You may not know his name, but Curtis Armstrong’s hangdog face and gravelly voice are undoubtedly familiar. From playing Booger in the Revenge of the Nerds movies to helping Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd solve crimes on ABC’s Moonlighting to voicing Snot Lonstein on Fox’s American Dad!, Armstrong, 63, was all over the pop-culture map in the ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond, with a résumé that includes more than 150 film and TV roles. Now he’s revealing some of the backstage dramas (and shenanigans) of that long career as one of Hollywood’s best-known character actors in a new memoir, Revenge of the Nerd (Thomas Dunne Books, July 11). The book includes a very funny and remarkably candid chapter — excerpted exclusively in THR — about the summer of 1982. That’s when Armstrong traveled to Chicago to shoot a teen romp called Risky Business starring a then-unknown young actor by the name of “Tom Crewes.” — Andy Lewis
I recently came across a scrap of paper with the scribbled information I received during a phone call with my agent the day I was told I’d be doing Risky Business. I kept it at the time because I felt it was, in a small way, historic: First day as a film actor! As a historic document, it doesn’t amount to much. It’s the usual stuff: where we were shooting (Chicago), for how long (eight weeks!), what my income would be (considering I was on unemployment at the time, it was princely), the names of the screenwriter-director (Paul Brickman), the producers (Jon Avnet, Steve Tisch and David Geffen) and finally, the star — “Tom Crewes.”
Tom Cruise’s worldwide superstardom is now such an article of faith that it’s hard to recall a time when he was just kind of a goofy, slightly awkward and insecure kid at the start of his career, still playing roles that any young hunk could play. Basically, before he became “Tom Cruise.” I think I’m safe in saying that Risky Business was the last time he was just “Tom.”
The first time I met him was at the production office the day I arrived in Chicago. He smiled on seeing me, giving me my first glimpse of those extraordinary chops, all white and straight and sharp and in perfect alignment, which instantly made me feel self-conscious about my own teeth. He appeared so … clean. Then he called me “Miles.” He always called me by my character’s name. At the time, I thought it was part of his process. It could be he just didn’t know my name.
In the summer of 1982, he was 19, about to turn 20, and I was 28, which made me the grand old man in that cast — which included Bronson Pinchot, Raphael Sbarge, Joe Pantoliano, Shera Danese and the beautiful, inscrutable Rebecca De Mornay. Except for Tom, we were all fairly new to film. But everyone, including Tom, was unknown to me. In any but the most superficial of respects, he remains so to this day.
If Cruise’s unprecedented success was a surprise to me, the perpetual rumors regarding his sexual orientation were utterly mystifying. At least at that time, there was no question which side of that particular fence Tom stood on. It’s no secret that Tom engaged in an intense affair during the shooting with De Mornay — who, at 23, managed to maintain her inaccessible, sexual mysteriousness under any circumstances, unless you could catch her in a joke, at which point her mask would drop as her eyes lit up and she would burst into a full-throated laugh.
Their romance was some time aborning. Part of the delay was caused by the presence of Harry Dean Stanton, who was involved with Rebecca. During the hours she worked, Harry Dean — an affable man and great actor — spent his days slowly swimming the length of the hotel pool, literally for hours at a time. The man’s stamina was extraordinary, which I suppose it would have had to have been if he was dating Rebecca.
I suspect that most of Harry Dean’s great qualities were lost on Tom, who, I think, was beginning to regard him as a guest overstaying his welcome. It must have been a little galling to have your heart set on f—ing your co-star, and just when you think you’re starting to make headway, her significant other comes popping up out of a trap like a lanky, amiable Banquo’s ghost.
In the meantime, though, Tom kept busy. As an actor, he was disciplined and serious about his work and about where he was going. When I think about it now, Tom may have been the first person I ever knew who possessed an absolute and voracious ambition. It wasn’t something he discussed in those terms. There was, though, an aura around this good-looking but otherwise unremarkable teen that suggested that anyone who stood in his way, or underestimated him in any way, did so at his or her own peril.
Tom wasn’t f—ing around. Actually, I take that back. He was. With Rebecca inaccessible, he started cutting a wide swath through the local talent. Not that I noticed right away. He self-identified as a born-again Christian and the rumor was he had actually considered shepherding souls for a living. I could believe it. Away from the set, initially, Tom made straight arrows look like corkscrews. I would ask him at the end of the day if he would like to join us at the bar for a drink. “No,” I recall him saying, “Got an early call tomorrow. Got to work out still, study my lines. And then I like to read the Bible a little before bed.”
I laughed. He didn’t. “Ah,” I said, cutting off the laugh at the pass and nodding wisely. “A little bit of the Good Book before bedtime, eh?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Just a little at night. Keeps me on the right track, you know?”
But then, returning late one night, I found three or four young girls — late teens, I suspect — lined up in the hall outside of Tom’s room. I remember thinking, “Tom’s going to be really upset if these hot girls interfere with his Bible reading.” So I asked them, with all the stern gravitas of my 28 years, if there was something I could do to help them.
They just stared at me, and at that moment, Tom’s door opened and another girl came out, adjusting her hair and taking off down the hall, while the first girl in line slipped into Tom’s room. This was a young man who knew something about time management and understood how to successfully juggle Bible study and blow jobs. I went to bed alone that night thinking it served me right for not being religious.
I recorded my impression of him in the journal I kept during that time: Tom’s an interesting character. Can’t really make him out. He would appear to be on the brink of a great career. But when it comes to doing things with him — socially or professionally — he’s not terribly reliable. Always late, very casual with other people’s time. But in spite of it all, it’s difficult not to like him. Though it’s early days, the rehearsing I’ve done with him has gone smoothly. No arrogance or selfishness there. Yet. We’ll see.
During that summer we were shooting in Chicago, Sean Penn was also in town filming Bad Boys. Tom and Sean knew each other from Taps and had bonded closely during filming. Sean, who turned 22 that August, seemed to spend any time he wasn’t needed on his set hanging around ours with Tom. Sean had already acquired the reputation of a volatile, unpredictable man, one who submerged himself deeply into the characters he was playing. In addition to occasional explosions of temper and general “difficult” behavior, he told me he had a picture taken of himself dangling from a 20-story hotel balcony, which he then sent to the bond company insuring the picture. He thought it was funny. He was also widely rumored to be engaged to Bruce Springsteen’s sister, which only added to his glamour. Tom admired him enormously. He admitted to me that he was intimidated by Sean’s talent and even then, in 1982, believed him to be the greatest actor of his generation.
But even the two stars in the making had their own idol to worship: Timothy Hutton, the star of Taps. According to them, it was Hutton who inspired and guided them both as actors and men. By their account, Hutton ruled that set, and this was a movie that co-starred George C. Scott. They were shocked when I admitted I was unfamiliar with his work. I wasn’t really; I was just tired of talking about him all the time. Unfortunately, I didn’t succeed in changing the subject. Instead, I just caused these two men — future Oscar nominees — to believe there was something actually wrong with me.
Sean would hang out on set with Tom and actually appears in the movie in an “uncredited cameo,” driving Joel’s (Cruise) Porsche out of the garage. Why this was done escapes me. Sean probably just wanted to drive the Porsche.
I spent a fair amount of time in Tom’s room and was always struck by how neat and well-kept it was. Whether this was usual for Tom or whether he was doing it as a Method thing (because Joel Goodsen’s room was probably really tidy), I wasn’t sure. But going into the room just a couple of days after Sean’s arrival was a revelation. It looked like someone had blown up a convention of rising young ‘80s actors. There were clothes covering the entire floor. There was a heady scent to the place, too: a rich musk of dirty laundry, cigarette smoke, alcohol and young white male. The curtains were drawn against the light no matter what time it was. The two of them, like as not, would either still be in bed or lounging in underwear. It looked like a Calvin Klein ad.
The first scene we would be shooting was the opening poker game in the basement of Joel’s house, and that was rehearsed often, as I noted in the diary:
June 31: Today, our rehearsal consisted of sitting around a table, playing poker, smoking foul cigars and improvising into a cassette. I’m a little slow picking up the game but Bronson, bless him, hasn’t a clue. A lot of cards will have to be played in the next week in order to smooth it all out. One improv started heating up when Barry [Bronson] called Joel a “slut-f—er.” Tom got angry and said, evenly, that he didn’t f— sluts. Bronson said he imagined actually that he, Tom, had f—ed several. I thought it was funny, but Tom didn’t and it got very tense, with Bronson finally whining, “Joel, don’t do this to me!”
Finally, on July 7, the five of us sat around the poker table as the cameras rolled on Risky Business for the first time: It was rugged going at first … but then everything came together and it stayed cooking. All told, each of us smoked 10 cheap cigars apiece. Before lunch, mind you. We were nauseous through a good portion of the day.
If I had any real concerns about my performance thereafter, they weren’t reflected in the journal. Rebecca, though, was uneasy.
July 9: Talked to Rebecca for quite a while in her dressing room. She seems to value my opinion quite a bit. She’s uneasy about her first day of shooting (yesterday). Paul, it seems, is asking her to deliver her lines at machine-gun speed. Sounds like a terrible idea to me. During our read-through the other day, she took her time and was splendid. She really is perfect in this role if she’s left alone.
July 30: A 6 p.m. call. We drove out to do the “what the f—?” scene. Later we did the end of the car chase (“Porsche. There is no substitute.”) My tagline (“f— you”) was put in at the last minute. Hope it’s used. Got back at 6 a.m. The phone rang. Rebecca. We talked for over an hour. Then I had a few restless hours of sleep.
One of the little mysteries of this diary: After spending 12 hours on the set together, we come back to the hotel, exhausted, and Rebecca calls me up, and we talk for an hour. About what? I have no idea. I’m sure at the time I thought I’d remember forever.
After a few weeks, I hit a long patch where I wasn’t needed. The days became endless and the nights worse. The exhilaration of working long hours on my first film and being thrown into the rambunctious company of my fellow actors wore off with no one around, and a prolonged front of boredom and loneliness set in with unusual severity. The journal reflects this, with page after page filled with maudlin scrawls of self-pity. It’s apparent that there was a good deal of drinking and drug taking going on, and distressingly, more and more of it alone. Cocaine was, of course, easily available and relatively cheap in Chicago and was supplied around the clock by some of the borderline hoodlums we found ourselves associating with. I had too much time on my hands, and it seemed like I was spending most of it poisoning myself.
The journal ends abruptly in late August. No description of my last day on the set, whether there was a party or how I bid farewell to my co-workers. I was on the plane the following day back to New York and into the long, long period of waiting.
Paul had gotten some notes from Warner Bros. about how he needed to include more sex. They were adamant that the party scene needed a lot more. Here was this long sequence, packed with hookers and horny high-school boys, and not a single bare breast was revealed. Brickman ignored them. “You can call off your dogs,” Paul joked to studio executives after a highly successful test screening. They intended to do no such thing. Brickman was blind-sided by the request — which quickly became a demand — that he scrap the end of the film to make it less of a “downer.” Make it more “teen movie.” The original ending was darker but truer to Brickman’s concept from the beginning: Greed has consequences [Joel doesn’t get in to Princeton].
“Warners never really knew what to make of it,” Brickman told me. “And their marketing campaign looked like they were trying to sell Porky’s! That was another fight. They had a cartoon character of Tom, winking, in bed with girls in bikinis all around him and money raining down. That was the poster the studio wanted to use. That was my big fight. I was, like, throwing posters across the room. Not to mention the ending. Geffen was going to fire me if I didn’t reshoot the ending. They were talking to some television director about doing it, but finally, in order to protect 90 percent, I had to sacrifice 10 percent, which was really hard for me.” Paul brought Tom and Rebecca back after months of bitter disputes, reshot the ending, delivered the finished film and didn’t watch it again for 30 years.
Meanwhile, as the Risky Business postproduction wars raged on, Bronson and I were wandering around New York, jobless but undaunted, taking turns convincing each other that we were on the verge of great things. Then one day Superman 3 opened and we heard that there was a trailer for Risky Business showing before the movie — and we were both in the trailer! We were both thrilled at the prospect of seeing ourselves, even briefly, on the big screen, but we also didn’t feel we should pay to see Superman 3 when we were just going to stay in the theater long enough to see our trailer. I suggested Bronson call the manager of the theater and explain our situation and see if we could get a couple of passes. This magical man arranged for passes for us and Bronson, and we finally saw ourselves on the big screen. When the movie opened the following summer, Bronson and I went to see the very first screening — a 1:00 p.m. matinee at a Times Square theater where people were screaming back at the screen and a guy walked up and down the aisle with a flashlight to dissuade the old guys from whacking off during the movie.
Shortly before that, Tom and Rebecca came through New York and invited Bronson and me to dinner with them at their suite at the Sherry-Netherland hotel. I recall it as a strangely formal occasion; we dined on starched white tablecloths and talked about the vagaries of show business, and there was certainly no drunken striptease at 2 a.m. to top it off. The Sherry-Netherland felt a long way from the Lincolnwood Hyatt, that’s for sure.
That was the last time I saw or spoke to Tom. The next time I saw Rebecca, we were seated together at Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s wedding, when Risky Business seemed like something that had happened a lifetime ago. The gap between filming Risky Business and my next film job seemed to stretch out before me like a trackless desert. But by the time it opened in the summer of 1983, I had been back at work onstage.
I had some film auditions after Risky Business, but none of them panned out. Just when it began to feel like Risky Business really had been a fluke, another picture finally came along, and it turned out to have been worth the wait. It was Revenge of the Nerds.
Excerpted from Revenge of the Nerd by Curtis Armstrong. Copyright © 2017 Curtis Armstrong. Reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.
This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.