Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: At the very beginning of his movie career, Curtis Armstrong played three small but memorable supporting roles in classic ’80s movies: He uttered “sometimes you gotta say, ‘what the fuck’” to a young Tom Cruise in Risky Business, was John Cusack’s buddy who spoke of the street value of a ski slope’s “pure snow” in Better Off Dead, and was the very unclean dork Booger in Revenge Of The Nerds. Those roles launched a three-decade career for the character actor, playing roles as big as the much-maligned Bert Viola on Moonlighting to the much-maligned (but in a good way) Metatron on Supernatural.
Grounded For Life (2003)—“Curtis”
Curtis Armstrong: Most things, I usually feel pretty good reflecting on. I mean, there have been a few from time to time that have been unfortunate or have had elements that have been unpleasant, but I have to say, even the worst things I’ve done in my career, I’ve managed to learn something from.
The A.V. Club: Does it surprise you to when you think back to how many different roles and roles of varying sizes you’ve done?
CA: Yeah. It’s something that didn’t occur to me until a few years ago, strangely. Well, longer ago than that—maybe 10 years ago, 15 years ago. I was doing a TV show just as a guest star, and there was a young guy on the show who was really excited that I was there, mainly because of the movies from the ’80s—Better Off Dead and so on—and at the time, I was going through this weird period. I was not very happy with the way things were going, and I was doing stuff that I wasn’t feeling particularly good about. We were talking one day, and I expressed this to him, and he seemed shocked, first off, that I would say such a thing. And he wound up saying something to the effect of, “You have to realize that, for people like me, we look at what you’ve done in your career with envy because you’ve had a career. That’s something the rest of us, of my age anyway, are still striving for and still hoping for.” It was a shocking thing at that point to me to think of it in terms of career because I didn’t even think of it as a career. I just thought, okay, well, this is what I’ve been doing, and I guess it’s what I’ll continue doing. I loved what I did, and I’m very proud of some of the work I’ve done, but I had not really thought of it as a career until that moment. It was a show called—oh, boy—Grounded For Life.
AVC: Do you remember the actor that you were talking to about that?
CA: I’m trying to remember his name now. This is some time ago. I would have to look it up. It was the co-star. The brother on the show.
AVC: Kevin Corrigan.
CA: There you go. It was just like a lunch conversation. He wanted to know what I was doing, and I was telling him. And for some reason, I just was not feeling—you know, that happens. Everybody goes through periods of sort of looking at what they’re doing and saying, “Is this really what I’m doing, and is it really what I want to keep doing?” And so, for whatever reason, it was a period of time when I was feeling grouchy about something. He was the one who said, “This is a career that you have. You should be thankful.”
The Chronicle (2001-02)—“Sal/Pig Boy”
CA: Chronicle was just one season, 13 episodes or something. [It was] absolutely fantastic. I loved that show. I loved the character, Pig Boy. I really enjoyed working with the other actors on the show. It was a lot of fun, and in retrospect, when I think about it, the show—it was on, I believe, Syfy, when it was still Sci Fi, and at the time, there was room for something like that, which was a little odd and a little left field. They didn’t completely know in that first season exactly what they were doing. There was a lot of argument between them and the network about the kind of show [it would be]. My recollection is that the network wanted X-Files—a newspaper version of The X-Files—but that wasn’t what the creators of the show wanted. They wanted this offbeat little series, and it was not their intention to do that, and so there was a conflict, as I understood it, between them and the network from the beginning, and then by the end of the season, they were finished.
Van Wilder: Party Liaison (2002)—“Campus Cop”
AVC: What got you disillusioned about what you were doing at the time? What were the kind of roles that were making you that way? I noticed you played a campus cop in a Van Wilder movie.
CA: Yeah, Van Wilder was one of those things where—it happened a couple of times—where they set out to do a film which was sort of a tip of the hat to the kind of movies that we were doing in the ’80s—Nerds, in particular—and they would approach me about that and say, “We’re making this movie, which we want to do kind of in the style of those movies, and we want to have you in it because you were in those and blah, blah, blah.” For me, it’s fine. If I was available to do it and it was in town, it wasn’t a big time commitment, and they paid me, that’s fine. I’ll go do it, and that’s how that happened. I thought it was funny, and he was funny, and so what the heck. I did it for a day or maybe two days, and I can’t say that doing it made me feel bad. You’re asking me to go a really long way back and analyze how I was thinking, but the only reason that I can imagine I was, like Chronicle, I could not have been unhappy about that kind of thing, so I don’t really know what the reason was for it anymore. It’s too long ago. Water under the bridge.
New Girl (2013-14)—“Principal Foster”
CA: Well, in the case of New Girl in particular, they were auditioning people, and I had to audition for it, too, because it was a recurring part. A lot of times, for episodic, I might get an offer to do it, but when you’re talking about getting recurring roles, most of the time I have to audition for it. The funny thing about New Girl was, by weird, weird coincidence, this day came up where I had two auditions in a day, which never happens. I don’t remember the time previous to this that that has ever happened, and the audition in the morning was for Supernatural, and the audition in the afternoon was for New Girl. And I wound up getting both roles, and I’m still doing both shows. That’s just really unbelievable. To have two in a day is one thing, but to actually get both of them on the same day is kind of amazing. I don’t know what their motivation is on New Girl in particular. It’s not like American Dad where it’s not meant to be—I mean, part of the joke is the guy who played Booger is playing Snot. Obviously, that is not a part I had to read for, but in the case of New Girl, everybody who’s on that show is very much in that world, which they have created, and there is a type of humor and type of character in a way, which is unique, which is one of the reasons the show is so popular. First off, Zooey [Deschanel] is just marvelous and really, really a talented person. The other actors are—it’s the same sort of deal. They all belong in this world, and my job is not to bring my past into it at all. My job is to try to fit in to the world that Liz Meriwether and everyone else has created there.
AVC: Do you like when a character like Principal Foster gets stranger and stranger, the more we see him?
CA: Yeah. Well, because that’s part of that world. Everybody can afford to be really odd, and I love it, and of course, there’s also a lot of improvisation on the show, which I don’t usually get to do, and they’re all really good at it, so it’s been fun, great fun. But what motivated them to do it—whether it was Moonlighting or Nerds or whatever it was—I don’t even know. But it wasn’t a question of them offering it to me. I did have to read for it.
Scandal (2012)—“Attorney Cole”
CA: It was early enough on that I didn’t have any preconceptions about it. I knew Kerry Washington already because we’ve been in Ray together. I didn’t know anyone else on the show, and I’d never worked with Shonda [Rhimes] before. Honestly, it felt a little like it was just episodic, and it didn’t strike me as being something that had a future. [There was] some conflict between one of the actors and me, which never happens usually. He’s not on the show anymore, I don’t think, but he wasn’t very happy with me. So when it was over, I sort of walked away from it, thinking, well, it had never felt like there was a future to it anyway—and then, two years later or something—I’m really unsure about the time, but I think it was last year, they contacted me to come back and reprise the character, but at that point, I was doing something and couldn’t get out of it, so I never went back.
AVC: Do you know why that actor had an issue with you?
CA: I don’t. It’s strange, but I was very aware that these things happen, but it was a little awkward. But Kerry’s wonderful, and also, when you’re going into a show that early, they’re still working out stuff, so I didn’t come into it with preconceptions about the show. I had never seen the show. It hadn’t aired yet. It was the first season, so it was funny, because at the same time, I was working on The Closer, and I was in the middle of doing like half a dozen of those and then wound up doing Scandal, which was basically a very similar role, actually.
Ray (2004)—“Ahmet Ertegun”
CA: I don’t think I’d ever played a living person before. I knew who Ahmet Ertegun was very well. I have all the recordings—Ray’s Atlantic recordings. I’ve been listening to them for years and years, and I knew a lot of Ahmet’s other stuff as well, going way back to sort the blues stuff going into the rock ’n’ roll and Cream and all that. I knew that it was a big movie and that it was going to get some attention. Taylor Hackford—a very, very well-known director—Jamie Foxx, who is this lively star and everything. So I knew it was going to be big, and I knew that Taylor not only knew Ray well, but knew Ahmet very well, and he was friends with those guys, and so the onus was really on him to do right—you know, make a good movie. But at the same time, do right by those characters. It was really important to him that he got everything right, which is not to say that everything will not be completely—they may not be completely happy with every element of it, but at least he got it right.
AVC: What kind of notes did he give you on playing someone that he knew?
CA: The thing was, I went into read for the part that my partner, the other character—it’s a bad morning for names—I had gone into read for a different role, and the casting director was this woman—it was really interesting, as it turned out. My first movie was Risky Business, and the casting director was Nancy Klopper, and I had never worked with her after Risky Business. All those years, I’d never worked with her again, and then suddenly, she’s retiring, and her last film is Ray. So she brings me in to read for it, and I went in, and I’m reading, and I’m looking at Taylor Hackford, and I’m thinking I’m just getting a vibe that he is not into this, and I’m sort of sweating. I’m thinking I’m fucking this up, and I don’t know why. After I was done, he said, “This was really good, but would you be interested in reading a different part?” and I said sure. And he said Ahmet Ertegun, and I thought it was weird because I had an image of Ahmet Ertegun, and I couldn’t imagine even a young Ahmet Ertegun. I went out into the hall and looked at it for 10 minutes and went back in and read it. And he just said, “Will you be willing to shave your head?” And I said sure. And that was it. It was all over. And all he did after that was he gave me some recordings of Ahmet talking, and he gave me a couple of profiles about him from The New Yorker or something. Then, he arranged for a half-hour telephone call where I could talk to Ahmet Ertegun and ask him questions and that kind of thing. Interestingly enough, the phone call was interesting—fascinating, but it was actually not of great help to me in forming the character. That was already done by that point. I really had an idea of who I was going to play him as. I was not going to try to do an imitation of him, which is what Jamie was doing [with Ray Charles]. I mean, he was doing more than that. He was doing a great performance, but it’s also—you can’t do Ray Charles and not talk like Ray Charles. Ahmet Ertegun, you don’t have that same thing. So I had decided I wasn’t going to try to duplicate any accent or anything like that. I was just going to do my idea of who Ahmet Ertegun was.
AVC: So you talked to him directly, and that didn’t really do anything for you?
CA: Not really. I think I had already formed some stuff even at that point, but I mean, I know what his voice sounded like. I know the kind of accent he had. I mean, it wasn’t a strong one. Weirdly, it seemed to get stronger, more pronounced, as he got older. I had recordings of him. You see in the movie where we’re doing “Mess Around.” That actual moment was recorded and exists as a recording of him doing “Mess Around” with Ray, and so I actually had that, and I could hear his speaking voice at the time, which seemed to be sort of an educated, almost mid-Atlantic sort of voice. The guy was Turkish, but he’d been brought up in very rarified circumstances and had spent a lot of time in Swiss schools and Washington, D.C., and so the heaviest part of his accent had been sort of smoothed out by the time he got to that age, and so I wasn’t really concerned about doing that anyway. It wasn’t an issue, and so it wasn’t helpful as far as what I was going to do on camera, but it was interesting just to hear him talk about the stuff.
AVC: He probably had a couple good stories.
CA: Yeah, there were a couple of good ones. Actually, the most interesting one related to—because I had questions about New York café society and all that, which he was part of. But one of the things that was so interesting was that there was a scene in the screenplay where Ahmet comes out while Ray is trying to record, and Ray’s addiction is getting really bad, and he stops the recording session. He comes out, and he tells him some stuff about it and says, “Your slip’s showing.” Meaning your addiction is now obvious to everybody, and you have to start looking after yourself, and so I talked to him about that scene, and he said, “Well, it’s funny. That scene did happen, but it happened with Eric Clapton.” And I talked to Taylor about it afterward and Jimmy White, the screenwriter, and they said, well, yeah, it was just such a good story that, even though it didn’t happen to Ray, it could certainly have happened to Ray. And it’s one of those areas where you get into the film bios where you may be getting out of direct, absolute truth and into maybe an even greater truth by revealing something like that, which didn’t actually happen, but it’s certainly something he thought about, and I asked him specifically about that.
Risky Business (1983)—“Miles”
CA: I started in the theater. I’d had about 10 years actually of doing nothing but theater by the time I did Risky Business—eight years, probably. I think my first professional job as an actor on stage was 1975, so you know, my career as an actor is actually 40 years, but my career on film began with Risky Business.
AVC: How many movie or TV roles had you auditioned for before Risky Business to that point?
CA: I don’t really recall. I was living in New York then, and I auditioned for a few. I auditioned for Ladyhawke. That’s one I remember because I remember reading for Richard Donner who I liked a great deal and was really nice to me, even though he didn’t hire me. I always regretted never having worked with him because I liked him so much in the room. Milos Forman—I read for Milos Forman for Hair. I wound up reading for him again for Amadeus later, but before Risky Business, it was Hair. Those are the only two that I remember because they were really specific reading, but I’m sure I read for a lot of other movies that I don’t recall.
AVC: What was the experience of being on your first movie like back then?
CA: It was a very, very strange because I had trained to be a stage actor, and that was my goal. My goal was not to make movies or do television. That wasn’t on my agenda at all. The fact that I was doing an off-Broadway play in New York and got some attention, and people started sending me out for film auditions. That’s just one of those things that happened. I assumed, especially since the ones I’d gone in on, I hadn’t gotten, that this was just part of my job. I have to go in and read for these people, but there was no thought of—and so when I got this part—in the first place, of course, Tom [Cruise] was all of 18, I think, at the time. I had no idea who he was. He’d done a few movies, but nothing I’d seen, and so to me, he was just another really ambitious, young actor who worked very hard, and no reason to think necessarily until I saw the film that he had necessarily a huge career ahead of him until I saw the film and went, oh, okay. I get that now. It was a very good experience, but I was conscious at all times that this was probably the only time that I would do a movie, so I kept a journal for the whole time I was on the movie—copious journal, making notes every day, not just about the movie but about what was going on outside the movie and all that and the different characters, the people I was working with, and so on. I remember thinking vividly because I knew this was the only time anyone would ever hire me to do a movie, so I wanted to remember the experience.
AVC: Have you gone back to those journals since?
CA: Yeah, I did actually. I looked back at it not long ago. I think it was because we had the 30th anniversary last year, and I got together with Paul Brickman and John Asimov for a screening of it up in Santa Barbara, and I knew that I still had the journal. It’s a bunch of yellow legal pads really, and so I went through it a bit. It’s funny, a lot of stuff that I probably would just as soon not have tied to me in the public. Basically whatever was going on was pretty much public knowledge anyway, and it was amusing to look at and remember that summer because it was pretty intense. And not really until I got there did I appreciate how different the discipline was. Fortunately, I’m a very disciplined person when it comes to my work. The skill set can be different, and I didn’t really realize to a great extent what that meant. It was exciting, but again, I thought very much a one-time event.
AVC: You’re the one who said the line “Sometimes you’ve got to say, ‘what the fuck.’” Was that in the screenplay?
CA: Everything is in the screenplay. There was no improvisation on that movie at all. Paul Brickman had worked on that script, I think, for seven years, and he knew exactly what he wanted. He knew how every scene was going to be shot and looked and what the design was going to be and how the actors would show the lines and what the lines were, and one of the reasons I think I got the job was because I went in to read for it in New York initially, and then they had not cast Tom. Paul was still in Chicago reading people like John Cusack and Richard Dreyfuss and people like that. So I had read for it for the producers, for John and Steve Tisch and Paul, and then they went away, and they’re casting and casting, and weeks and weeks go by, and there’s nothing, so I write it off as being another one I’m not going to get. They wound up coming back two months later or something, and I had to go back and audition again, so I went in and auditioned again, and it was the same scenes, so I just did them the same way I had done them before. As a stage actor, you learn how to repeat performances. That’s part of your job. So I did it the same way I had done it the first time, and Paul still talks about it to this day. The reason he wanted me for this part is because he had loved the reading when he’d first seen it, but then he came back two months later, and I was still doing the same reading that I had done before. He had never seen the like. We were up at a screening in Santa Barbara. He was still talking about it. The same but two and a half months in between readings. That was what was significant to him, not so much that somebody could repeat a performance but could repeat a performance they had done once two and a half months earlier.
AVC: Are you always surprised when a line like that reverberates through the years? Because that “what the fuck” line is one that people still say, just as part of the lexicon.
CA: Yeah, in particular that line. It was not something that struck me as being particularly memorable. It crept up on me, that line, and especially when it had such popular currency that people, when they started quoting it, after a while, it was like no one had ever said that before. “What the fuck” is—I don’t know. To me, it seems like that was something that people often said. “Oh, what the fuck.” There’s something about the deliberateness, I think, of the way that it was laid out as a philosophy. It was this whole thing about, well, whatever the lines are where he says freedom gives opportunity, opportunity makes your future, what the fuck. That whole speech is something that people latched onto as a philosophy.
Better Off Dead… (1985)—“Charles De Mar”
AVC: Another memorable line from Better Off Dead is the one where you go, “It’s pure snow! Do you know what the street value of this mountain is?” Why has that line gotten such a life of its own, too?
CA: Well, there are a lot of lines like that in Better Off Dead. I get probably more varied lines from that than I do from Risky Business. There were a lot of them, and honestly, if you talk to Savage Steve [Holland] now, he will say that he basically did nothing on that script. He just hired the right people, and we all made everything up, and there was a lot of improv on that set. It was totally different than Risky Business. However, what he forgets, or chooses not to remember, is the fact that a lot of that stuff was in the script in the first place, and he’s absolutely right: He definitely hired a great cast, and the cast were able to make those lines their own. For example, things like up on on the mountain, “This is pure snow,” I don’t remember whether that was my line or his line, but, “Go that way really fast. If anything gets in your way, turn”—that’s his line. I know that that’s his line, but there are famous lines like in Better Off Dead or Revenge Of The Nerds. In retrospect, it’s hard for me to remember because there were so many lines flying around that I don’t remember who is responsible for what anymore, but I do know that Savage was very much a writer of that screenplay, and a lot of the things he gives people credit for, really he deserves.
AVC: You did Risky Business, Revenge Of The Nerds, and Better Off Dead back-to-back-to-back. Do you get people reciting the wrong line saying, “Hey, I loved you in the Revenge Of The Nerds… This is pure snow!”
CA: I don’t get that so much. People pretty much usually remember those things, but what I do get is the wrong movie. I mean, it becomes “I loved you in Animal House, I loved you in Police Academy, I loved you in Scrooged.” There are a bunch of movies with a certain type of actor in them, whether it’s Gilbert Gottfried or Bobcat Goldthwait or Wally Shawn. I even get Princess Bride. It’s just ridiculous. There’s this group of six or seven character guys who—I assume they get it, too. People will start quoting lines from the wrong movie, and I used to correct people. I don’t even do it anymore. I just say, “Oh, thanks.”
Revenge Of The Nerds (1984)
Revenge Of The Nerds II: Nerds In Paradise (1987)
Revenge Of The Nerds III: The Next Generation (1992)
Revenge Of The Nerds IV: Nerds In Love (1994)—“Dudley ‘Booger’ Dawson”
AVC: With Nerds, what is it about that franchise and playing Booger that made you want to come back for all the sequels? Did they cast you off of Risky Business? Or was it all of your stage work?
CA: What motivated me to go back: The second one was that Bobby Carradine was really lobbying hard for it, and I was doing Moonlighting at that point. I got the script, and I really didn’t care for it very much. As much as I loved the first movie—and I truly loved it, and I loved working with everybody on it—I felt that doing the script was not a good idea, and of course, it was easy for me to say that because I was on a very popular television show at that point. I asked 20th Century Fox—that’s where Moonlighting was—and Fox, of course, is the company that was doing the Nerd movie. Between the time we shot Nerds and the time we released Nerds, there was a change over at Fox. The new administration at Fox didn’t like Revenge Of The Nerds and tried to bury it, but it became popular in spite of them, but it was not until that administration left—there had been an embargo about doing sequels at Fox because of this other administration. They just said no, no sequels. End of subject.
So then, they went out, and this new group came in, and this new guy said we’re going to do sequels, and we’re starting with Revenge Of The Nerds because, by that time, it had really gained a lot of momentum because of cable and so on. So that was how the second one was hit on. They then basically hired a couple of guys to write the script on a weekend or something, and it is terrible, but they didn’t care because figured that they’d have a good opening weekend, and that’s all they needed. So I turned it down. I actually turned it down twice. I didn’t want to do it. Anthony Edwards had already turned it down, and Julia Montgomery had turned it down, so they were really beginning to lose people, and they’d already determined that Brian Tochi wasn’t going to do it because he was now in the Police Academy series. So suddenly there was not a lot very appealing about this because a lot of the original people weren’t going to be there.
So the executive at Fox who was in charge of it brought me in on my lunch hour when I was doing Moonlighting and said, “What is the problem? Why won’t you do this? Is it not enough money? Do you want more money?” And I said, “Honestly, it isn’t that. I didn’t mind more money, but the problem is the script. It’s really not a good script.” And the guy goes, “Wait a minute. Did you think we were going to shoot this script?” And I said, well, yeah. He said, “We’re not going to shoot this. We’re bringing in somebody to rewrite this. We’ve got a lot riding on this. We’re not going to screw this up. You want to know who’s coming in, who’s going to rewrite this script for us?” I said, “Who?” He said, “Larry Gelbart.” I went, “Oh, okay. Well, that’s different. Okay, I’ll do it.” And of course, they had no intention of bring Larry Gelbart in. Larry Gelbart probably never heard of it. He just told me that to get me to sign on.
So we wound up in Florida, and that was pretty much it. He did bring Ed Solomon in. He was up for four days doing this lightning fast rewrite, but he’s a good writer, and there’s not that much you can do with that. So then it became improv city again, and everybody’s throwing in bits and pieces, and it wound up being kind of a mess, but it was still fun being with the guys—and that was one of the big things for me, was to spend time with them. And then ultimately it went to a TV movie, and then, to be honest with you, it was just money.
King Of The Nerds (2013-14)—Himself
AVC: Thirty years later, you’re doing King Of The Nerds for TBS with Carradine, so had friendships kind of sprung up during the first movie, and you had good camaraderie?
CA: Well, no. I’ll be honest with you. It’s great to see everybody, and we do continue to socialize, and it’s fun to work with everybody, but King Of The Nerds came about because Bobby [Carradine] and I wanted to create a television show that would, hopefully, become a franchise. He has two kids who are in college. I have one kid who a year ago went to college, and you know, we work. It’s not like we don’t work, but after all these years, it would be nice to have some steady income that didn’t have to do with auditioning all the time. That was why eight or so years ago he and I first started going around town pitching this reality comedy show called King Of The Nerds. Well, we didn’t call it King Of The Nerds then, but that was when we started pitching it to people, and everybody turned us down, so we said all right. Well, that’s that and forgot about it. And then, a couple of years later, Bobby called me up and at that point, Big Bang Theory was really popular. He said why don’t we just try it again, so we went out and pitched it again, and this time, they snapped it up, and so we did it.
We did it because we needed to have money. It was a job. It wasn’t out of loyalty to anything. It was just we came up with this rough idea, and then we hooked up with Side By Side Media, and those guys have a ton of experience in reality shows. They know how those things work, so they put together a pitch for the thing which we could then take to the networks, and TBS was the network that gave us the best deal, so that’s why we went there.
Moonlighting (1986-89)—“Herbert Quentin ‘Bert’ Viola”
AVC: When the public found out about what the tensions were on the set, did that jibe with what you were experiencing in person?
CA: You mean were things as bad as everyone said they were? Not initially, but they got worse. When I came in, it was already—I think they had done the first season, and they brought me in, I think, primarily because they basically had a three-hander there, with Bruce [Willis] and Cybill [Shepherd] and Allyce [Beasley]. They always had what they would call the “DiPesto episodes,” ones where Bruce and Cybill would come on at the beginning and at the end. Well, the rest of it would be an adventure Agnes [DiPesto] had on her own. They always had one or two of those a season or something, and then they decided, well, we have to get someone else in here so she’ll have someone regular that she play off of, and Glenn Gordon Caron, who created the show, was a huge Risky Business fan, and so the idea of bringing me in appealed to him. He called Paul Brickman and said, “I’m thinking about hiring Curtis Armstrong for my show, but I need to know that he’s not an asshole and he’s reliable.” Fortunately, he was asking Paul, who’s still telling the story about how I was able to do this thing reading three months apart, and so he went on and on about it to Glenn and said, “I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” so I got hired to do that show. By the time I had been on it for a while, things were becoming more tense, and I started hearing stories from other people about how it had been in the early days when everything was Skittles and beer, and then things started to go downhill, and things started getting a lot of attention, the usual stuff. And I would say that probably 80 percent of what was reported at the time was right in some way.
AVC: Was it a case where it was creative differences? Or was it really just like Bruce Willis is becoming big, Cybill Shepherd’s star is rising again, and there are just a lot of demands?
CA: Egos. It really was egos. Creative difference—Glenn’s one of the creators of that show, and I’m sure he left under a cloud because basically Cybill forced him out. He rewrote practically every page of every script, whether his name was on it or not. He was the one who had the vision, and once he was gone, they did the best they could to maintain the vision, but it was always his vision, so there was no conflict in that respect, I don’t think. It was all personalities. It was just Cybill and Bruce were personalities that didn’t get along. They just didn’t get along. It happens, you know. If you work at a car lot, you may have the same kind of issues with somebody you work with on the car lot. Nobody writes about it. It’s just personalities.
AVC: The episodes with you and Allyce in them being the main people were getting more frequent as the show went on.
CA: That was out of necessity because Cybill became pregnant with twins, and so she was becoming less and less available, and Bruce ultimately started doing movies, so he’d be gone shooting something, and so they always wound up having to use more and more Allyce and me. And I think another advantage from their standpoint of my being there was that I was up for anything. Bruce, after a while, got tired of doing the slapstick stuff all the time, which unfortunately, the audience loved, and the writers really enjoyed doing. So they would say, “We’re dressing you up in drag again,” and he’d say, “No, you’re not.” And so, one of the great things about my being there was I would do anything they asked me to do, happily. And because I’m a comic actor, to me it was fun. It’s what I do. So they gave me all the stuff that he wouldn’t do anymore, and he got to do all the dramatic stuff that he wanted to do.
AVC: Even in the pre-Internet days, there was audience pushback when more you and Allyce were on and Cybill and Bruce were not.
CA: Well, it wasn’t so much Allyce. I think there was a lot of resentment to me being there because Allyce was on from the get-go, and they loved her. The audience adored her, and the last thing they wanted was Booger showing up. It was really more me than it was Allyce and me. I think if they had been able to figure out a way to keep Allyce busy with different people every time, the audience would have been perfectly happy with that, even if the production wouldn’t have been. That really was very much more me. I was not a popular person when I was on that show.
AVC: You mean with what the public thought?
CA: That’s what I’m saying, with the public. The writers loved me. Allyce and I got along splendidly. The producers liked me. I mean, it was a love fest as far as I was concerned. I was happy to be there, but toward the end, even Allyce had gotten burned out from it all, and I wound up being sort of the only person there who still had fun going to work, so it was pretty—it got kind of tense.
AVC: Did the public backlash start against you personally bother you at all?
CA: I don’t remember. Again, pre-Internet, so a lot of that, I didn’t get right in my face. I got the occasional hate letter, but I didn’t really look at letters much that came into the production company. So I can’t say it really bothered me that much. Some of the press was a little snobby, but that’s not the first time that’s happened.
I was not a big enough target. That’s the truth. Bruce and Cybill were that show, and they were hugely popular, and it was only the fans of the show who watched and were interested enough to have feelings one way or another about my being there. The only thing that happened would be on the ratings when we were at our peak, which was after I had joined—not because I joined, but after I joined—we reached the peak of our audience share, and what we would notice is that on the “DiPesto episodes,” by the second half hour, it would have dropped because people realized—they tuned in to see Bruce and Cybill. They saw Bruce and Cybill, then Bruce and Cybill disappear. Suddenly, they realize, “Oh, fuck… bait and switch again. Now we’re going to have to sit through an hour of watching these two,” so they’d turn it off. And that’s the main way in which you figure—you found out what was going on.
Even then, I couldn’t really find myself getting upset about it because I made a deal. I came into it. It was already established. It was a hit for the people who watched it, and I was never going to compete with Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd, and so all right, fine. It doesn’t matter to me. The point is I’m being very well paid to play a role that I enjoy. How down can you get about that?
AVC: Because the show was so different at the time, wasn’t it kind of inevitable that it wasn’t going to last? It wasn’t going to be some 10-year-long show.
CA: I don’t really know. You’d see the pity that it flared out that way, but there was no telling. Bruce, after two failed films, which no one remembers, did Die Hard, and suddenly, he’s on his way to becoming one of the most popular actors in the world and the most highly paid. You can’t keep them on the farm after that happens. Then Cybill went on to her show where she didn’t have to share the screen with Bruce Willis but wound up having to share it with Christine Baranski, and the same thing happened, where she became the breakout character, and the show was dead in two seasons.
AVC: You guested on that, the show, right?
CA: On the first episode, I did. That was just a joke because the showrunner of Cybill was Jay Daniel, who had been the showrunner with Glenn on Moonlighting, and so they said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we had Viola and MacGillicudy”—MacGillicudy was my rival for Agnes’ love on Moonlighting, they had those guys on for the opening scene, the cold open of the show. So we went in and did it. Coincidentally, my wife was an executive producer on Cybill’s show, which they didn’t know at the time, so they brought Jack Blessing and me in, and we did it.
Elvis Meets Nixon (1997)—“Farley Hall”
CA: It was a TV movie, a cable movie. There were a lot of those done in those days. It was based on a real story. Basically, what happened was that Elvis went off leash and was flying around the country without his Mafia, and wound up at the White House and had the guns on him and everything. That was all a true story, but they’d written this fantasy version of it, which was a lot of fun. The best thing about the script, as it was written, was they’d written it very optimistically using a lot of people from the period, so they said, okay, you need movie people who knew Elvis, and you need political people who knew Nixon. So they wrote parts in the documentary—it was a documentary, right? So you’re writing interview parts for George Harrison and Ringo Starr and John Dean and Bob Haldeman. They have the narration by Walter Cronkite and all of this stuff, so it seems like a real documentary. So then, they cast all the actors in it, and they go to these people that they’d written these hysterically funny bits for and everyone turned them down. So suddenly, they have a documentary with nobody that they wrote for agreeing to be interviewed. Cronkite wouldn’t do it because he’s still working as a newsman, and it was against his principles, and George Harrison wouldn’t do it, and Ringo Starr wouldn’t do it.You’re going after the Watergate conspirators and stuff like that, and what are the odds, really?
It was really a funny script. The guy wrote some hysterical lines for these people, but they just wouldn’t do it, and so they wound up going to sort of second string. So it becomes not George Harrison. It becomes Graham Nash. It’s not the same point of connection between Graham Nash and Elvis Presley, so there’s that. And they got Dick Cavett to narrate it, which is not the same thing as Walter Cronkite. So it wound up being less than it could have been because they weren’t able to get the people they wanted. Obviously, the smart thing would have been to get those people first, but that’s just the way it worked.
Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) (2010)—Special thanks
AVC: How did that come about? Did you know him at all?
CA: I didn’t know him. I got this special thanks in the documentary because of Harry’s son, Zak. Zak said he would not allow them to use his material unless they gave me a thanks. The documentary originally was my documentary. I was producing it with Allen Boyd and Chuck Harter, two documentary filmmakers here in Los Angeles. The three of us were the ones who came up with the idea for the documentary. We started doing the interviews. I did the interview with Robin Williams, but what wound up happening was they brought in a couple of guys who had done low-budget documentaries on musical subjects before, and they wound up going behind our backs and pitching to the estate that they could do it cheaper if they got rid of the three of us. So they basically got rid of the three of us, and then John Scheinfeld and David Leaf went on to make the movie. There were a lot of people, including Zak Nilsson, who knew that I’d been pretty devoted for a number of years to getting news of Harry Nilsson out, and I’d been co-producing CD reissues and writing stuff about him, and he knew that I had contributed a lot to this, and it was at his insistence that they gave me that. If it had not been for Zak, you would never have known that there was a connection. He wanted me to be acknowledged. But if it had been up to anyone else, it would not have happened.
CA: Supernatural wound up giving me one of the best roles—certainly of my television career—with Metatron. That is a part which is consistently enjoyable and fun to do, and I’ve been sort of having the time of my life with that. It’s an extremely well-written and funny character. The combination of witty and evil, that kind of a combination is something that, in this case, is genuinely evil—evil in the biggest possible way. That’s something which just doesn’t come along that often, that kind of a role that allows you to choose some scenery and make these kinds of comments. It’s a great role and one that has brightened my declining years.
AVC: Was there any trepidation to joining a show like Supernatural, which had been on for a while when you joined and also has a pretty passionate fan base?
CA: Well, that’s the biggest thing. The fan base is unique in my experience. They’re so, so passionate about the show, and it’s an enormous joy to read some of the “hateful” notes that I get left on Twitter, Facebook, or something. Unless there’s something really wrong with these people, they’re talking very much tongue-in-cheek, and they actually love hating their evil characters on that show, and I’ve done some things which they will never forget. So it’s been great because I have taken to tweeting about Supernatural in the character of Metatron, which always gets a rise out of somebody. It’s been enormous fun.