky Business, I didn’t. But there wasn’t really a plan. I always look at Risky Business as the beginning of an entire career that came out of left field. I had been considering myself a stage actor all this time and then Jeff Kanew saw me in that movie and cast me in Revenge of the Nerds, and then Savage [Steve Holland] saw those two movies and cast me because he saw me as the connecting dot in two films he loved. And then ultimately Glenn Gordon Caron was a fan of Risky Business and cast me as [Bert] Viola in Moonlighting. I look at those four jobs as the pillars of my entire career from 1982 on. Those were the base of my career to this day.”
Destined to Be a Character Actor
“It’s not a decision that you make. It’s a decision that’s made for you,” Armstrong says. “I wasn’t physically cut out to be anything but a character actor. But I never regretted that because character actors–those were the parts. It’s great to be an ingénue or a leading man, but in some ways you are constricted. Someday you will reach a point where you’re regarded as a character actor in spite of yourself, and it becomes a little harder to actually get work in those circumstances. So for me the idea of being a character actor was a goal that I wanted to achieve. Basically, I wanted to be a working actor, and that’s the only kind of working actor I was cut out to be.”
Hindsight is 20/20
“I had no idea who Quentin Tarantino was, but my agent sent me the script for Reservoir Dogs,” Armstrong says. “I can’t remember what character I was reading for.” [Editor’s note: Is it possible he read for Mr. Pink?] “It was an improbable piece of casting to have someone like me in one of those roles anyway, but apart from that I couldn’t make the lines work. I worked on that audition for a while, planning to go out for it, and then I finally called my agent and said, ‘I can’t figure out how to say these words.’ To give them and him credit, everyone that did lines in that movie was brilliant, but I just felt it was out of my comfort. If I were to be approached for a Quentin Tarantino audition now–I’ve seen his movies and I know how it works. At the time I had no idea, so I turned it down.”
An Ongoing Case of Mistaken Identity
“Whenever I went to New York [in the early-80s], something strange would happen,” Armstrong says. “People kept coming up to me and saying, ‘I loved you on Saturday night.’ I know people go out to the movies on Saturday night but I wasn’t sure why they were saying that to me. And then I was finally able to piece together that people thought that I was Gilbert Gottfried, who was at the time on Saturday Night Live. And at the same time, people were going up to Gilbert and saying, ‘I loved you in Risky Business.’ We were constantly getting mistaken for each other.”
“One night I was having dinner and two guys came up to me and said, ‘You have to come with us now.’ They explained that they were friends of Gilbert, and he was doing a set at [New York City comedy club] Catch a Rising Star, and they needed to take me immediately up because of this thing where we had become, like, separated-at-birth twins. They took me from my dinner, put me in a cab, and we went up to Catch a Rising Star, and I got there just as Gilbert was coming off. He took one look at me and started just screaming with laughter. We were friends for many years after that.”
The Quiet Side Hustle
“Screenwriting for me was a phase and it blew over,” Armstrong says. “There was a five- or six-year period in the ’90s where a friend of mine, John Doolittle, and I were selling screenplays. We did it as a fluke, really. We were both fans of P.G. Wodehouse and we adapted one of his books into a film and it was picked up by a studio. We actually went into casting and pre-production for it–before they lost their money. Christopher Guest was going to direct. It was a big deal! Then because that came so close to being produced, we kept going. We found ourselves optioning or selling five or six screenplays over the next several years, and none of them were picked up. Then they approached us about A Goofy Movie. And to this day, that’s the only movie that we worked on that we actually got a screen credit for. We worked on The Player, the Robert Altman movie, but A Goofy Movie–that’s the one we got the screen credit for. But people are fond of that one too.”
Forever an Actor, Forever a Nerd
“One thing I’ve learned about myself is I’m not really a producer,” Armstrong. “I was in the case of King of the Nerds, because Robert and I had come up with the idea for that show, and we were the ones pitching it around and it got picked up. So we were executive producers in addition to being hosts, but it was not the next step of my career or anything. You have to have a very special skill set to be a producer, and I do not have any of those skills. I was the nerd person, and I was the one who wanted to keep the focus steadily on the nerd ideal to the degree that we could, to be inclusive, supportive, and celebratory of nerds. That was what my job was and I came out of that experience with many close friends. And that’s what I love. I love getting to play with nerds, not producing a TV show.”