acid logicpresents...

An Interview with Curtis Armstrong

Part Two

Curtis Armstrong in Better Off Dead


By Wil Forbis

August 1st, 2001
Return to Part One of the Curtis Armstrong Interview

Part Two: Savage Steve, Cave Bears and the Actor's Strike

Wil: You also did a lot of work with the director Savage Steve Holland.

Curtis: Yeah!

Wil: You did stuff with him on "One Crazy Summer', and "Better Off Dead." What was it that made him savage?

Curtis: I seem to remember him telling me that he was from this sort of upper middle class school in Nantucket or something. And a group of friends of his started a gang and called themselves "The Savages." It was all a joke because they were all, you know, blonde, upper class kids from the suburbs. But they formed this sort of joke gang and they all had "Savage" as prefixes to their names.

Wil: And it just kind of stuck with him?

Curtis: He has carried it proudly ever since.

Wil: He was doing a lot of stuff with animation in the two films I mention, and that was a big part of his style. I know in "One Crazy Summer", John's Cusack's character is basically a cartoonist in training.

Curtis: Right.

Wil: Is Steve Holland continuing with animation now? Is that what he's mainly doing?

Curtis: For years I worked with him on an animated series that was on Saturday morning, a very funny show that was called "Eek, the Cat."

Wil: Right, I remember that.

Curtis: And there was a spinoff from that called "The Terrible Thunder Lizards." And I was a regular on "The Terrible Thunder Lizards." I played one of the two cave men. So Steve had been doing "Eek" for at least four or five years and I worked on it for at least three years. And he did a couple of live action series. One was called "Encyclopedia Brown" and the other was called "The Adventures of Bean Baxter." They were very sort of "Savage." I mean, they were TV shows for kids in the "Savage" style. And we also worked together on a movie called "How I Got Into College" which was with Anthony Edwards. I did a cameo in that. And then I also did a cameo for him in "Spy Hard."

Wil: Oh, yeah. With Leslie Nielson...

Curtis: Right. And we did another movie, just a couple of years ago, for the Disney Channel, called "Safety Patrol." And Leslie Nielson does a cameo in that. So Steve is very good about sticking with people. He's a very loyal man.

Wil: Yeah, that's kind of the vibe you get from "Better Off Dead" and "One Crazy Summer" since the casts share so many members.

Curtis: He's a bit of a throwback to the day when directors had repertory companies that they would pick from to do parts. I worked with him the last time just a couple months ago. he was directing an episode of "V.I.P.", the Pamela Anderson show.

Wil: I bet he really had to twist your arm for that one.

Curtis: It was great! It was a fun part and it's, you know, it's kind of a weird show. Somebody called it, "The smartest, dumb show on television," which is kind of a good way of putting it. They know exactly what they're doing.

Wil: Right, it's kitschy, but it's aware of its own kitsch.

Curtis: Yeah.

Wil: Well, speaking of TV shows, you had a role on "Moonlighting" for a while. Were you around when Jerry Stahl, who went on to write the drug abuse testimonial "Permanent Midnight", was writing for the show?

Curtis: Yeah, but that was in the last season, and he wasn't on the set. We didn't have that much contact with him.

Wil: Did you ever look at the scripts and say, "Gee, this sounds like it was written by someone on drugs?"

Curtis: Well, we always thought that.

Wil: (Chuckles) Okay.

Curtis: No, it never would have occurred to me.

Wil: They seemed very capably done?

Curtis: Well, yeah. I mean, people had a lot of complaints about the last season of "Moonlighting," but I don't think it had to do with drugs. It was just the way the stories were going and the way that Bruce and Cybil were forcing the issue, to end the show as soon as possible.

Wil: Were things pretty tense between the two of them on the set? Was there a palpable tension?

Curtis: Yeah. yeah, it was extremely tense and very unpleasant and I never understood why they weren't, you know, just thanking God for a great job. But that's why I am where I am and they are where they are, I guess.

Wil: Another film you did was "Clan of the Cave Bear." I've seen the film, but it's hard to pick out anyone there except for Daryl Hannah.

Curtis: Yeah, you wouldn't really know me. Part of the whole point in the casting of that movie was that these were groups of people who all sort of looked alike. So it would be hard for you to figure out who I was. And, you know. it's not the greatest movie anyway.

Wil: Well, I'm kind if a fan of the film.

Curtis: Well, I'll tell you what, there's a four-hour version of that movie, which was the initial compilation of the film. And it's tremendous, because it gives you an idea of what we were doing up there for four months. We filmed all this incredible material as the Clan, and all of it got cut. It was all just kind of misguided. Originally they were going to do it as a miniseries, and then they decided to make it into a movie, but there was really too much material for a movie, but they didn't think about that. They weren't sure how they were going to do it and they had John Sayles write a script for it which was in colloquial English.

Wil: Okay.

Curtis: Then they said, "Well, isn't that going to look kind of funny? The actors are all wearing false teeth so they can't really talk. So, okay, we can't do that. Well, why wasn't that thought about?" So it was one of those things. And then they were saying, "What should we do?" No one was in control, it seemed. There are visual things in the movie that are quite beautiful. And the cast was terrific. If it had been a little better thought out, I think it would've worked great, but. you know. it didn't.

Wil: If it were done as a miniseries, what would it have been done for? HBO?

Curtis: No, I think at the time, there wasn't an HBO. This was '84. I dunno, maybe there was an HBO. But I don't think they were doing a lot of that kind of thing. I think it was like a NBC miniseries that they were planning on.

Wil: It turned out with the kind of material you probably couldn't show on a network miniseries. As far as sex and violence.

Curtis: Well, it's what you could show on a network miniseries now. I don't know if you could show it in 1984.

Wil: You could put it on "N.Y.P.D. Blue".

Curtis: Exactly. The rape scene with Tommy Waites and Daryl was, I remember, it was pretty tough.

Wil: That was who? Tom Waits, the singer?

Curtis: No, not that Tom Waits.

Wil: Cause he does look a little Neanderthal.

Curtis: He does, yeah, but he was not in it. It was Thomas G. Waites, a really good actor. One movie that he's great in is the remake of "The Thing" that John Carpenter did. He's in that and he's terrific.

Wil: Another person who worked on "The Clan of the Cave Bear" is John Doolittle, whom I understand is your writing partner?

Curtis: Yeah, he was my writing partner. We wrote together for almost twelve years.

Wil: What kind of stuff were you and he doing?

Curtis: We were writing feature films and. rewriting feature films. We sold about six movies and none of them got made.

Wil: That seems to be a standard story in Hollywood.

Curtis: Yeah. And then we did rewrites on all kinds of different movies; the biggest one was "The Player."

Wil: That's a nice feather in your cap.

Curtis: Well, it was, except we got no credit for it. It sort of turned out to be a big catastrophe. But we had fun, and it was an interesting experience working with Altman. We wrote with a bunch of good people. We wrote with Christopher Guest, we wrote with Rob Reiner and we worked with different studios all over town. We did some great work, and we loved it. But things had deteriorated to the point that John was more into it than I was. He didn't really want to be an actor anymore; he wanted to write. But as the jobs became less and less interesting and the money became less and less, I just became so disenchanted with it that I wanted to go back to acting full time. And that's what I've done.

Wil: Looking over your credentials, you've definitely had a pretty consistent career since "Risky Business." So you really fit into this definition as a working actor.

Curtis: Oh yeah. I think by pretty much anyone's definition I would be considered that. My career actually started on stage, in 1975. The first movie that I did was "Risky Business" but I'd been working in the regions and in New York and on tour since 1975.

Wil: What was your take on the actor's strike that almost occurred?

Curtis: Well, uh. We've (the Actor's Union) got a lot of very valid concerns, many of which were not addressed. Which means we will probably have to strike next time. Which is, I guess, the way our current leadership in the union handles things. They put things off and they put things off and then when things get so untenable and they're forced to deal with them, then they do. No one wants to deal with them in a sort of holistic way.

Wil: All at once?

Curtis: Well, to deal with things before they become problems. Once they become problems then it becomes all hysterical and crazed. This was considered a very, sort of gentlemanly labor discussion. There were no injuries and no blood was spilled and everybody got something. I think with the new technologies.

Wil: I've heard that's a big issue..

Curtis: That's a very big issue. And the issue of what we're getting from videocassettes and cable and all that. Those are all things that are new to a union that's been around for decades. Suddenly these are all things that have to be considered. The Internet. don't even think about how confusing that's going to get!

So, I'm glad that the strike didn't happen in a way, because the economy is in the toilet and it was not a good time for anybody to have gone on strike, particularly since we had a pretty brutal strike last year with the commercial actors. That went on and on and was a very damaging strike. To have another one on top of it would've been really bad. In a way, the decision (not to strike) was made for us with the writers strike being settled, because many of the issues were the same. When they settled in May, it made it pretty much impossible that the actors would go out.

Wil: Part of the reason I bring this up is that one of the guys who's a main contributor to Acid Logic (Pete Moss) is a bike messenger in his day job. He delivers scripts to and from the lots and whatnot. And his view of the strike was that it was the acting elite within the Actors Guild imposing their will on the rest of the Guild, and doing a lot of damage to people like himself - the grunt workers of the industry that are outside the Guild.

Curtis: Yeah, obviously there is a lot of hostility. But there were a lot of jobs that were cut anyway, even before the writers contract ended. The studios were cutting back on other workers, outside of the union. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that's at all the issue. It may appear that it's the issue from the outside, but for those of us (actors) who work for a living and are seeing the money that we're getting dwindling year after a year. that's not the way we look at it.

Wil: Is this a case of the Tom Cruises imposing their will on the guys that do maybe a bit role once a year.

Curtis: Not at all. I think that's a ludicrous assumption because one of the biggest things that we got out of this was a boost for the journeyman actor who does guest spots on television shows. What does that do for Tom Cruise? Tom Cruise gets $20 million a picture. What the fuck does he care about what's going on below him? It's not going to affect Tom Cruise's salary.

Unfortunately, people have odd views of these things. I'm sympathetic, because I understand that this guy's a messenger and this puts his job in jeopardy. But, I'm somebody who's been working at what I've been doing for twenty-five years and I have to consider what's going on with me too.

What do you think? Leave your comments on the Guestbook!


Continue to Part Three of the Curtis Armstrong Interview


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